The MKZ reveals some hard truths about the brand and its cars today, but gives some encouragement about the cars to come. Cadillac radically reshaped its brand image over the past decade, but Lincoln's progress has been more halting. The mid-size MKZ has been one of the bright spots--it's brought in younger owners who want vehicles with better fuel economy and connectivity--but the fact is, it's done so mostly by completely dodging Lincoln's own past, save for a bauble and a badge or two.
And it's even more distant from the past, and from the rest of the lineup, in 2013 trim. The massive wings and Weber-grade grilles of the recent past have been put out for tag sale. This MKZ has a subtler take on luxury, more along the lines of Lexus and Volvo. Those Volvo influences are especially noticeable at the rear, and inside, with the floating effect penned into the center console. The bits of Lincoln heritage? They're reduced to the handsomely scaled-down grille and to the badgework. It's as globally clean and subdued as mid-size luxury sedans come. To its credit, the MKZ has substantial visual heft, and some pretty, elegantly spare angles without fender-vent nonsense or other gimmicky cues.
The barest amount of excess is left for the inside, where the lack of a shift lever is the eye-popping detail. It dukes it out with the dominant LCD touchscreen, both playing the modern card for maximum impact. We're not sure there's a single identifiably "Lincoln" element in either of them, or for that matter, anywhere to be found.
For those who want a sporty, enthusiastic performer, there's never been a better Lincoln than this MKZ. It carves out better performance and gas mileage from a new trio of powertrains. The base 2.0-liter turbo four is rated at up to 33 mpg highway; it's a strong straight-line performer, with or without all-wheel drive, but it can seem a little coarse for this luxury application. An uprated, 300-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 returns, and it may be worth the cost of the upgrade for smoother performance alone. With either, the MKZ is truly quick, and the paddle-shifted automatic--actuated by pushbuttons on the dash--snaps off gearchanges well enough, though the Fusion's manual transmission would be a fun option, in another world, one with a console made for shift levers.
The MKZ Hybrid returns as the luxury vehicle with the best gas mileage, Lincoln says. We've spent thousands of miles in the similar Ford Fusion Hybrid, and couldn't replicate the EPA numbers over long distances--but had no issue besting 41 mpg.
With its Fusion-like ride firmness and meaty-feeling electric steering, the MKZ is sharp and more aggressive at tackling turns than even the last-generation version. It comes standard with Lincoln Drive Control, which lets drivers adjust settings for shocks, steering, stability and traction control, and active-noise cancellation. Lincoln says the result is better ride and handling with the adaptive settings, but the trade-off versus the Fusion's conventional shocks seems a zero-sum gain to us. In anything but Sport, the MKZ feels less composed and comfortable than it ought to. Softer tires and more progressive, expensive shocks might have been an easier solution, but maybe not as mechanically distinctive from the Ford iteration.
On the safety front, the MKZ pulls together nearly every piece of technology that's been added to other Ford and Lincoln products over the past few years--everything from a rearview camera to navigation systems governed by MyLincoln Touch, to inflatable rear seatbelts, to newly added features like lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control. The MKZ also integrates parking assist, which takes control of the steering and guides the sedan into a tight parallel parking spot, with the driver keeping control of braking.
MyLincoln Touch's voice controls take the reins over secondary controls, with buttons on the steering wheel offering redundant ways into the complex system. Ford's spent some time refining the system and reducing the amount of information on each display screen; it's still a system with a steep learning curve and sub-optimal results, but nothing else would enable that starkly imaginative console design.
In other respects the MKZ's luxury touches are fairly conventional. There's plenty of real wood trim and leather is standard. The finishing touch is a stunning one, though: a 15-square-foot available panoramic roof that slides back as one piece, exposing the new MKZ's cabin to the sun.
We predict two questions coming to every new Lincoln MKZ driver. The first one's easy to answer: "Is that the new MKZ?" The second one's much more difficult to come to grips with: "What makes it a Lincoln?" Strip away the grilles and badges, and we're not exactly sure. In the greater scheme, it's Lincoln's Olds Aurora--a car that's satisfying more for what's not true to its heritage, than for what is. And in this case, it's tough to forget that there's hardware just as good, just as interesting, almost as opulent, just a rung down its own corporate ladder.