What Is It?
The Lincoln brand is on the cusp of fate. Ford, after divesting itself from its bold Premier Auto Group experiment and purging money-grubbing Mercury from its ranks, now has the capital available to bolster Lincoln over the next few years -- and in fact is pumping the brand with cash at a rate to make a Swiss banker blanch. Witness the Super Bowl advertising onslaught, the promise of seven new or redesigned vehicles in the next four years, and the sped-up development of the MKC -- a compact SUV that shares its chassis with the Escape, but (the Lincoln people swear by this) almost nothing above the undercarriage.
All this will take time. Cadillac didn't become a serious alternative to the Germans for 15 years; memories of the woeful Catera took a while to fade. Hyundai could never have sold the Equus in 2003 with a straight face. And so it is with Lincoln, which has launched the first product of its transformation in the guise of the MKZ.
The MKZ is not a savior, but a salvo -- an opening shot in Lincoln's rekindling of its identity. After spending decades foundering in the sea of automotive anonymity, building not much more than rebadged Fords (and this MKZ is a rebadged Fusion, remember), Lincoln is targeting a set of "cultural progressives." That is the company's polite definition of 50-something empty nesters who enjoy glossy travel magazines and "Coexist" bumper stickers; people who are "looking for new experiences and open to acquiring new brands."
Hey, they're trying to attract people 10 years younger than today's average Lincoln buyer. And with the MKZ hybrid, they're going after the Lexus ES300h.
What's It Like To Drive?
There is perhaps something refreshing about the way Lincoln plans to do business. Rather than compete with the German sports sedans recording Nürburgring lap times, Lincoln is aiming for a relaxed-luxury mindset. Leave Cadillac to be the American German-chaser, executives said. And just as well -- not any of the current Lincoln products can be reasonably deemed "sporty." Not the MKS, not the MKT, not the MKX.
And, right now, neither can the MKZ.
The MKZ hybrid example pairs a 141-hp Atkinson-cycle engine to a 88-kw lithium-ion battery, for a total system horsepower of 188. For 2013, the gasoline engine is downsized from 2.5 liters to 2.0 liters, and the lithium-ion battery replaces a heavier nickel-metal hydride unit.
Yet, driving in EV-only mode is tricky, especially when the batteries are depleted. Ford's system of complex menus are designed to monitor how much electric-only power you're using, rewarding you when you do -- but they also make you feel ashamed for dipping into the throttle too much. What's "too much throttle?" Well, in notoriously enraging Santa Monica traffic, we eased forth from a stoplight when the battery showed a 1/3 charge and the gasoline engine kicked in, noisily. And as our average mileage sank, the EV menu admonished us with flower pedals falling forlornly off imaginary vines. (The MKZ gets different Efficiency Leaves than the Fords; luxury buyers evidently prefer Lady Janes over mere vines.)
During our drive, a Lincoln engineer remarked, "the engine turned on, due to high speed." We looked down at the speedometer. We were traveling 35 miles per hour, in dense Wilshire Blvd. traffic.
Lincoln touts its Active Noise Cancelling feature, which picks up outside and engine noises from an array of microphones in the headrests and cancels them through speaker-emitted sound waves, much like your very fancy set of airplane headphones. But even this feature can't reduce a noisy, coarse engine and a CVT that drones enough under acceleration to warrant an immediate visit to one of Los Angeles' many fine and hardworking therapists.
As for the rest of the car? The steering is overboosted, perhaps in a ploy to mimic sports-sedan weight and feel. Brakes are the same system as the Fusion hybrid's, which is to say they're easily modulated in gentle situations but upon quicker stops it's like stepping on concrete. Continuously Controlled Damping, standard on all MKZs, detects suspension inputs and adjusts damping 50 times per second; it worked extremely well over lane markers and the occasional pothole, where bumps were heard but not felt.
Lastly, the MKZ hybrid is rated at 45 mpg across the board -- its powertrain upgrades from last year have enabled greater highway mileage. Our city-intensive route returned 33 mpg, while some other journalists saw 42 mpg. Ford, currently enduring a lawsuit for allegedly misrepresenting mileage figures, made sure to remind us through its Lincoln spokespeople that mileage is dependent on weather, driving styles, climate control settings, whether or not the driver was currently listening to the Bee Gees and which leg he put his pants on first that morning. Very technical stuff.
Do I Want It?
Stubbornly, Lincoln targeted nothing but the Lexus ES300 when developing the MKZ. No Buicks, no Cadillacs, maybe a wistful glance at a BMW 5-Series, but nothing else -- just a honed-in missile into the flanks of the one Lexus that remains untainted by sporty F-Sport, um, sportiness.
We liked the ES300h. Andy Stoy claimed that "the ES 300h is the best non-Porsche hybrid I've ever driven." Jake Lingeman was "pleasantly surprised." And Brad Constant said, on his first drive,:" The ES300h could very well become the next benchmark for hybrid vehicles: It's that good."
Dang. That's some lofty praise right there.
And we're gonna stick to our proverbial guns: the ES300h is a better choice in this strange, near-luxury hybrid drivetrain segment. The MKZ hybrid may look good (especially in press-photo-friendly Ruby Red) but underneath it's coarse and rough-sounding, its interior is blanketed in rubbery textures, its THX audio is muddy-sounding, its gauges and interfaces never cease to remind you of a $27,200 Fusion hybrid, and it's a dog to drive -- even if sporty handling isn't in its oeuvre. None of that seems like luxury to us. Nor, as it goes, culturally progressive.
2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $36,800
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter, 141-hp, 188 lb-ft I4; FWD, continuously variable transmission (188 total system horsepower)
Curb Weight: 3,828 lb
0-60 mph: TBA
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Hwy/Combined): 45/45/45
2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid drive review