The rear-drive Mark VIII's most obvious natural enemies in the marketplace are two similar, high-performing luxury coupes: the rear-drive Lexus SC 400 and the front-drive Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupe. Starting at $36,640, the Mark VIII does enjoy a bit of a price advantage over the other two, particularly the Lexus.
The Mark VIII is a replacement for - you guessed it - the Mark VII. It is a bit bigger than its predecessor (4.5 inches longer and a couple of inches wider) and considerably techier.
The new vehicle is built on a version of the Ford Thunderbird platform, which explains why the two cars just happen to have the same 113-inch wheelbase. But after saying that, you have pretty much exhausted the minutes of the last meeting. Everything else in this car is new business.
The body styling is fresh and compelling. Although it retains a few traditional Mark styling cues, notably the true chrome grille and the spare- tire outline on the trunk lid, this car has a very different look than the aged model it replaces. The stance is more aggressive, the styling is more subtle and flowing, and there are more interesting design touches, such as the eye-catching indentations that run along the car's sides.
The Mark is almost as appealing inside. The deep, semicircular dashboard demands attention, as does the aircraft-type instrument and control layout that runs down to the center console. The rest of the interior is an exercise in smart, flowing design, although the test car's gray innards struck me as a bit too monochromatic and a bit too plastic.
The plastic problem resides primarily in the door panels (the seats are leather). It is hardly a huge concern, but in a car of this price and stature, it is a concern that ought to be addressed.
Because it is Ford Motor Co.'s flagship, the Mark VIII is something of a technological showcase.
The star of the show has to be the Mark's new engine, a high-performance version of Ford's nifty 4.6-liter V-8. The 4.6-liter engine debuted last year in a milder form in the Ford Crown Victoria, Mercury Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car. That 16-valve, two-camshaft engine develops 190 horsepower with a single exhaust and 210 with duals. The new Mark VIII variation doubles the number of valves and camshafts, and raises the horsepower ante to 280.
It's quite an engine. Under normal driving conditions, it is as docile and quiet as that mild-mannered reporter from Krypton. But when you kick it in the rump with the gas pedal, it slips into a telephone booth and momentarily reappears with a big red S on its air intake plenum.
The engine hits a wonderfully exciting note when it is making horsepower in a hurry. It's a muted, guttural response that evokes the spirit, but not the decibels, of those big muscle-car V-8s from the '60s.
With the help of an optional traction-control system, the test car transferred all that power to the rear wheels in flawless fashion.
Speaking of techy features, the new Mark also has an air-suspension system that automatically lowers the car about an inch when it reaches 55 m.p.h., to enhance handling and aerodynamics.
The car is, in short, just a delight to drive. It is quiet, convenient, comfortable and athletic. What more could you ask for, except a little less plastic on the door panels?
LINCOLN MARK VIII
* Base vehicle: 4.6-liter engine, four-speed automatic transmission, power disc brakes, anti-lock braking system, variable-assist power steering, dual airbags, leather seating, automatic temperature control, power door locks, keyless entry, power windows, security system, illuminated vanity mirrors, four-way power front seats, stereo/cassette, air-spring suspension, heated power outside mirrors, rear-window defroster, tilt steering, cruise control, 16-inch aluminum wheels, touring tires.
* Test model: Traction control, automatic dimming rear-view mirror, premium sound system with trunk-mounted CD changer.
* Base price: $36,640
* Test model: $39,083 (inc. shipping)
* EPA city rating: 17
* Test mileage: 17
* Warranty: four years/50,000 miles.