If you’ve shopped for a premium car over the past 30 years, Lincoln was probably not at the top of your list, if it was even on your list.
Ford has struggled for decades to define Lincoln’s raison d’être as it dabbled with other premium brands, buying and then selling Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo. With that as a backdrop, I accepted Lincoln’s invitation to drive the new MKZ Hybrid through the streets of L.A. with a great deal of skepticism.
The luxury car market is as competitive as it has ever been with traditional powers Mercedes Benz and BMW working hard to defend their turf from competitors that include Audi, Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, and a resurgent Cadillac. Expecting owners of these brands to suddenly give up their favorite badge and slip behind the wheel of a Lincoln will be a challenge, to say the least.
So how do they intend to achieve it?
The MKZ Hybrid’s claim to fame is an EPA rating of 45 mpg both city and highway, the highest mileage of any luxury car. At $36,800 MSRP it is the same base price as the standard, gas-engined MKZ and nearly $3,000 less than the Lexus ES300h. That’s the hook to get peoples’ attention.
But if all people wanted was great gas mileage, they’d buy a Prius. Lincoln, like Lexus before it, is trying to incorporate hybrid technology into a luxury car without compromising the things you buy a luxury car for: comfort, convenience, performance, and yes, style.
Does it work? I’ll give Lincoln a qualified yes.
Let’s start with the styling. The MKZ is one of the rare cars that actually looks better in person than in photographs. Maybe I was prejudiced by the monstrosity that is the front end of the MKX crossover, but the sloping hood and winged grille did not look as bulky and overbearing as I had expected. Overall, the car is well proportioned and balanced creating a smooth, harmonious look.
Inside, the theme continues, with a few surprises. First, reach for the shift lever and you won’t find one. Lincoln designers eschewed a more traditional mechanical shifter for a row of electronic push buttons that line the upper left of the center console to control the 6-speed automatic transmission. This creates more storage between the driver and passenger including a unique two-tiered shelf system that should prove very convenient.
The seats are all new and custom designed for the MKZ featuring high gauge leather and excellent all-around support. Any concern that the mid-size platform might feel cramped quickly subsided as the MKZ swallowed up my 6’3” frame without any problem. The 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat and adjustable steering column made it easy to find a comfortable driving position.
Finished in matte plastics with leather, wood, and chrome accents, the interior design is understated with the focal points being the digital instrument cluster and the 8 inch touch screen interface on the center console. The screens are easy to read and, for the most part, operate. The biggest challenge with Lincoln’s interface is it offers so many screen options on the three main display areas that it’s easy to get lost in a sea of information. This isn’t just a Lincoln problem. Ford has had to increase the time it’s salespeople spend with their customers by nearly an hour when they deliver a new car to explain how to use the system.
Once you find it, however, the MKZ Hybrid’s SmartGauge™ with EcoGuide display encourages you to drive economically with both short and long-term visual rewards for “good” behavior. Feather the throttle as you pull away from a stoplight, powering your acceleration entirely with the electric motor and you earn “Efficiency Leaves.” Brake early to optimize the regenerative system, you’ll earn more. Do it long enough and well enough and flowers appear.
The system may work too well. In trying to maximize my efficiency through L.A. traffic, I drove as if I were a good 30 years older than my actual age, annoying drivers behind me as the lights went from red to green.
Forget the electronic nanny and drive the MKZ Hybrid as you would a normal car and you’ll find its acceleration to be more than adequate. The gas and electric motors combine to generate 188 hp. Hardly awe inspiring, but quick enough to allow for a stress-free merge onto a busy interstate, and you’re still getting better mileage than any car in its category.
After four hours of testing the MKZ in and around L.A. one word kept rising to the top for me, composed. The cabin is exceptionally quiet thanks to active sound control and the generous application of sound insulation materials throughout the car. The continuously variable, semi-active damper system makes for a well-balanced suspension providing the feedback necessary while removing any harshness from potholes and other imperfections in the pavement. The electric power-assist steering not only feels right, it also offers the benefits of an automatic lane keeping system and active park assist for those who find parallel parking a challenge.
The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is calm, quiet, comfortable and confident, offering all the features you’d expect at this level. If your primary motive for buying a luxury car falls into one of these areas, it’s an intriguing alternative to the current stable of premium brands.
Especially if you derive joy in knowing you’re putting less money into the oil companies’ pockets.