20
Jul
07

Lincoln returns to luxury with MKZ

Lincoln is relevant again.

That may sound like faint praise, but it’s a huge accomplishment, and it’s thanks to the arrival of the MKZ midsize sedan and the MKX SUV.

In 1998, Lincoln was the best-selling luxury brand in the United States, cresting a wave of excitement that began with the debut of the Navigator SUV.

Lincoln was the hot brand, easily outselling BMW, Mercedes and Lexus.

Then the bottom fell out. Lincoln misfired with the 1999 introduction of its LS sport sedan, a good car that never found an audience. The brand then bailed on the car market, not introducing a meaningful new car until the 2007 MKZ.

Last year, BMW sold more than twice as many cars and trucks in the United States as Lincoln. Lexus outsold it nearly 3 to 1.

Lincoln’s descent was as graceless as a drunk falling down a flight of stairs, with tumbles including the ill-advised Aviator midsize SUV and a nonsensical debate over whether to kill the brand’s best-selling model, the Town Car.

Lincoln just regained its balance, thanks in no small part to the MKZ, an attractive and modern midsize sedan that can easily compete with cars such as the Acura TL, Lexus ES 350 and Volkswagen Passat.

Alongside the equally appealing MKX, the MKZ makes Lincoln a legitimate player in the luxury market, with a couple of good-looking models that offer excellent value, stylish interiors and appealing features.

The MKZ initially went on sale as the Zephyr, but Lincoln changed its name when the brand added an excellent new 263-horsepower V6 and a slick all-wheel-drive system for the 2007 model year.

Prices for the 2007 MKZ start at $29,305 for a front-wheel-drive model. All-wheel-drive MKZs start at $31,105 and account for about 35% of MKZ sales. I tested a very well equipped MKZ AWD with an attractive $34,730 sticker price. All prices exclude destination charges.

Ford hasn’t announced prices for the 2008 MKZ that goes on sale soon, but you can expect a small increase to cover new standard features such as parking assist, Sirius satellite radio and heated and cooled seats.

The cooled seats were an option on the ’07 MKZ that I tested. I found them to be very effective, taking the sizzle out of sun-baked leather and keeping me fresh on long drives. Other changes for ’08 include voice control for the MKZ’s optional navigation system.

Those additions will make the MKZ even more appealing, but it’s already a winner among comfort-oriented midsize luxury sedans.

The standard 3.5-liter V6 delivers plenty of power for assured acceleration and effortless fast runs on the highway, while the six-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly.

Fuel economy falls about 1 m.p.g. with the addition of the 200-pound all-wheel-drive system. However, the MKZ’s ability to run on regular gas should more than offset the cost of additional fuel for most drivers. Most of the MKZ’s competitors either recommend or require more expensive premium fuel.

I didn’t test a front-drive MKZ, but I was impressed with the AWD model’s road-holding, flat cornering and freedom from the torque steer common to front-drive competitors such as the Acura TL, Lexus ES350 and Nissan Maxima. The steering was responsive, with good on-center feel.

Stopping power from the MKZ’s disc brakes is excellent, as I discovered courtesy of an unexpectedly brief amber light on M-59. There’s not much brake feel, however. The firm pedal provided little feedback or progressivity.

I found the MKZ to be very quiet and comfortable. The suspension absorbs bumps smoothly, and there is very little wind or road noise at high speeds.

The MKZ has an attractive and accommodating interior, trimmed in blond wood and perforated leather. The adjustable power front seats are comfortable and supportive. There’s plenty of passenger room and the MKZ’s 15.8-cubic-foot trunk is one of the biggest in its class.

The optional THX II stereo is excellent, and the optional navigation system proved very easy to program and use.

The big and recognizable Lincoln grille makes the MKZ immediately identifiable from the front, but the car could use a more distinctive profile to differentiate it from the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, which share the Lincoln’s basic structure and major systems.

While the luxury sedan should have a unique and classy exterior design to match its interior, the MKZ’s mechanical excellence and appealing features are more than enough to make it the first Lincoln in years that belongs on the shopping list for anybody looking for a contemporary and comfortable midsize luxury car.

Contact MARK PHELAN at 313-222-6731 or phelan@freepress.com.

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