The Continental joins the fleet of smaller cars

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

Who'd ever guess an honest 17 or 18 miles to a gallon of gas in a Lincoln Continental? A Continental, of all cars!

Well, Ford Motor Company has shown how to do it with the downsized - maybe a more genteel word should be used - Continental, which surprised not only this driver but also, I am sure, many other people who are trying and buying the car.

Actually, the new Continental is the successor to the Versailles - remember the Versailles? - although sharply improved and honed for today's automotive needs. The Versailles, dropped by Ford a year and a half ago, was a hurry-up job aimed at the Cadillac Seville, but it never made the grade. It was, in fact, a gussied-up Granada.

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The new Continental, all new from the platform up, is a car apart, providing far better performance and maneuverability than any Lincoln before it.

Why the sharp boost in handling? It's all in the suspension, including pressurized nitrogen gas in the shock absorbers. The result is a firm ride, yet a ride that is as Tiffany-smooth as ever before. The gasified shocks dampen any low-speed bumps in the road.

The Lincoln automobile, of course, has always had a reputation for being big - really big - and the description fit. But now, with the cost and availability of fuel an increasing issue today, Ford has lopped some 500 pounds and 18 inches off the car for 1982.

Yet it still has four doors and room for five people inside.

Obviously, such a car does not come cheap. Nor is it in its 1982 configuration. The Signature series 4-door Continental I've been driving for the past week or so has a price tag of $25,000-plus on the window glass - a not really uncommon figure these days, by any means. A Cadillac Seville is in the same ballpark while the 380-series Mercedes is in an even more rarefied pricing area and found only in the wealthiest part of town.

Like the Cadillac Seville and the Chrysler Imperial, the 15-cubic-foot rear trunk of the '82 Continental harks back to an early-day, bustle-back Rolls-Royce , although it is larger than the Seville.

Braking is fast and certain with the 432 square inches of surface on the 4 -wheel disc brakes.

Standard engine is the all-new 3.8-liter, aluminum-head V-6, but the one I am driving is the optional 5-liter V-8. Sometime down the road, probably 1984, it will undoubtedly get a turbocharged diesel from BMW-Steyr now being developed. With a turbodiesel installed under the hood, the car will deliver not only higher mpg all across the board but impressive performance as well.

Inside, the new Continental is full of electronic marvels, including an improved message center that does almost everything but dust the furniture and turn on the microwave oven at home.

It's a fun system to work and watch, but you still have to keep your eyes on the road.

The 12-button dash keyboard tells you not only the date and time of day but the speed of the car, average speed since the display was last reset, miles per gallon at that instant plus the average mpg for the entire trip, how many miles you can expect to drive till the gas tank runs dry, distance to destination, miles driven on this particular trip, and more.

Also, a quick press of a button switches the readouts to the metric scale; another push and everything reverts back to gallons and miles.

In one 26.5-mile trip, I averaged 30.6 mph and got 17.5 mpg in the car. On another 26.4-mile trip, I averaged 30.1 mph and got 18.6 mpg. In a 51-mile round trip one day from home to the office, I averaged 27.6 mph and chalked up 16.9 mpg. On an Interstate highway journey, however, the mileage would move up into the low 20s.

The 1982 Lincoln Continental is another high-priced competitor for the car buyer's money. It's the best that Ford Motor Company can do in superluxury, personal-size transportation. A very good job - for the price.

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