It's the best Mark of them all, bar none, but will it sell in Peoria? Or New York, the West Coast, Florida, Texas, and Tennessee? In replacing its aging Mark VI with the aerodynamic, smaller Mark VII, the Ford Motor Company has broken with the past and come up with a car that's aimed squarely at the European competition, including some of the best: Mercedes, BMW - those kinds of cars.
Gone is the boxy look of its predecessors - and that's where the risk to Ford comes in. Historically, Mark buyers are a conservative lot. Will an innovative, forward-reaching automobile fit into their profile of what a car should be? In other words, will the Continental Mark VII hit the mark?
Ford believes it will. ''Ford is moving into a bigger market with the aero-styled Mark VII and away from the traditional market,'' asserts Philip E. Benton, head of North American sales and marketing for Ford. Mr. Benton says Ford will sell fewer than 25,000 Mark VIs in 1983, but he expects to double that figure in 1984 with the Mark VII, no matter what happens to the traditional buyers of the car.
In fact, Ford is totally committed to the ''aero look,'' and is pursuing it through all its car lines.
The new Mark, for example, follows right in the tire tracks of the Thunderbird/Cougar unveiled a year ago and last summer's Tempo/Topaz. At quick glance it looks a whole lot like the aerodynamic Thunderbird, but then differences begin to stand out. Both cars show clearly, though, what the Ford Motor Company is all about these days with its ''design for tomorrow's cars.''
The superluxury Continental Mark VII has a superlow coefficient of drag. ''At 0.38, it is the lowest of any US-built luxury car,'' reports Fritz Mayhew, chief designer for Ford Motor's luxury cars.
The windshield is tipped at a 60-degree angle, while the rear backlite glass sits at steeper angle of 63 degrees.
''A car must look the way it performs,'' Mr. Mayhew asserts.
Contributing to its slippery shape are flush-mounted, integrated headlights, which blend with the shape of the car and add a flair that might otherwise be missing. Built of plastic, the new halogen headlamp system, with removable capsule bulbs, weighs about one-third as much as glass sealed-beam units. Also, they have a greater resistance to breakage or damage from stones and other road debris.
Federal government approval for the new light design reached Ford last March just in the nick of time. Till then the carmaker had another system all set to go. If the federal nod had been delayed any longer, it might have been too late for the Mark. Ford plans to use the flush-mount headlight system on more cars down the road.
The 5-passenger Mark is 13 inches shorter than the car it succeeds and some 350 pounds lighter in weight.
Driving the new Mark, especially the top-line LSC version, is a blast. The only engine now available is Ford's 5-liter V-8 with throttle-body fuel injection and 4-speed automatic transmission. Later in the model year the company will offer a BMW-built, 6-cylinder, 2.4-liter turbodiesel with a 4-speed automatic overdrive transmission and lockup torque converter.
''The new BMW turbo diesel is a 'clean sheet' design, not a converted gasoline engine,'' declares a Ford engineer. It will be the first time a diesel has been available in Lincoln-Mercury cars.
Ford says it has no plans at this time to introduce a manual transmission or other engine choices for the Mark, but if the car makes the grade, that decision could be updated.
The controls are all easy to reach, and all the instruments that might be expected on a car such as the Mark VII are there, except for a tachometer. The dash is slanted slightly toward the driver.
Equipped with the Mark's new LSC handling package, there is minimal roll on a sharp corner as the Mark's nitrogen gas-filled, telescopic shocks and computer-leveling suspension control the ride and soak up the bumps.
The Continental Mark VII is a no-nonsense luxury car and perhaps the best the Ford people have ever put out.
With a base sticker of $21,707 - the upscale LSC version lists at $23,706, while two designer series are retail-priced at $24,406 and $24,807 - the ''best of the Fords'' is priced well below its West German competition.
So, do the Mercedes-Benz and BMW people have to be concerned over the new Continental Mark VII? Maybe yes, maybe no. One thing is clear, they'll both know it's on the road.