The split grille on the front of Lincoln's newest car has been described by Max Wolff, the brand's hip new director of design, as an eagle spreading its wings, but we think an association with a phoenix might be more apt. That's because the 2013 Lincoln MKZ is supposed to represent Lincoln's emergence from the ashes of the past as important new player in the future, and this means not only here in the U.S. but more importantly also in China, where serious money is at stake in the country's developing luxury market.
So far, Lincoln's renaissance has been troubled. The link between its premium cars and humble Ford versions of similar vehicles has been too apparent, and the Lincoln examples have not offered the performance or luxury credentials that could help us overlook the resemblances, visual or otherwise.
With the 2013 Lincoln MKZ AWD, there's still some badge engineering going on, yet we think this car shows that Lincoln and Ford might have finally figured out how to spin two very different vehicles from the same parts.
Think Audi and Volkswagen
With the 2013 Lincoln MKZ, Dearborn's top brass hopes to recreate the same sort of relationship between Lincoln and Ford vehicles that we see in Audi and Volkswagen. That is, much is identical under the skin, but the driving and ownership experiences exist on separate planets.
In the past, the Lincoln MKZ and Ford Fusion shared everything except their dashboards and the front and rear bodywork fascias. Now only the powertrains and the basic chassis structure are shared. Both the MKZ and the Fusion feature the same turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 engine, which is rated at 240 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. At the same time, this is just the base engine in the Lincoln, while it's the top of the range in the Ford.
Of course, both cars share the same powertrain in their respective, front-wheel-drive hybrid models, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired with a 35-kW electric motor that draws on a 1.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Also all U.S.-specification MKZs and Fusions are being built at Ford's assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, and both brands of the car are available in front- and all-wheel-drive configurations.
Yet that's where the similarities between the two cars end. Furthermore, only the Fusion offers an mpg-enhancing, turbocharged 1.6-liter engine, while only the MKZ has an mph-enhancing 3.7-liter V-6, which develops 300 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque.
A different approach to driving
Just as you'd expect, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ AWD represents a distinctive approach to the way a Lincoln is meant to go down the road.
For this, credit Lincoln Drive Control (LDC), which is electronic control of suspension damping, steering effort and transmission shift points. When LDC is set to Comfort mode, the car soaks up road irregularities and the light-effort steering is still communicative. When LDC is set to Sport, the car is appropriately taut in its ride and response without being harsh, although the heavy effort level in the steering feels unnatural to us. The Normal mode between these two extremes actually combines the worst of both, delivering a floaty ride even as the suspension crashes over road imperfections.
The MKZ does business with a six-speed automatic transmission that feels fine in a Comfort mode but seems a little too aggressive in Sport, as it holds onto gears for a moment too long and snaps off shifts in an unrefined fashion. Shift action is even a bit clunky in Normal mode, although Lincoln engineers tell us that the final calibration is yet to come.
This is a good thing, because the combination of the 300-hp V-6 and six-speed automatic is fantastic. The V-6 always pulls strongly, and there's a throaty roar from the twin exhaust outlets. A broad spread of torque helps to ensure that the six-speed automatic always seems to find the right gear.
As good as the V-6 is, we wonder if the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder might be a better choice overall. So far, we've only experienced this engine in the Ford Fusion, and it felt nearly as robust as the V-6. We would happily give up the aural delights of the V-6 in exchange for 4 mpg more in the city and 5 mpg more on the highway, as the all-wheel-drive Lincoln MKZ V-6 is rated at 18/26 mpg city/highway, while the all-wheel-drive 2.0T is good for 22/31 mpg.
Don't you deserve some glitz and glamour?
The design of the 2013 Lincoln MKZ design is striking. The split-wing front grille is just as eye-catching as Max Wolff promises, while tasteful detailing with satin-finish aluminum adds a premium tone to the exterior. The wide, wide LED taillights successfully interpret past Lincoln designs. And we have to say that the combination of our test car's ruby red bodywork and gunmetal-grey 19-inch wheels proved downright dazzling.
Of course, it did take us a little while to see the car clearly, since the proportions seem slightly off a first glance. The headlights and taillights are too slim, which make the surrounding bodywork seem a bit too massive. The arcing roofline in combination with a stubby tail creates an awkward C-pillar and tall trunk. And finally the roof has been pressed down so tightly on the bodywork that the windows look like gun slits.
Even so, the MKZ's shape called out to us every time we walked up to it and the nuances of the design eventually became clear. The slim LED lighting fixtures create a crisp, striking - and instantly recognizable - visual signature. The graceful roofline permits the incorporation of a panoramic sunroof (a pricey $2995 option) that opens to the heavens. Finally, the C-pillar and rear deck lid combine to reduce aerodynamic drag, while the trunk beneath has an amazing amount of capacity.
When you're behind the steering wheel, the high seating position and that giant transparent roof help make the interior seem light and spacious, plus the driver's sightlines are unobstructed. The window sills are indeed a little high, but the effect is nothing like a Chrysler 300. At the same time, rear seat passengers might feel claustrophobic, since the MKZ's dramatic roofline allows rear headroom of only 36.5 inches, the least in this car's market segment. With the 2013 Lincoln MKX, chief designer Solomon Song has delivered the "elegant simplicity" that Lincoln design director Max Wolff describes as the new theme for the brand, even as the car conjures up glamour straight out of old Hollywood.
Welcome to a special environment
Slip inside the cabin and the new Lincoln MKZ feels special from the first. A high center stack sweeps down from the dashboard into the center console in one fluid form. The stack of controls itself is dominated by a large touchscreen interface with touch-capacitive faux-buttons.
To the left of center stack you'll find the buttons that control the transmission, the first push-button transmission we can remember for decades. It is surprisingly intuitive to use, as the gears are presented in a traditional PRNDS layout. The ignition button is above Park and it's a bit of a reach. This push-button transmission interface opens up worthwhile storage space in the center console, but the two tiers of rubber-lined shelves are too shallow, we think.
The interior plastics within the cabin don't match the standard found in a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, but the color values are excellent. The dash and door panels are highlighted by tasteful wood and chrome accents. The gauges recall the previous generation BMW 7-series, and driver-controlled information screens are incorporated into the instrument binnacle. The MKZ's electronic displays are crisp and clear in their presentation, prove easy to navigate, and show the right amount of information without being distracting. Just like the transmission control, the interior trim and the watch-like instruments, the seats also set the MKZ apart from the Fusion, and we found them supremely comfortable with just the right amount of support in all the right places.
Lincoln's electronic interface and you
Each of the luxury brands has some form of all-encompassing electronic interface for its infotainment system. Among others, there's Acura's AcuraLink, Audi's MMI, BMW's iDrive, Lexus' Remote Touch, Mercedes-Benz's Command, and even Volvo's Sensus. What Lincoln features is MyLincoln Touch, a branded version of Ford's touchscreen-based system.
Sadly, MyLincoln Touch reminds us all too much of MyFord Touch. The touchscreen is slow to respond, while many of the accompanying buttons are too small to locate and operate. More important, it takes too many taps to accomplish even the simplest tasks, and this is not the kind of thing you want in a luxury car. At least the THX-branded sound system is fantastic. For all this, the touch points on the center stack are easy to locate and react quickly to inputs. We wish that they had little physical nubs to better indicate their locations when you're trying to keep our eyes on the road, although the backlit buttons elegantly disappear from view when the ignition is shut down. The slider controls for audio volume and fan speed are also lightning-fast to respond and feature neat LED lighting that follows your finger.
All of the active safety features -- adaptive cruise control, active park assist, lane keeping system, and automatic high beams -- are part of a $2250 technology package, and they work flawlessly. Blind-spot warning (which includes rear cross-traffic alert), is standard on the MKZ's Reserve and Preferred trim levels, but unavailable otherwise.
The lane-keeping safety system is really remarkable, as the electric-assist steering edges the car back into its lane when the driver's attention begins to wander. Systems from other car-makers use the stability control electronics to grab the brakes and push the car away from the highway's lane markings, but the Lincoln steers with the same predictable yet insistent pressure that human control would produce.
Does the phoenix rise from the ashes?
Will the 2013 Lincoln MKZ single-handedly save Lincoln from the trash heap of history? Well, let's not ask too much, lest we seem like one of those lame-brain Wall Street analysts who tries to predict a company's stock price from what the CEO had for breakfast. At first glance, the MKZ is a good car, and it stands on its own merits in terms of style and performance - a breakthrough for the brand, really. What it really does is set the stage for a number of forthcoming new models that will help to shape Lincoln's place in the automotive landscape.
The Lincoln MKZ is really meant to match up against the Lexus ES 350, which is the kind of comparison that reveals the marketing plan that Lincoln has set for itself. Compared to the midsize Lexus (the top-selling vehicle from Toyota's premium brand), the Lincoln has comparable variants powered by either a V-6 or a hybrid powertrain, while it also offers a turbocharged four-cylinder engine for improved mpg at an affordable price, plus all-wheel drive for all-weather traction.
At this point, we think the Lincoln MKZ is a better car than the Lexus ES, which is a big statement from us. It drives better, looks better and offers as much luxury, though the dealership experience is another thing, of course. Yet the midsize market doesn't end with the Lexus ES, as the comparative set includes the Acura TL SH-AWD, Audi A4 and Volvo S60 - three cars that deliver the same prestige, price and package size as the MKZ.
For those looking for something daring, dashing, and different in the midsize luxury segment, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ is a genuine player. And so for Lincoln, the game begins.
On Sale: January 2013
Base Price (with destination): $39,920
As-Tested Price: $51,185
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Wheels and Tires:19-inch aluminum wheels
245/40R-19 94V Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires
Curb Weight: 4002 lbs
Cargo: 15.4 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 44.3/37.0 in
Headroom (front/rear): 37.9/36.6 in