The front frame rails (in green) are hydroformed steel. The stabilizerbar (in dark blue) uses "grippy" bushings to reduce lateral compliancewhen cornering

The first vehicleon the agenda was the '03 Town Car which has been updated with a new hood, fenders, and quarterpanels. But perhaps the most interesting changes are under the sheet metal: a new frame, steeringsystem, front suspension, brake-system upgrades, and improvements to the rear suspension.

Front-framerails are now fully boxed sections of hydroformed steel, said to be lighter, stronger, and moreuniform than previously used welded-steel channels. Structural foam in the rails spreads crash energythroughout the frame. The body-on-frame construction, together with new body mounts, improve the ride,body control, and vibration isolation. Rear mounts are stiff laterally but fairly soft in fore and aftdirections.

The new frame let engineers make major changes to the independent-SLA front suspension.Also, rack-and-pinion steering replaces a recirculating-ball gear system for crisper steering, lessfriction, and a loss of 22.5 lb. Aluminum in the lower-control arms replace steel, and steel-coilsprings and monotube dampers control ride motions. Monotube dampers replace twin-tube shock absorbersand are said to be more tunable, thanks to an increase in the damping pistons' working area. Afront-stabilizer bar and "grippier" bushings improve steering feel and lower lateral compliance forprecise turning with less body roll. The new design prevents the stabilizer bar from twisting in itsbushing under load, so forces build up more quickly and the response rate is more linear.

A live-axlerear suspension has a lateral Watt's linkage, monotube dampers, air springs, and a stabilizer bar.Rear-monotube dampers sit further out than the previous design to better manage unsprung mass, as wellas absorb impacts from rough roads. This change, together with a 14-mm increase in track width, keepsthe rear wheels on the road when cornering.

In back-to-back comparison testing between the 2002 and2003 Town Cars, the '03 has a firmer grip on the road than its predecessor. Its handling is similar tothat of the Lincoln LS, but on a grander scale. Let me explain. The Town Car is quite a large vehicle,but the new suspension and steering give it a tighter feel on the road, and better response from thesteering compared to the 2002 model. In short, the big car no longer drives like a boat.

For stoppingpower, all 2003 Town Cars have four-wheel ABS. A dual-rate brake booster supplies full braking duringpanic stops. Electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) proportionally doles out braking forces frontand rear.

Under the hood, the 4.6-liter V8 puts out 239 hp at 4,900 rpm and 287 lb-ft of torque at4,100 rpm, providing adequate oomph. The recalibrated four-speed automatic transmission is said toincrease downshift response time to 0.3 sec. All-speed traction control is standard on all models.

ForNVH control, a cast-foam valley stuffer fills the space between cylinder banks while a hood blanketmutes engine noise. New hydraulic-engine mounts control idle shake and engine resonance as well asabsorb shock and damping impacts from rough roads, braking, and acceleration forces. Exhaust-pipehangers mount to frame rails instead of crossmembers to better isolate noise.

To keep the cabin quiet,a laminated-steel dash replaces a single-ply design, and thicker sound insulation is used in thewheelhouses, roof, body pillars, and doors. At a hands-on exhibit, I dropped a single-ply steelsection on cement immediately followed by a laminated-steel piece. The difference in sound is atestament to laminated steel's effectiveness on the dash. An aluminum floorpan doubler bonds to sheetmetal in the front-passenger footwell area to deaden road noise and a stronger steel instrument-panelbrace cuts steering-column shake, squeaks, and rattles.

Fuel economy gets a small improvement on thehighway, specifically a 2 mpg jump to 25, due to a reduction in drag from 0.41 to 0.37 Cd, lowerparasitic losses from accessory drives, and improved tire-rolling resistance. Fuel economy for citydriving remains at 17 mpg.

One notable feature is the power-trunk pull down. Simply start to pull thetrunk down, and it soon takes over and closes without having to wrench an arm out of the socket. Thetrunk boasts a spacious 21.1 ft3, and engineers moved the mini-spare tire to the right-hand wheelwell, creating a large parcel shelf behind the rear seats.

The updates to the 2003 Town Car are subtleappeals to a younger crowd, but without offending their current clientele (the average age of a TownCar buyer is 70). The Town Car comes in Executive, Signature, and Cartier Series. Prices range from$41,040 for the '03 Executive model, $45,015 for the Signature version, and $46,010 for the Cartier.