The 2013 Lincoln MKZ is a definite improvement, finally setting Lincoln apart from more mundane Fords, but flawed interior materials and unreliable electronics show more work is needed for this car to be truly competitive.
You'd be forgiven for not knowing much about the Lincoln brand as of late. Until the 2013 MKZ, there hasn't been much to talk about. The last remaining brand in what used to be a pantheon of names owned by Ford Motor Company, it's the sole survivor of the Great Recession under Ford ownership, aside from the namesake Ford brand itself. Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Volvo all found other owners and Mercury was shuttered, but Lincoln remains to carry on. Now, the hope is to revive a once-storied luxury brand to some semblance of its former popularity; this MKZ is the first vehicle in what is planned to be a new global product blitz.
All Lincolns of the past 20 years have shared their guts with less-fancy Ford models. Buyers have scoffed at Lincoln prices that got them content near or matching the high-end Fords on which they were based. But Ford says it's gotten the message: Differentiate the Lincolns if you want people to think they're special. This all-new MKZ is the first attempt to truly do that, and in many ways Ford has succeeded. It's a completely new car, replacing the decidedly mediocre 2012 MKZ with a new platform, engines, interior and technology. But is it good enough to play with the established luxury brands and draw in new buyers?
A New Look for Lincoln
From the outside, the Lincoln MKZ's look is striking. This is a complete departure from previous Lincolns, with sweeping lines and a near-fastback roof shape that evokes such beauties as the Audi A7. From the winged grille to the slim LED taillamps, this is a surprisingly attractive car — and in a change from the trend of the past two decades, it looks nothing like the Ford Fusion on which it's based. My week with the MKZ garnered lots of admiring comments from passers-by, which is a good thing for Lincoln. The forgotten luxury brand needs to draw attention, and dramatic but tasteful, attractive styling is a good way to do it.
Attention to detail in the design is evident. Look at the side mirrors: The shape of the mirror-mounting pillars alone is artwork. So is the glow from the taillight LEDs at night. The big wheels are perfectly proportioned to the arches, with a multispoke design and smoked finish that looks fantastic. Lincoln says it now has a dedicated design studio with more than 90 designers doing nothing but Lincoln work, and with the MKZ they're off to a good start.
Beneath the Skin
This latest MKZ still shares its chassis with a more mundane Ford sedan, the Fusion. But given how good the latest Fusion is (it came in a close second in our recent family sedan competition; click here for more info), that's not a bad thing. The MKZ features a choice of two powertrains. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine making 240 horsepower and 270 pounds-feet of torque is standard, and the premium engine option is a 3.7-liter V-6 making 300 hp and 277 pounds-feet of torque. Both are available with front- or all-wheel-drive, and both employ a standard six-speed automatic transmission. A hybrid with a continuously variable automatic transmission is also available for no additional cost over the 2.0-liter turbo motor. The MKZ Hybrid uses a non-turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor, good for just 188 hp but considerably better fuel economy. The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is covered separately in the Research section.
My test vehicle was a turbocharged 2.0-liter model with all-wheel drive. This is the top engine in the Fusion, and it's a fantastic one. Torquey and never lacking for power, it's responsive in just about any driving condition. From a stoplight or passing on the highway, it responds with a rush of power that's very different from turbo engines of the past. It also provides a significant fuel-economy advantage over the larger V-6: The four-cylinder is EPA-rated at 22/33/26 mpg city/highway/combined, dropping to 22/31/25 mpg for the all-wheel-drive model. The V-6, by comparison, checks in at 19/28/22 mpg for the front-wheel-drive model; 18/26/21 mpg for a V-6 with all-wheel drive. The fuel-economy champ of the group is of course the hybrid, rated 45/45/45 mpg, though if the MKZ Hybrid follows the pattern of other Ford hybrids we've tried, your observed mileage may be considerably less. My time in the non-hybrid, which included a long drive from Michigan to Wisconsin and back via Chicago, returned a respectable 28 mpg overall.
The MKZ is a very quiet car at speed. Highway travel is hushed, and the four-cylinder engine is never harsh, even in aggressive driving duty. Handling is acceptable — this is not a sport sedan in the BMW 3 Series or Infiniti Q50 vein — but it should adequately stack up against front-drive models like the Acura TL and Audi A4. Steering feel could be improved, however, as it skews toward the cushy end of the spectrum. Body roll is impressively controlled, with flat cornering that allows for more aggressive driving than we've seen in any Lincoln in years.
Buttons? We Don't Need No Stinking Buttons
The interior is unfortunately where things begin to crumble. Visually, it's beautiful — elegant and fresh, with clean forms and the same attention to detail that's apparent in the exterior shapes and trim. High-quality materials abound; the gauge graphics are modern and attractive, and the seats are both comfortable and quite adjustable. Front seat room is good, but space is a bit more cramped in the rear due to a low, swoopy roofline that intrudes on headroom. At night, things light up with carefully designed highlights that look good and are even functional: Open a door and the adjustable-color accent lights on the interior door panel glow red to warn any vehicles approaching from behind. Switch everything off and the touch-sensitive center control panel goes blank — all the controls, buttons and lights disappear as if by magic.
But as good as everything looks, the fact that most controls in the MKZ are flat-panel and touch sensitive creates problems: Not only does it require taking your eyes off the road to operate (every time), but it also provides zero tactile feedback. That feedback is essential to making you feel that you've bought a luxury vehicle, not an economy car. To operate most of the MKZ's controls, you just plunk your fingers down or slide them along a solid plastic panel. A luxury car should feel luxurious, to help reinforce a buyer's decision to spend a large amount of money on an automobile. There should be buttons with a certain quality when pushed and knobs that feel expensive when turned. The MKZ only has a handful of buttons and, ironically, they're for something that almost every other car on the planet operates via a lever — the transmission. Arrayed on the left side of the upper console are the familiar PRNDL icons, but each appears on a selector button. Along with the park assist, hazard lights, window switches and controls on the steering wheel, these are the only buttons in the car. And those buttons don't feel very high-quality, either; the turn-signal stalk and that weird transmission gear selector feel cheap. For comparison, flip the switches in any Audi or Mercedes-Benz and you'll see exactly what I mean. The MKZ looks great inside, but it feels mediocre at best.
Things aren't helped by the latest version of MyLincoln Touch. Ford's system for hands-free operation and voice controls doesn't work any better in Lincoln font than it does in Ford script. During my week with the MKZ I experienced two navigation failures, one that placed me half a block away from my actual location and stayed that way for 5 miles, and another that decided to remotely update and reboot my system just 2 miles from my programmed destination in rush-hour traffic. I also experienced numerous failed attempts to control my iPod. If this system truly does learn the speech and words of its users, as Lincoln says it does, then by the end of my test the words it probably knew best are ones that can't be printed here.
The 2013 MKZ received decent crash-test ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with an overall five-star safety rating. No data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is yet available. As with most modern cars, airbags abound. Dual-stage front airbags, side impact, side curtain and front knee airbags are standard, and something unique to Ford products is optional: inflatable airbags in the rear seat belts that reduce stress on passengers in a collision by spreading out the force of the belt over a larger, more cushioned area. See the MKZ's safety specs here and a full equipment list here.
MKZ in the Market
As with many new Ford products, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ does not come cheap. Base price for my 2.0T all-wheel-drive model was $38,710, including an $895 destination charge. A package added $3,150 worth of equipment, including navigation, a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, a backup camera and a satellite radio package. Another package added active park assist, adaptive cruise control and a lane departure warning system for $2,250. The car's attractive 19-inch alloy wheels were another $750, while the Smoke Quartz metallic paint was $495. The special inflatable rear seat belt airbag system added another $195, bringing the price as tested to $45,550. Load up an MKZ with a V-6, all-wheel-drive, a panoramic sunroof and all the technology goodies, and you'll see the sticker climb to an eye-popping $51,000 and change. That kind of scratch could also buy you a very well-optioned twin-turbo V-6 Lincoln MKS, a considerably larger vehicle than the MKZ. See pricing for the MKZ here.
Positioning the MKZ against competitors is a little tricky, as Lincoln hasn't been a viable luxury brand for some time; it's been off the shopping lists of entry-level luxury buyers and is only now starting to get some attention. Seeing as how this is not a rear-drive sports luxury car, pitting it against cars like the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Cadillac ATS or Lexus GS isn't quite right. All those cars have a much more athletic bent to them, focused as much on driving pleasure as on opulent surroundings. The MKZ is more of a front-drive comfort luxury car, meaning it's better pitted against the Lexus ES and Acura TL, or even the Buick LaCrosse. It matches most of them in price, as well, both in terms of base prices and when loaded. See how the MKZ stacks up against competitors here.
With its daring style and impressive powertrain options, the MKZ should be a solid choice for entry-level luxury buyers, but a lack of luxury feel and flawed electronics may make potential buyers think twice.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun