2020 Lincoln Corsair First Drive Review: A Winner from Lincoln

But will people pay Mercedes money for an American luxury SUV?

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, California—We do our best to avoid clichés, so we really shouldn't say that the new 2020 Lincoln Corsair is coming out swinging—but we can't find a better way to characterize Lincoln's new compact SUV. Competitors like the Audi Q3 and Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLC, and Caddy XT4 had better keep their guard up, because Lincoln is about to deliver one mother of an uppercut.

The Corsair, like the MKC it replaces, is based on the Ford Escape, and we say that only because it's not terribly obvious. They're about the same size and shape, but in all other ways they are as different as can be. Styling-wise the Corsair fits nicely into the Lincoln lineup as an obvious little brother to the Nautilus, Aviator, and Navigator. It's a bit long in the schnozzle but otherwise quite dashing, and more important bears little resemblance to the bland Ford. Inside the two are equally well differentiated, the Corsair getting a floating climate control panel that looks nothing like the Escape's more conventional dashboard.

We rather like the Corsair's cabin, where Lincoln clearly spent lavishly on materials. Even the inside door-handle openings are padded, so your fingers ooze into the fabric when you go to close the door. Lincoln is very proud of its new Vision steering wheel, which has labels that light up based on context. For example, the cruise controls only light up when you turn on cruise control, and the labels for the thumbpads change based on what function is selected. It's a very cool idea, and we expected we could press the lit-up labels to activate their functions capacitively. Nope—the Corsair uses clunky buttons on the back side of illuminated panels. It's a nice idea, but the execution could be a bit more modern. And while we're complaining, the climate controls look like a Ford design from the early 2000s, the chrome bits are too shiny, and the corporate Ford graphics on the center display don't match Lincoln's smoky brown-and-black digital dash.

But these really are minor glitches, and we were far more impressed by the feeling of space that the Corsair provides. From either of the front seats, the Corsair feels as spacious as an Infiniti QX50 or an Audi Q5. It's only when we moved to the back seat and opened the tailgate that we remembered this was a compact SUV.

We started our drive in downtown San Francisco, where the Corsair's pillow-soft ride reminded us of Town Cars of yore. Lincoln promised us supreme serenity with an engine that, in their words, would be "felt but not heard." We certainly felt it; we spent most of our time with the optional 2.3-liter turbo four, which delivers 295 horsepower, 310 lb-ft of torque—increases of 25 horses and 5 ft-lb over the MKC—and impressive acceleration. But we heard it as well. The Corsair does a great job of filtering out wind and road noise, but its makers haven't managed to mask that four-cylinder buzz.

The Corsair's standard engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 250 horsepower and 280 lb-ft, each five more than the base engine in the MKC. We took a brief drive in a 2.0-liter Corsair and were impressed by how well it did its job. The MKC was pokey with the 2.0 and thirsty with the 2.3, but the Corsair is neither. Fuel-economy estimates are around 24 mpg combined with all engines, and the 2.0 is supposed to be able to hit 29 on the highway with both front- and all-wheel-drive. (The 2.3 is AWD-only.) Based on our limited observations, we think the 2.0 will make these numbers and the 2.3 won't be far behind. The Lincoln folks told us the Corsair is 100 pounds lighter than the MKC, but modest power improvements and whacking material off the body-in-white aren't enough to explain the improvement we felt. Perhaps Lincoln is employing magicians?

Speaking of magic, let's talk about the suspension. Given the Corsair's marshmallowy ride, we expected marshmallowy handling—and boy, were we wrong. Our drive route included some very challenging roads, and the Corsair attacked them with unbridled enthusiasm. Switching the adjustable suspension to the sportiest mode (Lincoln calls it "Excite") really buttons down the chassis, and the Corsair exhibits admirable response, poise, and grip. It was a reminder that underneath all the wood and chrome is the European-developed chassis of the Kuga, which is the Escape in America. (We couldn't help but wonder if we weren't getting a sneak preview of an Escape ST. Ford has not confirmed the existence of such a creation, but 310 horsepower and adjustable dampers sound about right, and there's already an Edge ST and an Explorer ST. So we're just sayin'.)

The Corsair also offers some rather nifty tech goodies, including the expected auto-braking and lane-keeping-assistance systems. Lincoln has been doing semi-self-parking for some number of years now, but the Corsair has the latest version, called Park Assist Plus, which handles the accelerator and brake as well as the steering. Set the system in motion, let it find a spot, then stop and shift to Park to prep the car. After that, simply press and hold a button on the center of the dash and the Corsair puts itself into the spot. The button serves as a sort of dead-man's switch; if you release it, the car jolts to a stop.

The head-up display is fantastic. Most HUDs are little more than auxiliary dashboards, but the Corsair's is an honest-to-goodness replacement for the instrument panel, with a nice wide view that includes speed, turn signals, directions, and even the current speed limit.

Also new and nifty is the adaptive cruise system, which can recognize speed limit signs and set its speed accordingly. This is nothing new—Audi and Mercedes offer adaptive cruise with speed-limit recognition, and we find it rather annoying, because we're just not that into driving the limit. But Lincoln has made a key improvement: You can specify how much over the speed limit you want to drive. Set it for 7 mph over, and when you pass a 65-mph sign, the Corsair sets the cruise for 72. When the limit drops to 60, the Corsair goes to 67. Very cool!

But all this tech comes at a price—a rather steep one. Corsairs start at $36,940, and the well-equipped 2.3-liter Reserve trim we drove listed for $60,110. Not only is that well into Mercedes and BMW territory, but it's more than you can spend on a top-of-the-line Audi Q5 and nearly as much as a fully equipped Infiniti QX50. Lincoln does offer a lot of extras, including pickup and delivery for routine maintenance as well as a host of concierge-type services, but still, that's a big price tag for a domestic product. We asked Lincoln's marketing and pricing folks, and they made it clear that they don't want to be seen as an entry-level luxury brand, but rather a fully qualified competitor for the best the world has to offer.

If that's their goal, well, they're certainly on the right track. Viewed as a whole, the Corsair is an impressive package—an SUV that looks and feels properly upscale, rides very comfortably and quietly, and delivers better handling than we expect from a luxury SUV with a license to coddle. And it fits right in with Lincoln's other SUVs, all of which offer similar styling and tech. For the first time in recent memory, Lincoln appears to have all of its products pointed in the same direction.

The only outstanding question is whether buyers are willing to part with Mercedes money for a domestic-brand SUV. If they are, then we need to find a cliché-free way to say that the Corsair is a winner, winner, chicken dinner.

2020 Lincoln Corsair
ON SALE Fall 2019
PRICE $36,940/$60,110 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4, 250 hp, 280 lb-ft; 2.3L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4, 295 hp, 310 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 24 mpg (combined, est)
L x W x H 180.6 x 76.2 x 64.1 in
WHEELBASE 106.7 in
WEIGHT 3,848 lb
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