1992 FORD CROWN VICTORIA : A Better Idea in a Full Size

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Broad of bustle and larger than lesser palaces, the 1992 Ford Crown Victoria fills the image of an ecological crime wave.

In this era of steroids and tiny unnoticed scars, however, looks invariably remain a ruse. Apart from weight and size--roughly two tons of steel riding on a wheelbase only three inches shorter than the 1958 Edsel Ranger--most other sins of Crown Victorias past have either disappeared or faded noticeably.

Fuel consumption: Long gone are single-digit thirsts. The new Crown Victoria offers 18 m.p.g. in town and 25 m.p.g. on the way to Las Vegas--most respectable numbers for a four-door, full-size, six-passenger sedan.

Suspension: Neither chassis nor shoelaces on this car are tied tight enough for flat, nimble running. But that awful float and the undulating wallows once inherent to the Crown Victoria, its sister Mercury Grand Marquis, Chevrolet Caprice, Lincoln Town Car and other jelly doughnuts, have been tamed.

Styling: Last year's Crown Victoria, virtually unchanged from 1979, was a blunt, slab-sided retrospective straight from Richard Nixon's inauguration parade. For 1992, the car has gone aerodynamic with a flush windshield and rear window, limousine doors, softened edges and the stretch jellybean look of an upsized Taurus.

Performance: The V-8 that Ford has been evolving for half a century has been pumped up to 190-horsepower--40 more ponies than last year's engine thanks to induction and cylinder improvements. It gives the Crown Victoria acceleration and top speed to match many of the better sport sedans.

Motivating Ford is a simple search for survival in a profitable niche that still remains free of Asian competition.

Dinosaur cars continue to sink in the tar pits. In 1973, these excessive, exquisite louts comprised 32% of American sales. By 1984, the American icon had descended to international oddity with a market share of only 13.4%. Last year it stood at 9.1%.

There are no indications that younger Americans--whether motivated by greening consciences or the simple convenience of parking anything less than a six-passenger tank--will ever stop buying smaller cars. As a result, 63 has become the median age of owners of full-size cars; 45% of that grayed population is 65 and older; and their market potential is, quite literally, dying off.

So Ford has turned to the ubiquitous baby boomers with growing families who hopefully desire larger cars--if the styling is contemporary, if performance isn't a Dramamine tango, if their car's fuel efficiency doesn't become an invitation to Desert Storm II.

According to a Ford spokesman, Crown Victoria sales for the first six months of this year are up 22% in Southern California and 6% in other states, while nationwide sales of full-size cars continue to slide.

"Clearly, our car is bucking the trend," he added.

Just as clearly, the day will dawn when big cars will be outnumbered by condors. But until that moment, driving a Crown Victoria is a rare opportunity to enjoy one company's attempt to catch up with the times and even slow the inevitable.

The new car's styling is targeted squarely at anyone who has driven a Ford lately. Here is a smooth, rounded shape ahead of its years and an ideal inducement for Taurus and Mercury Sable owners looking to move up. Here also is a contemporary shape suited for existing Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis owners weary of one question: Is that a car or the crate it came in?

The cast alloy wheels (part of a $4,666 package of convenience doodads) certainly are of this sporting decade. So are body-color bumpers front and rear and the suggestion of an air dam. What isn't flush is recessed, what doesn't curl around sweeps over, and there is pleasing flow and a harmony hinting lightly at a thoroughbred from Ford's overseas stable: Jaguar.

At just under 18 feet long and 8 feet wide, the Crown Victoria is indeed pretty close to being a one-car SigAlert. But rounding the edges and corners removes much of the bulkiness. Modernizing the bumpers and wheels, while replacing an antique front grille with more contemporary slits, finishes the slimming process.

Inside, the Crown Victoria remains a barn and too spacious. Even persons over 6 feet tall will find that the best seating position for optimum steering control leaves the left foot groping for some firm space or dead pedal to brace leg and body against the motions of the car.

Seats are pretty dismal with flat backs, level bottoms and zero shoulder or lumbar support. When cornering, even with belts cinched tight, nothing stays put. Not you. Not the groceries.

While in a complaining mode: Since the dawn of time, consumers have been complaining about the two-bit interiors of domestic cars. Traces remain in the Crown Victoria.

The wood trim is obviously faux , raps hollow and actually flexes beneath poking fingers. Plastic fittings are far from fidget-proof and a few probably won't be around 5,000 miles from now. That includes the plastic cover on a fuse box mounted deep underneath the dash, just above the foot-operated parking brake--and just above a foot reaching for the brake and kicking the fuse box lid on the way in.

Gauges are analog, a welcome holdover from yesteryear, and dash controls are within easy reach of fingers and eyeballs, a tribute to today's ergonomics. A driver-side air bag is standard, a passenger-side bag is optional.

Ford has made much of its new Luxocruiser's improved handling. So have the enthusiast magazines. But do not look for the firm, flat and faithful handling of some oversized Lotus. The Crown Vic's power steering is pure mush that gives the driver absolutely no information about the stance of the front wheels or their amount of adhesion.

An anti-lock brake system, combined with electronic traction control, is part of an optional handling package. On our test car, although only 1,800-miles young, the anti-lock system twice started rocking 'n' rolling while under only moderate foot pressures.

During standard maneuvering at routine speeds when everything is going right, the car is well mannered. That's certainly an improvement over previous years. Yet the size of the Crown Victoria doesn't allow much daydreaming in freeway lanes and sudden moves can result in a wobbling recovery to straight and level thanks to that insensitive steering.

Yet at speed, especially if taken to slinging the car around a little, the handling is a much more rewarding story. Cross up an older full-size car and options are limited to hanging on and praying that you didn't slow down suddenly against hard objects.

In the Crown Victoria, however, springs have been set heavier, broader and tougher tires are installed for the uncouth of foot, and there are heftier shocks and anti-roll bars for a noticeable improvement in stability. What these strengthened attachments do is soak up lateral forces, pitch and body roll until the vehicle's shifting weight has been damped. Then the car stays planted, and even an eventual breakaway is predictable, almost benign and certainly recoverable.

Aha, you snort. Crown Victoria owners, with a majority into their seniority, aren't about to be jousting against Corvettes and Oakley wearers in chopped and channeled mini-trucks. So why give stock-car characteristics to their sedate sedan?

For the simple reason that given the right combination of surface, speed, handling oversight or impolite intrusion by usually friendly traffic, any car can be forced to its handling limits. At such times, it is enormously reassuring--especially for powerless passengers--to be in a car that continues to resolve the problem.

One almost forgotten asset of the big, soft, and much maligned American car of yore was its passion for gobbling up great lengths of interstate with virtually no wear and tear on the occupants.

The Crown Victoria has never left that category. It is powerful, smooth, cushioned, and fully insulated against road, engine and all noises of the highway.

It might even be a crime to see it go.

1992 Ford Crown Victoria LX

COST: * Base: $19,543 * As tested: $25,092 (including automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, handling and performance package, cast alloy wheels, leather-faced seats, JBL sound system, cruise control, heavy-duty towing package and other options.)

ENGINE: * 4.6 liters, 16-valves, single overhead camshaft V-8 developing 190 horsepower.

TYPE: * Rear-drive, six-passenger, four-door, full-size sedan.

PERFORMANCE: * 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.9 seconds. * Top speed, estimated, 120 m.p.h. * Gas consumption, EPA city-highway, 18-25 m.p.g.

CURB WEIGHT: * 3748 pounds.

THE GOOD: * Vastly improved looks over 1991. * Vastly improved performance over 1991. * Vastly improved handling over 1991.

THE BAD: * Still two long, broad tons of automobile. * Unsupportive seats. * Too much room to rattle.

THE UGLY: * Genuine, imitation, simulated wood trim.

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