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2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid First Drive

Joe Loriowriter

The new Lincoln MKZ has struggled through a slow ramp-up of production but in the past two months has finally gotten on track. From the get-go, Lincoln has been offering the MKZ with three powertrains: a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four, a 3.7-liter V-6, and a gas-electric hybrid. Already, the hybrid is looking to be a much more important player for the MKZ than it was with the previous generation, and based on our first encounter with it -- as well as the hybrid's pricing and mpg ratings -- we'd say that the gas-electric's larger role is deserved.

A New Powertrain

The MKZ -- and its under-the-skin sibling, the Ford Fusion -- share a new hybrid powertrain: a 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle four replaces the previous 2.5-liter and works with an 88-kW electric motor and a lithium-ion battery pack. Total system output is 188 hp, which is fed through a CVT to the front wheels. Although non-hybrid MKZ models can be had with all-wheel drive, it's not available with the hybrid powertrain. Lincoln does not offer a plug-in hybrid version of the MKZ, as Ford does with the Fusion Energi.

While the powertrain's output in the Ford and the Lincoln is the same, there are differences in execution. The Lincoln's higher level of standard equipment and greater sound deadening make it some 200 pounds heavier; it also has a lower final-drive ratio, which makes it slightly quicker than its Ford counterpart despite the extra weight. All that clips 2 mpg from the MKZ's fuel-economy numbers compared with the Fusion, but the Lincoln's EPA ratings of 45/45 mpg (city/highway) still put the MKZ ahead of its foremost -- and only -- direct competitor, the Lexus ES300h (40/39 mpg). Those numbers also allow Lincoln to boast that the MKZ Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient luxury car.

Perhaps in response to recent criticism that the real-world mileage of Ford hybrids is far off of the EPA numbers, Lincoln pointed out several factors that can affect fuel economy. Driving at 75 mph versus 65 mph, for one, can knock off 7 mpg; an ambient temperature of 40 degrees versus 70 degrees can drag down mileage by 5 mpg; and during the break-in period, until 6000 miles or so, mileage can also be 5 mpg lower. So the message is: Your mileage may vary.

West Coast/East Coast

We drove the Fusion Hybrid on a short loop in urban L.A., whereas our first encounter with the MKZ Hybrid was a similarly brief drive in New York City. Midday traffic through downtown Manhattan and Greenwich Village meant generally low speeds and lots of stop-and-go traffic. The good news is that brake pedal modulation felt easier in the MKZ than our previous experience with the Fusion Hybrid, and the powertrain's switching between EV and gasoline propulsion is seamless. The car is quiet overall, but the Atkinson-cycle four doesn't have the best sound quality at low rpms -- you'd think that Lincoln could tune the active noise cancellation system to either alter it or drown it out. At higher rpm -- passing dawdlers on the West Side Highway -- the engine actually sounds better, and acceleration is not bad. Not bad also describes the power steering, which is electrically assisted but not overly light. The level of power-steering assist and the suspension dampers can be adjusted among comfort, normal, and sport via the MKZ's standard Drive Control, but only after you've found the correct sub-menu, which is well buried. That's probably not much of an issue for owners, however, since they're likely to select their preferred setting and then forget it.

On Displays

That instrument cluster is specific to the hybrid, of course, and as in the previous-generation car can grow vines and flowers in the right-side screen in response to fuel-efficient driving. The left-side screen provides more of a short-term report card, with bar graphs indicating how efficiently a driver is accelerating, braking, and cruising. Also, each brake application earns a score for percent efficiency. Subjectively, we prefer Ford's previous system, where a ball on a slider bar moved back and forth, giving you an indication of how far you could push the gas pedal before you'd awaken the gasoline engine. There's also the obligatory schematic showing power flow among the engine, the battery, the brakes, and the drive wheels, which displays on the center touch screen. Owners who tire of any (or all) of this can call up other information, such as the trip computer, audio info, et cetera.

The Hybrid, like other MKZ models, uses MyLincoln Touch, which means a colorful screen with great-looking graphics that takes too much attention to use, due to small touch points. The flat-panel buttons outside the touch screen cannot be operated without averting one's eyes from the road, and Lincoln's slider touch-bars for audio volume and fan speed are a gimmicky non-improvement over simple knobs. The MKZ also has touch buttons to handle gear selection -- a system last used by Ford in the Edsel (!) -- but they work fine. The whole business lends a sleek appearance to the dashboard and center stack, and the lack of a traditional gearshift opens up space for cupholders and storage space. There's also additional space beneath the console.

Interior materials are mostly good, but there were a couple of fit issues in our two test cars. The seats are soft and well shaped, but passengers relegated to the rear have less room than in most sedans of this size. The Lexus ES, which is based on the larger Toyota Avalon, has a far roomier back seat, as well as a better-trimmed interior.

A No-Cost Option

Unlike Lexus, which charges a $2880 premium for the hybrid ES version over the standard car, Lincoln has made its hybrid powertrain a no-cost option over the 2.0-liter EcoBoost four. With either engine, the MKZ's starting price is $36,800, including destination. Again turning to Lexus, that undercuts the ES300h by $3345.

Lincoln says that 30 percent of MKZ sales are hybrids (versus 22 percent previously), which isn't surprising given the lack of a price premium as well as the system's polish. Lincoln has correctly engineered its hybrid powertrain for maximum fuel economy while avoiding the pitfall of an economy-car feel. Not all aspects of the MKZ are as good as they should be, but the hybrid system really does hit the mark.

2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

  • On Sale: Now
  • Base Price: $36,800 (with destination)
  • Engine: 2.0L I-4 electric hybrid
  • Total System Power: 188 hp @ 6000 rpm
  • Engine Torque: 129 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
  • Drive: Front-wheel
  • Fuel Economy: 45/45 mpg