Lincoln. When you hear the name, what car do you see in your mind? I immediately go to the Elwood Engle-designed Lincoln Continental from the 1960s. The fourth-generation Continental hardtop and convertibles defined the times in America, from the halcyon glamour days of the Kennedy administration to the limousine in which JFK was assassinated. The car’s “suicide” doors – rear doors hinged from the rear – were a defining characteristic.
From 2004 – 2011, the HBO series Entourage used a black 1965 Lincoln Continental Convertible in its opening credits. The image of the four young stars riding through Hollywood in their top-down ’65 Lincoln ending with an overhead shot of them all exiting and slamming the doors in unison solidified the car’s cultural cool image for the 21st Century.
Another Lincoln that comes to mind is the classic Continental Mark series. Elizabeth Taylor owned a 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II – considered one of the most beautiful, expensive luxury cars ever made. In 1956, the car cost around $10,400 – close to $90,000 today. There was the 1970 Lincoln Continental Mark III used to smuggle drugs in its rocker panels in the classic Gene Hackman cop drama, The French Connection.
And of course, over the past three decades (1981-2011), the Lincoln Town Car became synonymous with black car livery service.
Lincoln. What defining styling feature comes to mind? For me, aside from the aforementioned suicide doors of the 1961 – 1969 Continental, I think the bold vertical Rolls-Royce style grille, flanked by hidden headlights, stands out. First displayed on the 1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III – a true personal luxury flagship coupe – the feature defined Lincoln through the 1985 model year with the Continental Mark VI.
Today, the four-door Continental nameplate has been dead for a dozen years. There hasn’t been a Continental Mark coupe since the Mark VIII in 1998. The truth is that Ford’s Lincoln division has been on life support for at least 20 years, selling mostly warmed-over Ford SUVs and rebadged sedans. It’s hard for consumers to believe Lincoln is a luxury car company if the parent doesn’t.
In a bold and risky effort to save Ford from bankruptcy, as part of his One Ford strategy, CEO Alan Mulally sold off its luxury brands – Jaguar/Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin, liquidated its controlling interest in Mazda and shuttered Mercury. He borrowed more than $40 billion just before the 2008 financial market meltdown that caused the Great Recession. This was great timing as Ford would never have received a gigantic line of credit after Lehmann Bros went belly up and some of the world’s biggest banks nearly collapsed.
Mulally’s big bet paid off and Ford dodged the waves of recession bankruptcies that consumed GM and Chrysler in 2009. To the surprise of many, including me, Ford decided to save Lincoln. They couldn’t give up on the luxury (or near luxury) market and the corresponding higher margins that are built into premium products. In other words, Lincoln was worth saving.
First up, Ford hired a hot-shot young designer, Max Wolff, to create a modern Lincoln styling language. Mr. Wolff reached way back to a pre-war 1941 Lincoln Continental design for inspiration for the split-wing grille we see today. It’s supposed to evoke an eagle – but more metaphorically I’d say it looks like the wings of a Phoenix rising from the ashes. And if we’re getting into metaphysics, I’d posit that the ashes represent the burned pile of crap that was Lincoln before this new generation MKZ.
Next Ford took the symbolic step of renaming its Lincoln division to The Lincoln Motor Company. Cue the appropriate and warranted sneers and rolling of eyes. This was a waste of time and money, but the marketing department thought it was important. So be it.
Today, the new face of Lincoln, and its de facto flagship, is the MKZ sedan. Designed by Solomon Song and introduced in early 2013, the MKZ is the first all-new Lincoln under the new masthead. While the larger Taurus-based MKS is slotted above the MKZ in pricing, it’s all but ignored by Lincoln’s marketing department and consumers.
In Lincoln’s bewildering naming scheme, MK = Mark. The Z is for Zephyr – a 75 year old nameplate from Lincoln’s (nearly) forgotten past.
Together with the upcoming 2015 MKC, a compact crossover based on widely-popular Ford Edge, the MKZ will either revive Lincoln in the near-luxury market or consign it to the automotive graveyard. Lincoln can’t lose money forever.
Fundamentally, the MKZ is a nicely-dressed Ford Fusion. It runs on the same platform, uses mostly the same powertrains and shares most of the stuff you don’t see or feel.
But the MKZ isn’t just a badge-engineered car. It has a very distinctive look, front and rear, and the interior appointments are a definite cut above the Fusion. I test drove the 2014 MKZ Hybrid, which starts at the same $37,085 as the entry-level front drive MKZ with 2.0L Ecoboost engine.
The hybrid drivetrain is shared with the Fusion. A 141-hp Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and 118-hp electric motor combination are mated to a planetary CVT (continuously variable transmission) and 1.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. It has a pushbutton transmission selector, unique to Lincoln, located on left side of the center console. The buttons worked well, but quickly rocking the car from reverse to drive (like maneuvering into a tight space) might be frustrating.
I drove a fully-loaded model with the $5,375 Preferred Equipment Group and the $2,250 Technology package. All in, the car was $46,380 – and it could have gone higher if I wanted the $2,995 retractable panoramic sunroof – a gigantic (and heavy) sliding glass panel that is now a “signature” Lincoln feature.
The car was quiet, the steering was nicely weighted, without a hit or road feel. The regenerative brakes were a bit grabby, which seems to be fairly normal on hybrids these days. I found the car comfortable, but wished for a little more thigh support. Perhaps the $595 multi-contour front thrones with the “Active Motion (11-Bladder)” massage feature would be a better investment than the ambitiously-priced $1,200 single-pane moonroof on my tester.
I loved the sound of the THX audio system, but I still have reservations about the MyLincoln Touch infotainment interface. The voice control was hit and miss. I found the on-screen icons a bit confusing and I’m still not a fan of the touch and slide controls on the center console for adjusting volume, tuning, temperature and fan. That said, they worked far better than those on the CUE system in the Cadillac ATS I drove last year. I think most drivers end up just using the physical buttons on the multifunction steering wheel.
The 2015 MKC will address some of these complaints with a return of physical knobs. Hallelujah!
The biggest drawback I found was the compromised trunk space in the Hybrid. Trunk capacity drops from 15.4 to 11.1 cubic feet – not an insignificant 4.3 cubic feet.
The tech package stuff seemed to work perfectly. I tried the adaptive cruise control and lane keep assistants and they worked as advertised. Front and rear parking sensors were useful and the active park assist was uncannily accurate – although I didn’t try it in heavy traffic with a tight parking space.
The EPA rates the MKZ Hybrid at 45 mpg (city/highway/combined). But actual users at FuelEconomy.gov give it a range of between 33 to 40 mpg, with an average of 36 mpg. So don’t plan on 45 mpg in real-world driving. Bummer.
I enjoyed my time in the MKZ, but it was a completely forgettable experience. I struggled to remember anything exciting about it just 24 hours later. I really liked the self-parking feature, but how often would I use it? And that feature’s not unique to Lincoln.
So would I spend the extra $7,000 for the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid over the comparably-equipped Ford Fusion Hybrid? Probably not, although the Lincoln warranty (4/50,000) and dealership sales/service experience would be much nicer than rolling with the great unwashed masses at the local Ford dealer. The all-new 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid is an attractive new “green” car with tons of advanced tech features. The Toyota Avalon Hybrid is about as close you can get to a Lexus without the name and its cargo capacity is 14 cubic feet – only a 2 cubic foot loss to the hybrid’s battery. Between $35,000 and $50,000, there are many worthy (and more memorable) competitors.
I think for me to be interested in Lincoln again, it will have be a rear drive luxury flagship – maybe a new millennium Continental Mark car. Ford has a newly-reworked rear drive platform underpinning the 2015 Mustang that debuts on April 17, 2014. I’m begging Ford to give Lincoln a product on this platform. Anything else, count me out.