By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Elvis did it in ’68 — maybe Lincoln will pull it off now.
You know, make a comeback.
No other automotive brand in recent memory was doing so well — in the ’90s — and then tripped over itself so badly (in the early 2000s) as Ford’s luxury brand. Lincoln actually outsold Cadillac for a while back in the ’90s, mostly on the strength of the then-hugely popular Navigator. But then, a series of halted efforts (LS) and outright sales debacles (Blackwood, Mark LT) and it all went away.
Today, Lincoln is barely a blip on the screen vis-a-vis other premium-brand cars. Ford sells more Mustangs than Lincoln sells Lincolns.
Time to re-set and start over.
Cars like the ’14 MKZ represent the future of Lincoln — and a new type of Lincoln. For openers, notice that it — and all the new Lincolns — are FWD-based and (in general) small-engined and very fuel efficient (the MKZ hybrid — which costs no more than the regular MKZ — is capable of averaging 45 MPG).
They are also deliberately more demure than flash-bang Cadillacs. More Audi — and Lexus-like. In fact, Lincoln seems to be trying to re-invent itself as an American-brand Audi or Lexus.
It could work — because there are probably enough people out there who want a nicer than run-of-the-mill car — who aren’t looking for too much car — and who would like for it to be an American car.
WHAT IT IS
The MKZ is a mid-sized, FWD-based entry-luxury sedan based on the Ford Fusion.
Like the Fusion, it’s offered with a 240 hp turbocharged 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine.
Unlike the Fusion, it can also be equipped with a 300 hp V-6.
Either version is available with an optional AWD system — a feature unavailable in one the MKZ’s main targets, the Lexus ES.
Base price is $35,925.
There is also a hybrid version of the MKZ that pairs a version of the 2.0 liter engine with electric motors and a storage battery. This model is capable of averaging 45 MPG — but what stands out even more than its mileage is its price: Lincoln charges the same $35,925 for this model as it does does for the standard (non-hybrid) MKZ with FWD.
Lincoln is the first brand to offer the hybrid version of a given model without a price bump. Lexus — to cite a contrary example — wants $39,250 for the hybrid version of its ES series sedan — vs. $36,370 for the non-hybrid ES.
The MKZ has been updated from the wheels up. New exterior, new interior — and new drivetrains, too. The base engine is now a turbo four instead of a 3.5 liter V-6. And the optional engine is now a 3.7 liter V-6, making 300 hp vs. 263 (for the previous 3.5 liter engine).
The hybrid version is also much more fuel-efficient: 45 MPG in both city and highway driving vs. 41 city, 36 highway previously.
An appealing American-brand alternative to an Audi or a Lexus.
One of the best-looking tails on four wheels.
Pushbutton transmission range selector actually works better than standard lever-type shifter. It’s faster — and takes up no space on the center console because it’s located on the dashboard.
An appropriately soft (and quiet) ride.
Best-in-class front seat legroom (2.4 inches more than the Lexus ES).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Hasn’t got Lexus — or Audi — cachet.
Resale/depreciation might be an issue.
Optional Collision Warning system can be peremptory, startling (sudden array of flashing red lights on dashtop) and can’t be turned all the way off.
Questionable baleen whale front end treatment.
“Haptic” finger-touch controls are slick looking — but can be fussy to learn how to use.
Three inches less legroom in the second row than Lexus ES.
UNDER THE HOOD
The MKZ is available with your pick of three drivetrains.
Standard equipment is Ford’s “EcoBoost” 2.0 liter turbo four, paired with a six-speed automatic. This engine makes 240 hp and is capable of getting the car to 60 in about 7 seconds flat with FWD — a bit over 7 seconds with the optional AWD system. The 2.0 liter engine is also very fuel-efficient: 22 city, 33 highway with FWD and 22 city, 31 highway with AWD. This is among the very best in this class. The new BMW 320i, as a contrary example, comes standard with a 180 hp 2.0 liter four that only just barely out-MPGs the 240 hp MKZ, with a 23 city, 36 highway rating — while the hp-equivalent (and higher-priced) BMW 328i with the 240 hp version of the 2.0 engine registers 23 city, 33 highway.
However, one of the MKZ’s main competitors — the Lexus ES350 — comes standard with a 3.5 liter, 268 hp V-6 that delivers a 6.5 second to 60 time and also manages 21 city, 31 highway.
Lincoln fires back with an optionally available 3.7 liter, 300 hp V-6 that’s 32 hp stronger and matches the ES350’s s 0-60 run. You can also order this engine with AWD — a feature Toyota doesn’t offer at all in the ES350.
But the Lincoln’s big gun — so to speak — is its optional hybrid powertrain. As mentioned already, there’s no additional cost. Lincoln charges the same $35,925 for this version of the MKZ as they do for the non-hybrid version of the MKZ.
Lexus jacks you for $2,880 more — $39,250 vs. $36,370. BMW wants $49,650 for the hybrid version of the 3 Series.
The ES300 hybrid is slightly quicker than the MKZ: Zero to 60 in about 8.2 seconds vs. about 8.4 for the hybrid Lincoln. But the Lincoln is much more economical to operate: 45 MPG in both city and highway driving vs 40 city and 39 highway for the Lexus.
The hybrid BMW isn’t even in the same ballpark: 25 city, 33 highway. (In its favor, though, is quickness. It’ll do the 0-60 run in just over 5 seconds — furious speed for a hybrid. But arguably beside the point.)
ON THE ROAD
Ford — and Lincoln — like a growing number of car companies is making the case that four is plenty.
And that six may well be superfluous.
Go back just three or four years and you’d have a tough time finding any premium-brand car powered by less than a six.
Fours were — mostly — for economy cars.
But Lincoln — like BMW, like Land Rover, like Audi, like Cadillac — sees a big future for little engines. Goosed, of course, by turbochargers to make big (or at least sufficient) power on demand while not demanding overly frequent refills at $4 a gallon. These less-consumptive engines are also a political necessity as the federal government continues to ratchet upward its mandatory-minimum MPG requirements — which rise to 35.5 MPG beginning in 2016.
These new-breed turbo fours also achieve what many automakers have been working toward for decades but never managed to sort out before now: Turbocharged engines that don’t behave like turbocharged engines. That aren’t lifeless at low RPM — but snap (briefly) like an angry rattlesnake once aroused. That’s fine (and fun) in a high-performance sports car, where a sudden jolt of turbo thrust is exactly what’s wanted. In a car with a manual transmission, which the owner uses to work the engine and keep it in the sweet spot of its narrow powerband. But in a luxury car with an automatic such characteristics are as unwanted as Carlos Danger’s text messages (and pictures).
What is wanted is smoothness, quietness — and (most important of all) confident acceleration at any engine RPM and road speed.
The 2.0 Ecoboosted engine delivers on all counts. The low-inertia turbocharger differs from older designs in that it “spools up” — i.e., delivers boost — almost instantaneously. The dreaded dead spot — followed by a sudden, furious infusion of power — that formerly characterized small-displacement turbocharged engines — these are non-issues.The 2.0 four pulls with the easy authority of a 3-ish liter V-6. The only thing, in fact, that betrays the engine’s four cylinder status is its sound. It’s not an ugly sound. But it’s not the purr of a six — or the throb of an eight. There’s very little of any sound at all, actually. The 2.0 MKZ is almost electric car quiet, in fact.
But the larger point is the increasing irrelevance of sixes — let alone eights. They are enjoyable to have, of course. Just as it is enjoyable to have more food than you can eat — and a bigger house than you really need. But as people become hip to the power/performance — and economy — of modern fours like the MKZ’s Ecoboost 2.0 engine, they may come to view them as unnecessary.
Kudos also to Ford (to Lincoln) on the push-button gear selector. Like turbos, this is not a new idea. But Lincoln is the first to have sorted it out. There is no annoying delay between input and reaction — as is the case with every other electronic gear selector I’ve tried out (and I’ve tried every one of them). You tap the button for Drive — and immediately, the transmission is in Drive. No waiting for circuits to complete, actuators to actuate. Just select — and go.
Same for Reverse, Park and so on.
This system actually works better than a conventional pull-it-forward-or-backward gearshifter on the console. And by mounting the PRNDS keypad on the dashboard — it’s off to the right of the main instrument cluster — space is freed up on the console. Added plus: You’ll never have to worry about grit — or spilled coffee — gunking up the works.
The only reservation I have about it is potential e-glitches (and repair/replacement) costs down the road. But drive-by-wire controls aren’t new. And — so far — they seem to be pretty reliable.
AT THE CURB
Chris Bangle got truckloads of grief over the “look” he designed for BMW a few years back — and the same truck is now backing up in the driveway of whomever it is over at Lincoln who came up with the krill-sifter front end treatment that’s the new Lincoln look.
It’s not that it’s ugly. It’s just not beautiful. On the other hand, it is extremely distinctive — and these days, the days of look-alike everything — that’s commendable. You can tell a new Lincoln at a glance.
The tail treatment, meanwhile, is beautiful. The solid sheet of thin-line (and LED lit) brake/taillights with L-I-N-C-O-L-N script in widely spaced chrome lettering above it is simply striking.
A Zephyr, this isn’t.
More importantly, a Fusion this isn’t. No offense meant. The Fusion is a fine car. But a Lincoln needs to be a clearly different car. There’s kinship, sure. Deep down in the bones. But Ford — oops, Lincoln — has layered on so much more that the DNA connection is no longer obvious. The Fusion doesn’t get the MKZ’s elegant dasboard — nor its graceful center stack (and haptic controls). And it does get a conventional on-the-console conventional gear selector.
The MKZ also offers non-Fusion features such as a massive panorama sunroof that runs almost the entire length of the roof (15.2 square feet), full LCD instrumentation — including the speedometer and tachometer needles — an auto-adjusting suspension (CCD) and automatic parallel park assist. Another non-Fusion feature is the air bag-embedded rear seatbelts.
Ford’s Sync voice command and MyTouch electronic interfaces are also included, as is a premium 11-speaker audio system, 8-inch LCD display in the center stack and the full array of power amenities. Navigation is, however, extra cost — bundled with the Reserve equipment group that also includes Blind Spot Warning system, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel and heated/ventilated leather-trimmed seats. You can upgrade all that to include heated rear seats and a 14-speaker audio system — part of the Preferred equipment group.
Size-wise, the MKZ is a larger — and in key categories, a roomier — car than the Lexus ES. The Lincoln’s 194.1 inches long overall — vs. 192.7 for the Camry-based ES — and rides on a longer 112.2 inch wheelbase vs. 111 for the ES — which makes it look more substantial, more impressive. The MKZ is more genuinely mid-sized than the ES — and not just in terms of its footprint. On the inside, the MKZ has 44.3 inches of driver and front seat passenger legroom — vs. 41.9 in the ES. It also has a slightly larger 15.4 cube trunk vs. 15.2 for the ES.
However, the Lexus still has the edge in terms of rearseat legroom — which stands at 40 inches vs. 37 for the Lincoln.
I am not a fan of the MKZ’s optional (thank the motor gods) Collision Warning system. In theory, it alerts you to an object in your path you may not have noticed — because you are on your cell phone — with a series of flashing LED lights and audible warning beeps. In actual practice, the system often triggers for no apparent reason — unless you count trees close to the side of the road (or tall grass or earth berms). This happened to me several times. No car in my path — nothing at all in my path, in fact. Yet the lights — and chimes — would sometimes just go off. The effect is startling — like a defibrillation you weren’t expecting. And more to the point, didn’t need.
The system would also sometimes go off when a car up ahead — well up ahead — was turning off the road. I could see the car had its signal on and the driver was clearly intending to turn off. Hence, no need for me to come to a stop — because by the time I reached the place in the road where the car up ahead was, it would be gone. Off the road. But the MKZ’s computer intelligence cannot make this distinction. It “sees” a car up ahead that appears to be a fixed object in its path — one that it thinks will still be there in the 10 seconds or so it will take for the MKZ to reach that point — and so it sounds the alarm. The series of bright flashing lights and beeps is both annoying and itself distracting — ironic, given that its purpose is to avert accidents caused by distracted driving.
Worst part? You can’t turn it completely off. The most you can do — via steering wheel-mounted input pads — is adjust the sensitivity. This helps some, but — at least in my experience — the system still needs some sorting out. Too many false positives. Too pre-emptively nannyish.
The good news is you can skip it entirely.
The “haptic” controls for the AC and other functions also takes some getting used to — if you’re used to conventional knobs you turn and buttons you push. Instead, you gently swipe your finger over the controls — kind of like a flat-screen touchpad. You can tap, too. The good news here is that once you get used to it — and your brain/fingers intuit the amount of touch necessary to get the desired result — it works well enough and (like the pushbutton gear selector) offers the advantage of a clean surface that should be easier to keep clean — and much easier to keep from getting gunked up in the first place.
I can’t say enough in praise of Lincoln’s not charging extra for the hybrid MKZ. There is no other deal like this on the market right now — and it’s a brilliant strategy. Hybrids are, after all, supposed to save you money. If the thing costs thousands more to buy than an otherwise equivalent non-hybrid, it doesn’t do that — because the savings at the pump are negated by the cost to buy. No such issues here. The only negative to buying the MKZ hybrid over the non-hybrid MKZ is it’s a bit slower. But it’s not slow. Eight seconds to 60 is well within the Zone of Acceptability for normal,everyday driving.
And 45 MPG average just rocks.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The new MKZ is the first Lincoln in years that’s got a real shot at reclaiming some of the cachet the brand has lost over the years — if enough people give it a look-see.
I recommend you do.