If you told me Lincoln was going to build a car that would nip at Lexus' heels, I'd tell you that I'll believe it when I see it. If you told me that car would be the MKZ, I don't know if I'd believe it even if I did see it.
Well, now I've seen it. And I'm starting to believe it.
Meet the new and improved 2010 Lincoln MKZ, which features a new look outside and in and a host of refinements from stem to stern. Can a Lincoln really be as good as a Lexus? Read on and decide for yourself. Price range $34,965 - $43,440, EPA fuel economy estimates 17-18 MPG city, 24-27 MPG highway.
First Glance: Of lounge chairs and punching bags
Before we talk about the Lincoln MKZ, let's talk about the Lexus ES350. I happen to think the ES350 is one of the best luxury cars on the market: Soft, cushy, coddling, and reasonably priced, the automotive equivalent of a lounge chair on the beach and a cool tropical drink in your hand. What's wrong with that? Not a damn thing, that's what. And yet most luxury automakers seem to want to be BMW. Not that there's anything wrong with BMWs. (Geez, I can't even type that with a straight face.) I appreciate sporty luxury cars -- the Infiniti G37 is one of my favorites -- but when I go on vacation, I go to a place where I can relax. Not to a place where some guy punches me in the butt every time I walk over a bump. Am I right? I mean, which would you rather have for your drive to work -- the lounge chair or the butt-punching guy?
Lincoln is betting on the lounge chair. Their benchmark for the updated MKZ was the Lexus ES350, with the key targets being comfort, quietness, and interior design. But they had other work to do. The old MKZ looked like a car developed on a budget. Lincoln has updated the MKZ with all-new front sheetmetal, including a handsome split grille. Out back, the old MKZ's ugly taillights have been swapped for new ugly taillights, which look like a giant red unibrow. Still, the MKZ looks more like its own car and less like a tarted-up Ford Fusion (the car on which it's based). There were aspects that didn't need to change, like the roomy back seat and the spacious trunk, and Lincoln has wisely left those alone.
In the Driver's Seat: Much, much better
Inside the MKZ is where things really start to get good. Gone are the old MKZ's tiny 1970s-style gauges; in their place is a proper three-pod instrument cluster that looks like something straight out of a sports car. A Japanese sports car. The rest of the cabin is more-betterer, too. The first car I drove had a two-tone black-and-tan interior bisected by a lovely strip of blond wood that looked like it came from an actual tree, as opposed to an injection mold and a printing press. It's a really nice cabin -- not quite Lexus ES350 or Mercedes E-Class territory, but very, very close.
The second car I drove had a black interior with aluminum trim. All-black interiors aren't my cup of tea; many of them try to look sporty but come across as cheap. But I thought the MKZ looked better than the Mercedes C-Class or the last all-black Lexus I drove (an RX400h SUV). For those who want something in the middle, Lincoln offers a bluish-gray interior that is hard to describe and even harder to photograph.
Cars with navigation (a top-notch voice-activated system, by the way) get a big 8" touch screen that does a beautiful job of displaying map, stereo and climate information without looking cluttered. (Non-nav cars still get the screen, but there's no touching.)The only real disappointments were the climate and stereo controls, which come straight from the Ford parts bin and have tiny buttons designed for people with magnifying glasses built into their fingertips. Surely Lincoln could have made better use of all that empty real estate on the center stack.
On the Road: Shhhhhhhh
I didn't have a problem with the way the old MKZ drove. It was a competent handler (that Fusion platform is a real cracker), just not a whole lot of fun. For 2010, Lincoln has split the MKZ's personality with sport and non-sport versions, both available with front- or all-wheel-drive. The non-sport is Lexus-smooth, yet still feels good in the curves. The sport version, which has firmer suspension settings and lower-profile tires, feels noticeably tighter. It has a firm ride that sticks close to the road, yet doesn't pummel your backside over sharp bumps. The sport version's steering is noticeably more responsive, though the feedback through the wheel feels a bit artificial. It's no Infiniti G37, but both sport and non-sport versions are much more involving to drive than the Lexus ES350. Personally, I prefer the non-sport model. It's the lounge chair vs. butt-punching thing again, even if the MKZ's guy only delivers love taps.
What impressed me most, though, were the sound and the silence. Not only did Lincoln go on a witch-hunt for road and wind noise, but they re-tuned the sound of the V6 engine so that when you floor the pedal, you get a racy soundtrack to go with the racy acceleration (as opposed to the coarse mechanical roar of the old MKZ). It sounds -- and I hate to keep using this word, but if the shoe fits -- Japanese. Best yet, when you ease off the throttle, the engine shuts up. It's not quite Lexus-quiet at idle -- once when testing an ES350, I almost locked it up and walked away while the engine was still running -- but, once again, it's pretty damn close.
Journey's End: Hard to believe
I'll be honest: I'm having a little trouble wrapping my head around the fact that the Lincoln MKZ is within a hair's breadth of being as good as the Lexus ES350. It's one of those things the human mind just wasn't built to handle, like the concept of infinity and the fact that without makeup, Paris Hilton really is kind of hot. It can't be true. And yet... it is.
Pricing for the 2010 MKZ starts at $34,965. That's $180 less than the ES350, and you get more stuff, including heated and cooled leather seats and the fantastic SYNC system (which allows voice control of your Bluetooth phone and iPod or Zune). The MKZ is available with a bevy of nifty options, including rain-sensing wipers, headlights that turn with the steering wheel, a rear view camera and a blind spot warning system with Cross Traffic Alert (helpful for backing out of parking spots). Go for all the gizmos, including all-wheel-drive, and the sticker rises to a mere $43,440. Which means...Oh, my. It means the MKZ is almost as good a deal as my favorite luxury bargain, the $42,000 Hyundai Genesis.
Stop. My brain hurts.
"But wait," you say. "American cars are built like crap. I want a Lexus, because it won't give me any trouble." Ready for this? According to Consumer Reports, which uses real-world data for their ratings, the current MKZ is every bit as reliable as the Lexus ES350.
I think I need to sit down. Anyone have a lounge chair I could borrow... and maybe a drink? -- Aaron Gold