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Lincoln MKZ is no classic, but a step in the right direction

In a dramatic debut at the 2012 New York International Auto Show, Lincoln billed the mid-sized 2013 MKZ as the standard bearer for a transformed Lincoln, the first of an array of new models to entice younger buyers.

What went unsaid was that the brand, once the choice of presidents and movie stars, had seen better days.

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Sales only continued their long slide in 2012, with just 82,000 Lincolns going out the door — about half of what Cadillac sold and about 213,000 fewer than class-leading Mercedes, according to Motor Intelligence. So the MKZ is arriving in dealerships with a more humble goal: Sell to absolutely anyone.


FOR THE RECORD:
Lincoln MKZ: In the March 9 Business section, a review of the 2013 Lincoln MKZ said that Lincoln sold 213,000 fewer vehicles than “class-leading” Mercedes in 2012. In fact, BMW sold the most luxury passenger vehicles in the U.S. last year, about 200,000 more than Lincoln. The article and an accompanying chart erred in adding commercial and cargo vans to Mercedes-Benz’s sales totals. A corrected version of the chart is posted at latimes.com/mkz. —


The effort to reinvent Lincoln comes a decade after the one at Cadillac, but with the same high stakes. The delay owes in part to the distraction of Ford’s efforts to buy its way into the luxury segment with acquisitions of Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin — all since sold off. Now Lincoln has Ford’s undivided attention, along with sole responsibility for carrying the automaker’s upscale presence.

Much of that weight falls on the shoulders of the MKZ, Lincoln’s primary play for volume sales. Lincoln will need to seduce buyers with its quiet, comfortable ride and sportier sheet metal while hoping they overlook an interior with more cheap plastic than they might expect on a car that can cost $50,000.

Buyers also would have to ignore that many aspects of the MKZ feel conspicuously like the Ford Fusion, on which it’s based. That’s more a compliment to the Fusion than a slight of the MKZ, but it may nonetheless pose a problem for Lincoln. Buyers need tangible reasons to pay more. But the upgrades of the Lincoln over the Ford seem less dramatic than those of a Lexus, for instance, over its corresponding Toyota.

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We tested the two powertrains the MKZ borrows from the Ford Fusion. The Lincoln comes standard with either a gasoline or a hybrid engine — both of which start at $36,820, unusual in that most hybrid models command a premium.

Lincoln eagerly points out that Lexus charges an additional $2,750 to go from the base ES to the hybrid model. But there are a few cost-cutting shortcuts evident in the MKZ hybrid. The most obvious is an instrument panel straight out of any of Ford’s hybrid cars that lacks the elegance of the display in the gasoline-only MKZ.

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In addition to the two engines tested, Lincoln also offers a 300 horsepower V-6 for an additional $1,230.

The MKZ hybrid pairs a 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine with an 88-kilowatt electric motor for a total of 188 horsepower. A continuously variable transmission sends power to the front wheels. (The standard MKZ offers an all-wheel-drive option; the hybrid does not.)

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The MKZ is heavier and slower than the Lexus ES 300 hybrid, but it still has enough power to meet most drivers’ demands.

Lincoln estimates the hybrid model gets fuel economy of 45 miles per gallon in both city and highway driving. Our testing showed the car getting 31 mpg in mostly city driving, according to the MKZ’s trip computer. This drivetrain is nearly identical to the one in the Ford C-Max hybrid and Ford Fusion hybrid, which Ford claims will get 47 mpg in city and highway driving. The Environmental Protection Agency is looking into the accuracy of those fuel economy claims, and Consumer Reports has said its testing showed the numbers to be “far below” Ford’s estimates.

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Even so, the hybrid model got far better fuel economy than the identically priced gasoline-only version, an all-wheel-drive model that managed just 17 mpg during our testing, compared with an EPA rating of 22 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway.

This gas engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder unit with 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, paired with a reluctant six-speed automatic transmission.

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Both Lincoln MKZ models we tested maintained the excellent poise and communication with the driver that make the lesser Ford Fusion an engaging drive. The MKZ keeps any engine noise at bay by adding a standard noise-canceling system to the interior. Unfortunately, this was offset by the noisy, high-performance tires Lincoln had fitted on our test car.

The basic layout of the MKZ’s cabin is also similar to the Fusion’s. The dashboard, refreshingly free from clutter or intruding panels, is one of the cleanest you’ll find. Lincoln simplifies things further by replacing the gearshift lever with a vertical series of buttons mounted along the left side of the navigation screen.

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Those shift buttons end up being one of the few things you can actually push inside the MKZ. Most of the controls for the car’s functions lie within the 10-inch touch screen that houses the Sync infotainment system.

The MKZ’s biggest fault may be the drab interior, with few of the wood flourishes or metal accents that distinguish most luxury cars. The occupants of a Lincoln deserve better.

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The exterior, by contrast, represents a compelling departure from recent Lincolns. The coupe-like styling, with a gradually sloping rear window and short trunk lid, is in keeping with the current trend among European luxury cars.

The trunk lid on the MKZ also sits high, relative to the car’s cabin. A thin strip of LED taillights runs the width of the car’s rear end, evoking a design seen on Lincolns from decades past, along with a much-needed dose of sophistication.

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The front of the car also pays homage to previous Lincolns, with a split grille flanked by small LED headlights. Unfortunately, the horizontal chrome strips, resembling the open mouth of a hungry whale, fail to match the panache of the rear.

Overall, the MKZ’s exterior manages only a bit more youthful appeal than the Lexus ES, itself no stranger to retirement homes. But this Lincoln falls short of the renaissance the company needs. That will take more time.

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That Lincoln would look to its past for design influences contrasts with the approach Cadillac has been taking for the past decade. Ten years ago, Cadillac found itself in a similar position to where Lincoln is now; the only things aging faster than its products were its customers. A reinvention was in order.

But General Motors’ luxury division staved off irrelevance by moving boldly forward, eschewing any hint of retro styling beyond its iconic badge. Each subsequent model has chipped away at the notion that Cadillacs belong only with Jerry Seinfeld’s parents in Del Boca Vista.

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Like Cadillac, Lincoln would be wise to focus on where it’s going rather than where it’s been. This shift might be a slow one. At the 2012 L.A. Auto Show, Lincoln had little in the way of new models to show off. So the company put up a display of restored cars from 1929 through 1961 before rolling out today’s offerings. This only reinforced the notion of faded glory.

The MKZ is a product of a company struggling to move into the future while pining for the past. The brand recently renamed itself “The Lincoln Motor Company,” which must have sounded formal and classic but ultimately will be meaningless. And the MKZ’s retro touches seem only to obscure the would-be modern design ethic, like wearing a pocket watch with an Armani suit.

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Overall, the car is certainly a step in the right direction. But at an auto show 50 years from now, the MKZ won’t be one of the vehicles Lincoln shows off from its past. Hopefully those models are right around the corner.

david.undercoffler.latimes.com


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