They've had more than their share of delays and doubters, from those inside Ford Motor Co. as well as outsiders, but the widely trumpeted 2000 Lincoln LS sedans are pretty darn close to being what Ford promised they would be back when the sedan first broke cover at the 1998 New York auto show.

Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's product development chief, and his team of engineers have expended enough effort frantically working to get the LS to drive and handle properly that they've all probably accumulated a year's worth of comp time.

Now Lincoln must ensure the LS build quality and indoctrinate its dealerships in how to treat what likely will be many first-time Lincoln showroom visitors. It's a fact that hasn't been lost on Lincoln, which has put together what it says is its largest, most comprehensive new-car launch for its dealers in the division's 80-year history.

Ford poured some $6 million into its dealer launch, including the price tag for transforming an airport hangar on San Francisco's Treasure Island into a spectacular display that taught dealers about the car's finer points and how to sell the vehicle to many first-time Lincoln customers.

"The premium luxury segment is the fastest growing segment," says Mark Hutchins, president of Lincoln Mercury. "We think our timing is right. Lincoln has to get on the consideration list of shoppers."

Lincoln apparently understands the primary component of "consideration:" it has priced the LS rather aggressively, starting at $31,450 for the car carrying a 3L DOHC V-6/ 5-speed automatic combo. That ticket includes leather, 16-in. brushed-aluminum wheels and power tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Another four thou - $35,225 in total - buys one into the 3.9L DOHC V-8.

There's a "fun" package, too: the LS V-6 with a Getrag 5-speed manual gearbox and standard sport package is $32,250. It is the first Lincoln since the 1951 Cosmopolitan to be served up with a manual.

For those keeping up-to-date with their platform-sharing scorecards, the LS's V-8 is derived from the scintillating 4L AJ-V8 first developed for the Jaguar Cars XK8 (followed by the Jag's XJ sedans), albeit slightly less powerful at 252 hp versus the Jaguar's 281 hp. But Jaguar's 4L V-8 is made in Bridgend, Wales, the Lincoln 3.9L version in Lima, OH. The all-aluminum 3.9L engine is lithe and powerful, producing 267 lbs.-ft. (362 Nm) of torque at 4,300 rpm.

We only wish Ford would see fit to hook up a manual with this engine - after all, BMW (and that's the target) seems to find enough buyers for its midsize 5-series to justify offering a V-8/manual driveline. Instead, buyers can consider the optional Select-Shift, which allows sequential toggling between the gears. Unlike some competitors' sequential-shift automatics, Lincoln's interpretation will stay in gear right up to redline if the lever isn't moved.

The V-6 in the LS and Jaguar's S-Type is built in Cleveland, but both have been massaged to be a bit more refined than the donor 3L Duratec snared from the Taurus/Sable. The 3L in the LS also makes do with fewer horses than Jaguar's more upscale version, 210 hp compared to 240 horses for the S-Type.

When coupled with the manual, the V-6 feels strong and has a good torque spread; more than 80% of its peak 205 lbs.-ft. (278 Nm) begins at 2,300 rpm, though the peak arrives at a higher-than-you'd-like 4,750 rpm. The V-6 reveals a few power "valleys" when saddled with the 5-speed automatic, though.

An ITT Continental Teves-made all-speed traction control system is standard on all V-8 LS models, but not available on themanual V-6 LS; a stability control system called AdvanceTrac, also supplied by Continental Teves, is a $725 option. It's Ford's first production-model offering of stability control.

The company forecasts 70% of buyers will order the V-8 automatic, 25% V-6 automatic and the remaining 5% the V-6 manual. Lincoln officials, however, are hopeful the manual "take" rate will be higher. This would be a sure sign, they believe, that the LS has attracted the kind of young buyer, roughly between the age of 30 and 50, that the brand so badly needs.

Mr. Parry-Jones says Ford didn't want the LS to be a BMW (a bit of a backtrack, it seems, from earlier Ford pronouncements about the LS being a BMW-beater), but rather, to strike a balance between American luxury and European driving dynamics.

The LS's wheelbase (114.5 ins. [291 cm]) is one of the longest in this segment, but the car still manages to have an athletic look, largely due to its short front overhang and taut body-side sculpting. Nor is the LS quite as heavy as it looks. At 3,593 lbs. (1,630 kg) for the V-6 automatic, it is 45 lbs. (20 kg) lighter than a Lexus GS300 and just 54 lbs. (24 kg) heavier than the BMW 528i automatic.

Lincoln still relies on too much chrome to garnish the LS, particularly on the bumper fascias and around the license plate. Thankfully, those who dislike the chrome can order the optional sport package, which replaces the shiny stuff with monochromatic front and rear bumpers.

The sport package also includes P235/50VR all-season Firestones mounted on 17x7.5-in. aluminum alloy wheels, a rear stabilizer that is 38% thicker than the standard LS, heavy duty brake pads, engine oil cooler and a re-calibrated steering system. The sport package on both the 3.9L V-8 and 3L V-6 is a $1,000 option and includes the SelectShift feature.

The LS and S-Type share the all-new DEW-98 platform and a large part of their engineering, which, along with the near 50/50 weight distribution, contributes to the LS's good body control. Ken Kohrs, the former head of Ford's large and luxury vehicle center who launched the LS before retiring June 1, says getting Ford bean-counters to provide the cash for the unique platform (read: rear-drive/unibody) was no easy task.

"We always knew that if we were to compete in the sport luxury segment we had to have a unique platform," he says. "We had two years of corporate infighting that said 'No, you don't need a unique platform.' In the end we won."

The structure includes body panels made of two-sided galvanized steel with an aluminum hood, rear deck and front fenders. Lincoln says the body stiffness targets on the LS are the highest ever on a Lincoln. Underneath the body is an all aluminum short-and-long-arm (SLA) suspension used at the front and rear, along with a newly concocted rear suspension geometry that inspires confidence during hard braking and acceleration by greatly reducing body pitch.

The interior is well conceived and handsome. Nearly all of the materials have the feel of quality, even the burled walnut-look trim. The tachometer finally displays an RPM redline - and hopefully all of the vehicles in Ford's lineup now will get the same. One disappointment is a center armrest that can't be lifted out of the way. The rear seatback splits and folds for increased cargo hauling space.

Lincoln is forecasting sales of about 30,000 in the U.S. in the 1999 calendar year and about 65,000 units in 2000, including sales in Canada and Mexico.

"We want to under-provide and over-deliver," Mr. Hutchins says.

LS sales in Europe were to begin later this year, but that has been delayed for 12 to 18 months so Ford can rethink how the vehicle will fit in with its newly created Premium Group. Mr. Hutchins says Ford also is assessing whether the LS needs a diesel engine to appropriately compete in Europe.

"We put it on hold for awhile while we figure out what to do with Volvo," Mr. Parry-Jones says. But there are rumblings inside Ford that the LS may never make the journey across the Atlantic. Some say that could damage the LS's ability to successfully fight the German imports in the U.S. because it lacks the proper European street credentials.

Mr. Parry-Jones says the LS easily meets European demands. "I feel for the engineering team that developed the LS who addressed all of the issues to sell the car in Europe. I feel disappointed they can't enjoy the success of doing it right."

As for the potential for success in North America, that's still the big unknown. The LS's styling will generate its share of divergent opinions, but no one will deny that the vehicle has many of the key attributes to be a standout player in the luxury sports sedan market. The hard part now not only will be trying to convince the buying public to visit a Lincoln dealership, but treating them in such a way that they'll want to come back.