The 1920s and '30s were the original glory days for this city by the sea, a playground for well-to-do holidaymakers. Lincoln was a favorite of that same crowd. Both Miami Beach and Lincoln embraced the modern design zeitgeist, Miami Beach with its many Art Deco buildings and Lincoln with its streamlined Zephyr followed by its instant-classic Continental. In the decades that followed, however, both Miami Beach and Lincoln lost their cachet. Each, in its own way, became a warren of the unglamorous elderly.
Unlike automobiles, which are restyled every few years, buildings usually are stuck with their original design -- and in an area that's economically downtrodden, it's not worth knocking down old buildings to replace them with new ones. Miami Beach was in that preservative limbo for years, until some visionaries realized that its Art Deco buildings had been out of style for so long that they actually were back in.
Most notable among those visionaries was Barbara Capitman, who founded the Miami Design Preservation League. In 1979, the organization was able to establish the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District -- the first twentieth-century district in the National Register of Historic Places. With a new appreciation for the city's architecture, Miami Beach's renaissance began. The transformation has been dramatic. Old buildings have been restored to their original grandeur, and new ones have joined them. An international crowd of beautiful jet-setters has colonized the revitalized Miami Beach and turned it once again into a playground of the fabulous, and those who wish to be.
Today, Lincoln's stewards dream of a similar reinvention for their brand. They would like nothing more than to see Lincoln reestablish the position in the luxury-car pantheon that it held during the first Miami Beach heyday. Unlike Miami Beach, however, Lincoln cannot get there with designs of the past. Yet the brand is hoping for a design-driven renaissance, with dramatic new styling that starts with this car, the 2013 Lincoln MKZ.
"We don't want to look back and dwell on the past," says Lincoln design director Max Wolff -- although he does acknowledge that the MKZ team had Ford designer Moray Callum's '61 Continental in the studio. Wolff contends that the MKZ "is pretty much a clean sheet." Importantly, the MKZ bears no likeness to the car on which it's based, the 2013 Ford Fusion, a vehicle that makes a design statement of its own. All body panels are specific to the MKZ, as is all the glass. Lincoln has been struggling with its so-called split-wing grille, and here the designers seem to have finally gotten it right. The front end is distinctive, as is the rear with its full-width taillights, which will become a Lincoln signature item. The sleek profile makes the Lincoln look longer, and it does indeed stretch an additional 2.4 inches compared with the Ford.
The two sedans share a 112.2-inch wheelbase, and that's not great news for the MKZ. As mid-size sedans go, the Fusion isn't very spacious -- you'll find a roomier back seat in a Honda Accord or a Toyota Camry, to name just two -- and the MKZ is even worse. Compared with the Fusion, the Lincoln loses 1.3 inches of rear-seat legroom and 6.4 cubic feet of passenger volume, and headroom under the sloping roofline is marginal. Our test car was kitted out with Lincoln's biggest wow feature, a full glass roof that opens and slides backward over the rear window, although it further constricts the view to the rear when it does so. Available with the top three trim packages, it's a pricey option at $2995, but it dramatically brightens the cabin.
Also dramatic is the interior architecture, but some functionality is sacrificed to its sleek design. MyLincoln Touch is present, of course, and while it looks great, its drawbacks remain -- chief among them are tiny touch points that require too much concentration to use, unreliable reactions that can have you stabbing at the screen more than once, and novel but fussy slider touch bars in place of knobs for volume and fan speed. The flat-panel buttons for the rest of the climate controls work better, as they're larger and more responsive. The other novel bit is the use of a push-button automatic transmission in place of a shift lever. This bit of future tech first appeared in 1950s Chryslers and Packards, but no matter -- it works just fine and is easy to adapt to. It also allows a cleaner center-console design and opens up more stowage space.
Credit the MKZ's interior design for being distinct from the Fusion's. The seats, too, are different, softer and more comfortable than what you find in a Ford. Given that our test car was a top-spec Preferred trim level, however, the materials -- on the dash, the door panels, the steering wheel -- could have been better. This is not yet a cabin to worry Audi, and yet that's exactly what Lincoln needs.
While Lincoln has broken away from Ford with the car's exterior and interior, there are, of course, shared mechanicals underneath. The MKZ's powertrain choices start where the Fusion's end. Lincoln skips the cheaper car's base 2.5-liter four-cylinder and the 1.6-liter EcoBoost; instead, the Ford's top-spec, 240-hp, 2.0-liter EcoBoost is the Lincoln's base engine. Exclusive to the MKZ is an optional V-6, a 3.7-liter found in other Lincolns, that proffers 300 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are paired with a six-speed automatic transmission and offer the option of all-wheel drive (for $1230).
Like the Fusion, the MKZ is once again available as a hybrid. The hybrid powertrain, which uses a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and a continuously variable transmission, mirrors that of the Fusion, but whereas the Ford rides on low-rolling-resistance rubber, the Lincoln hybrid uses the same Michelin tires as the rest of the MKZ family; for that reason, its EPA numbers are 2 mpg lower, at 45 mpg city and highway -- still enough to claim the top fuel economy of any luxury car.
Most buyers are expected to choose the 2.0-liter EcoBoost, and that was the engine in the car we drove. It's the significantly more economical option, with EPA ratings of 22 mpg city and 33 mpg on the highway (versus 19/28 mpg for the V-6). Our 2.0-liter was paired with all-wheel drive, which trims 2 mpg from the highway figure.
Granted, we didn't really need all-wheel drive in South Florida -- the sun-kissed beach weather fully lived up to Miami's reputation as a winter haven. The all-wheel-drive system did squelch any torque steer that might have raised its ugly head when we gave the MKZ some stick. Many of those whom we encountered during our time with the car in Miami were surprised to find out that a four-cylinder was under the hood, but the 2.0-liter EcoBoost does a very respectable job of motivating this sedan. Its 270 lb-ft of torque is only 7 lb-ft shy of the optional V-6, and the turbocharger's boost is seamlessly integrated. The 2.0-liter is an excellent example of Ford's EcoBoost technology, but it has one failing, which it shares with most other direct-injected four-cylinders: a gritty, unappealing engine note. In the MKZ, you hear it only in the upper reaches of the tach; otherwise the Lincoln's additional sound deadening (including active noise cancellation) effectively masks the turbo four to the point where, at idle, you can't even hear it running.
Even more so than the powertrains, the Fusion chassis -- one of the best in the mid-size segment -- is an excellent starting point for the MKZ. Overlaid atop this chassis is Lincoln's standard Drive Control system. It offers three modes -- comfort, normal, and sport -- that affect steering effort, dampers, and powertrain. Even in comfort mode, the suspension shows no sign of float, and the electric power steering is not overboosted. At the same time, sport mode isn't at all harsh, which is surprising given the ueberaggressive Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires (rubber this sporty won't be offered from the factory, by the way) wrapped around the stylish nineteen-inch wheels on our test car. There isn't enough difference in the settings to make the MKZ all things to all people, but the chassis is good enough to at least please some new people.
At its low point in the 1970s and early '80s, Miami Beach was the haunt of the elderly and, as we know from Scarface and Miami Vice, cocaine traffickers. The Lincolns of that time -- Town Cars and Continental Marks -- might have been popular with either group. Today, Lincoln is after a very different customer: younger (of course) and wealthier. They're also, in the words of Lincoln's marketing and sales chief, Matt VanDyke, "cultural progressives." That could be one way to describe the people who helped transform Miami Beach, a nexus of artists, gays and lesbians, and fashion trendsetters. Two early events that put the city on their radar were a much-publicized visit to Miami Beach by Andy Warhol in 1980 and, five years later, a Calvin Klein ad shoot at Hotel Breakwater by fashion photographer Bruce Weber.
Today, Miami Beach has been embraced by the world's tastemakers, as evidenced by the crush of people in town for the annual Art Basel art show. Is the MKZ stylish enough to resonate with a fashion-forward, culturally progressive crowd? Well, the people we encountered on Ocean Drive, along the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall, and at the beach were uniformly receptive to the car's look, but we contend that Lincoln needs to up its game still further if it's going to achieve its goals. The MKZ is only a first step. It's the first of four new Lincoln models that are on the way in the next four years -- two others are redesigns/replacements of existing products and a third is an all-new vehicle (expected to be derived from the Ford Escape crossover); there's also talk of a rear-wheel-drive model further down the road. For Lincoln, there's much work to be done. "We have a real journey to rebuild the brand," acknowledges VanDyke. As they know in Miami Beach, the road from faded to fabulous is a long one.