1999 Laforza Speciale Edition Reimagines an Unusual SUV

From the October 1999 issue of Car and Driver.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the George Bush that mattered had an “H” for a middle initial and Acura, BMW, Cadillac, lnfiniti, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes, Mercury, and Oldsmobile were all in the business of selling upscale cars rather than upscale SUVs, if you wanted a luxury sport-ute, you bought either a Range Rover or a Laforza. And practically no one bought a Laforza. So Laforza went bankrupt.

Nearly as improbable as John DeLorean being asked back to run Pontiac or Jenny McCarthy getting another sitcom on NBC, the Laforza has returned. Returned to a new world where Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes, Mercury, Oldsmobile, and Range Rover all think of luxury-SUV buyers as their customers, and the art of building the things advances every month. On this second go-round, will Laforza do better?

Whereas the Laforza vehicle looks (and is) almost identical to the one driven by C/D back in June 1989, the company assembling it has changed. Laforza Automobiles of Escondido, California, north of San Diego, is the new company. Headed by David Hops, whose Monster Motorsports continues to cram Ford 4.9-liter V-8s into the engine bays of Mazda MX-5 Miatas, the company bought up the remnants and inventory of the Laforza’s previous assembler (Michigan-based C&C) in 1995 and began screwing parts together soon thereafter. In the past four years, it’s put another 130-or-so Laforzas on American roads (Lincoln alone sold more than 20 times that many Navigators this past June). Hops told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he wants to keep production limited and ship “maybe 300 to 400 cars a year, at most.”

Planet R/Randy LorentzenCar and Driver

The Laforza’s 18-gauge-steel body is stamped and assembled by Golden Car in Italy (alongside the Lamborghini Diablo) under contract for Magnum Industriale—the remnants of the company that built our ’89 test car. Magnum, which sells less luxurious versions of the vehicle around the world, plops the body atop a truly massive ladder frame and mates the whole thing to suspension components from a Fiat military truck. Once the thing is a roller, it’s shipped off to Escondido, where Laforza installs the Ford Explorer’s drivetrain (a V-8/automatic combo with full-time, high-range all-wheel drive). The 4.9-liter is uprated from 215 horsepower in the Explorer to 225, and the all-wheel-drive system is a hands-free viscous-coupling design. Laforza also applies the Speciale Edition’s $60,385 sticker. For an extra $7000, it will bolt an Eaton supercharger to the engine (as it did on our test truck) to bump output to a claimed 320 horses.

The Laforza feels 1989 archaic in many ways. It is also the only new production vehicle available in the U.S. without airbags, thanks to NHTSA Temporary Exemption No. 98-6, which runs out at the end of next year. The suspension consists of torsion-bar-sprung, wrist-thick control arms up front and a solid rear axle with a limited-slip differential, set on semi-elliptical leaf spring . The front-disc, rear-drum brakes are unburdened by an anti-lock system. Up-to-date in this class would mean coil springs and discs with ABS at all four comers, with the leading-­edge vehicles sporting four-wheel independent suspensions.

Planet R/Randy LorentzenCar and Driver

That behind-the-curve feeling extends to the interior, where expected contemporary details such as one-touch-down power windows, cruise control, adjustable lumbar support on the front seats, and a tilting steering wheel are all M.I.A. The instrumentation is easy to read but looks cobbled together from various parts bins, as do the shifter and the various controls, handles, and switches.

However, the inside of the Speciale Edition does have compensating virtues that include enough butter-colored cowhide to actually re-encase a small herd of cows, and high-quality, close-nap carpeting. It’s also wonderfully roomy, with stretch-out space for five, and the oversize seats are cushy enough to qualify as thrones. But it’s not subdued. The Miami Vice opulence skitters perilously close to over-the-top extravagance. A suede head­liner? Come on. A limited run of 20 No Fear-branded models will appear soon with four bucket seats and four-wheel disc brakes. And the company is small enough that it would probably custom-cover the inside, outside, and piston rings in ostrich gullet if the check were big enough.

Once the driver acclimates to the cockpit and the small-diameter Momo steering wheel, the supercharged Laforza proves a satisfying drive in a relentless, blunt-instrument sort of way. And it gets noticed.

Keep in mind that at 78.7 inches across and 73.6 inches up and down, the Laforza is 1.9 inches wider and 3.3 inches taller than a ’99 Chevy Tahoe five-door, but at 179.9 inches, it’s actually 19.7 inches shorter in length. At a staggering 5260 pounds, it weighs nearly a half-ton more than the Explorer, for which the drivetrain was originally developed. This is a very big, high-density truck.

Planet R/Randy LorentzenCar and Driver

Despite the heft, the blown Laforza manages decent acceleration with a 9.9-second zero-to-60-mph time and a clocking of 17.6 seconds at 79 mph in the quarter­-mile. (The similarly priced Range Rover 4.6HSE does those tricks in 9.2 and 17.1 seconds, respectively.) The deep note from the Borla exhaust is satisfying, the Eaton blower’s whine is barely noticeable, and the transmission and the transfer case function unobtrusively. Off-road, the well of low-end torque available makes getting stuck a challenge rather than a probability. Still, the Laforza practically begs for the 360-hp, 5.4-liter supercharged SOHC Triton engine found in Ford’s SVT Lightning sport truck. Then again, any truck would be better with the Lightning’s engine in it.

The steering is heavy and uncommunicative with the 275/60R-17 Bridgestone Dueler HTS tires tending to pick a direction and then resist any deviation. The suspension is about as stiff as SUV suspensions get, and although the ride is compliant over most surfaces, hitting a dip will send a coccyx-rattling shudder forward from the rear axle. On the skidpad, the Laforza developed a weird diagonal, porpoise-like rocking motion so pronounced that it almost lifted a wheel, an antic that would make a swell opening act for Shamu.

Planet R/Randy LorentzenCar and Driver

What the Laforza has going for it, old or not, is undeniable star presence. In a world of Expeditions, Escalades, Denalis, and Navigators, people sense the Laforza’s aura from blocks away and flock to it with a long list of questions. No one asks what an M-class Mercedes is, but it seems everyone wants to know about the Laforza. If a driver likes being noticed, that makes up for the lack of one-touch power windows.

Maybe now the time is right for Laforza. It’s not the sport-utility vehicle for everybody, at a time when every other SUV seems straining to be just that. It’s wacky, it’s weird, and it hasn’t been run through a billion dollars’ worth of character-cleansing consumer clinics. It’s definitely not an Acura, BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus, Lincoln, Mercedes, Mercury, Oldsmobile, or Range Rover. And now that SUVs are accepted as luxury vehicles, that works to its advantage. It’s a cup of espresso in an ocean of Maxwell House.

Specifications

SPECIFICATIONS

Laforza Speciale

VEHICLE TYPE
Front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door wagon

PRICE AS TESTED
$67,385 (base price: $60,385)

ENGINE TYPE
Supercharged pushrod 16-valve V-8, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 302 in3, 4946 cm3
Power: 320 hp @ 4200 rpm
Torque: 350 lb-ft @ 3300 rpm

TRANSMISSION
4-speed automatic

DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase: 106.0 in
Length: 179.9 in
Curb weight: 5260 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 9.9 sec
100 mph: 37.7 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 10.6 sec
1/4 mile: 17.6 sec @ 79 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 125 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 218 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.70 g

C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 17 mpg

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