Road Tests

Touring the Uncanny Valley in the 2017 Lincoln MKZ

Not doing it well is worse than not doing it at all

MANHATTAN BEACH, California — In aesthetics—the study of art, beauty, and taste—there’s a concept called the “uncanny valley.” It refers to a psychological phenomenon wherein humanoid replicas—robots, say—increase in appeal the more closely they resemble their meat-and-gristle overlords, right up to the point where it all falls apart and the almost-but-definitely-not-human just creeps us out.

As it turns out, this also holds true with luxury cars.

Give yourself a few minutes to appreciate the deceptively simple and unassuming cabin of a new Honda Civic, Ford Focus, or Chevrolet Bolt and you’ll find plenty of hard plastics, some oddball design, and a flourish or two that might have been considered luxurious 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But they’re all comfortably economical at heart and it’s easy for an occupant to spot the cues; there’s no danger of entering the uncanny valley.

On the other side of the valley are the replicants—humanoids so close to the real thing, they may not be differentiable at all. Entrants to this category in the luxury car world are few; the Genesis G90 comes to mind, but there are others.

Swap that entry econobox or upstart executive for a 2017 Lincoln MKZ, however, and you’re ticketed for a one-way trip to the Uncanny Valley of Luxury.

First, let’s get familiar with our would-be interloper. The base price of the car I drove, a 2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve AWD, is $41,400 plus $925 delivery for a total of $42,325. That’s before you add the $4,000 twin-turbocharged V-6, the $2,395 technology package (driver aids), the $4,400 luxury package (adaptive LED headlamps and Revel Ultima 20-speaker audio system), the $3,395 driver’s package (torque vectoring, continuous active damping, sport suspension, and a cabin scheme with carbon fiber), the $695 climate control package, the $195 summer tires, and the $195 inflatable rear seat belts. With those extras, the total sticker price on this MKZ is $57,600.

Nearly sixty large is a not-inconsequential pile of smackeroos. Heck, it’s a decent salary. But is it a decent luxury car?

Not quite.

The MKZ is, of course, a fine car. It’s perfectly nice. It’s even sort of plush in its way. But as a luxury offering—one that starts at the top of the range and stacks on all the extras—it falls well short of competitive offerings from BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, and Lexus—brands that have all lived on the far slope of the uncanny valley for years or decades.

It does have its strengths. The MKZ, like the Lincoln brand, is a bit like oatmeal with raisins: there are some sweet little bits here and there, but it’s mostly just blah. The exterior styling isn’t everyone’s ideal, but it’s a handsome car at the very least. Though it’s no magic carpet, ride quality is pretty good, especially if you opt for the 19-inch wheels and summer sport tires. The twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 is good for 400 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, and it feels like it. Paired with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic, the MKZ hustles up to freeway speeds and makes two-lane passes with ease.

It also got a mere 11.6 mpg average over several days of my four-mile surface street commute in Los Angeles’ South Bay region. That’s about 5 mpg fewer than I recorded in a 2017 GMC Yukon Denali XL, which boasts a 420-hp, 460-lb-ft 6.2-liter V-8, an eight-speed automatic, and 7,900 pounds of towing capacity. That the MKZ can’t approach the Yukon Denali’s capability, let alone its luxury, given its $69,960 base price, is to be expected. But surely the 1,400-plus-pound-lighter and much smaller-engined MKZ should have the edge on fuel economy, no? Well, the MKZ is only rated at 17 mpg city, 26 mpg highway, and 20 mpg combined by the EPA, so even the best case isn’t that good.

A punchy engine and a decent ride aren’t enough to drive the MKZ up out of the valley on their own. There needs to be something more. The dull sheen of low-grade textured plastic and the glint of cheap metallized trim do nothing to complement leather so processed it’s only technically leather, or the Pep Boys-grade gloss-finished carbon-fiber trim.

Ebony and white leather wrap a fair portion of the cabin thanks to the Driver’s Package, but the look and feel is no more special than what you’d find in an up-market mainstream car from Honda, Chevy, or Mazda, and markedly less so than some of what you’d find there. Same for the switches, handles, and trims. It’s not just that the interior materials and design aren’t as nice as they could be, it’s that they’re an obviously failed attempt at mimicking those of a real luxury sedan, and that visible, obvious shortfall is worse than an honestly cheap interior. It’s why the Ford version of this cabin, in the Fusion, is just fine, despite sharing much with the MKZ.

Materials and design are just two of the MKZ’s weaknesses. Fit and finish are two more. The dashboard, like many cars these days, attempts a sort of wrap-around layout where it ties in with the curves and lines of the doors. But where Audi, Cadillac, and Mercedes pay close attention to matching these joints so the lines flow smoothly, and BMW and Lexus design around them, the MKZ I tested hangs the joint right out there, almost a half inch out of alignment. Acceptable on an inexpensive appliance? Yes, but still annoying. On a luxury car? Not even a little.

Now, the MKZ is a “tweener” luxury car, like the Cadillac CTS was until its most recent generation. The MKZ’s price is more like that of a 3 Series- or C-Class-equivalent, while its size is more in line with a 5 Series- or E-Class-equivalent. But even given its segment-straddling nature, the MKZ comes up short on features for its price. Semi-autonomous driving assistance? Not available at any price, but you can at least get adaptive cruise with stop-and-go ability, lane-keep assist, a parking assist system, as well as blind spot alert, pedestrian detection, and pre-collision assist, as extras. And yes, that’s the end of the list of advanced technologies offered. If they sound like the technologies luxury manufacturers were bragging about the better part of a decade ago, that’s because, mostly, they are. In fact, all of these features are offered in mainstream products, including Ford’s own cars.

Ford’s SYNC 3 handles the entertainment and information functions, but, again, there’s nothing unique to Lincoln once you dig beyond the graphic scheme. It works well enough, but the only part of the experience that isn’t delivered by a Fusion is the (very good) sound quality of the Revel sound system.

It may be that this “tweener” positioning is what’s damning the MKZ: It straddles not just segments, but sectors, going beyond the top of the mainstream car field but falling short of the luxury market. This no-car’s land stymied Cadillac, too.

Even within the Lincoln brand, the MKZ isn’t faring well. The brand as a whole is up almost 6 percent year-on-year against 2016, thanks mostly to the ongoing success of the MKC and MKX, and the introduction of the new Continental. The MKZ? It’s down almost 19 percent in June, and 2.4 percent year-on-year.

“Our customers are looking for three attributes in a luxury midsize sedan—technologies that ease their everyday experience, a beautiful design that is crafted with attention to detail, and a vehicle with impressive power that makes it a pleasure to drive,” said Kumar Galhotra, president of Lincoln, upon the unveiling of the facelifted MKZ.

Unfortunately, Lincoln fell short of the mark on two-thirds of the MKZ’s mission. The problem isn’t just what it doesn’t do, but rather what it doesn’t do well enough. And in today’s competitive luxury landscape, as in the uncanny valley, not doing it well is worse than not doing it at all.

2017 Lincoln MKZ Specifications

PRICE $57,600 (as tested)
ENGINE 3.0L twin-turbocharged DOHC V6/400 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 400 lb-ft @ 2,750 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 17/26 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 193.9 x 73.4 x 58.1 in
WHEELBASE 112.2 in
WEIGHT 4,191 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 5.2 sec

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245 @ 5500