Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

Update: See how the Lincoln MKZ performed in our entry luxury hybrid head-to-head.

I struggle with hybrids. My biggest issue is that most hybrids sacrifice so much performance in the search for every last MPG, resulting in a miserable driving experience that often makes me want to pull my hair out. However, the earliest popular hybrids (I'm looking at you Toyota Prius) have long been replaced by a whole slew of new generation hybrids that look more like normal cars and are finally starting to drive like them too. In fact, they have been refined enough that luxury manufacturers have started to incorporate hybrids into their line-ups in various ways. In this brief series, we take a look at two of the luxury hybrids competing for the dollars of American buyers, with very different focuses despite being in the same vehicle class and price range.

Today, the subject under our microscope is Lincoln's toothsome MKZ. Sharing a platform and drive-train with the Ford Fusion hybrid, the Lincoln offers buyers who want all the advantages of a hybrid, but do not like the handsome Ford's look or feel that the Fusion lacks the luxury brand cachet the Lincoln supposedly possesses. Lincoln has gone through a great deal of effort to differentiate the MKZ from its lesser platform-mate, giving it distinct body panels and interior pieces in order to widen the gap as much as possible. But is it enough to justify the added cost that comes with purchasing the Lincoln over the Ford? Let's take a closer look.
From the outside, Lincoln's corporate grille stands boldly at the front, sweeping back over a pair of chrome trimmed headlights. The panels are stretched taut, giving the car a look of a very large lineman squeezed into a shirt about two sizes too small. The rear draws on heritage cues from Lincoln's of yore, with a thin band of lights stretched from end to end. Inky black paint filled with metal flake coats the panels and offers a great level of depth and richness that is one area that Ford is unable to match. In the bright mid-day sun, the cars color shifts gently between the inky black and a dark red reminiscent of the best Napa cabernets. On whole, the car does look unique and has a tremendous presence, but feels somehow unnatural in its skin. Driving down the road, it would definitely be hard to miss.

Pop open the door and stepping into the back seat, the vastness of size experienced from the outside translates inside as well with a large rear seat with tons of legroom. It is a comfortable place to be and the leather is of a much finer grain and higher quality, addressing one of the major shortcomings of the Ford Fusion on which this car is based. Moving to the front seat, it is hard not to immediately focus in on the center console, which flows neatly from the console down between the front seats. Interestingly, Lincoln has opted to go with a push button transmission, a la Edsel of the late 50's, so there is no shifter, freeing up the space under the center console for added storage. It makes for an interesting design point and would be easy to use for most, but I suspect that shifting the paradigm so much for buyers that generally skew to
wards an older demographic will result in more than one run away car from a driver forgetting to put it into park.

Seated in the driver's seat, close your eyes and feel around at the surfaces. Everything feels nice to the touch and seems to be of decent quality, though there is a distinct lack of real metal in the cabin, just lots of brushed metal-look plastic. Combine that with the matte plastic used for the huge swath of center console itself and the overall look is minimalist, but not necessarily in a good way. The good news is that at least this material does not attract fingerprints, though the same cannot be said for the touchscreen.

Press the start button and the dash lights up like a Christmas tree. Like the Fusion, the MKZ has a pair of brightly colored LCD screens flanking a central speedometer. The screens are logically laid out and provide access to a lot of functions, but seems to require a lot of attention to set up correctly just due to the sheer number of options. While I applaud the inclusion of the options, sometimes more is not always better. The Sync powered My Lincoln Touch (Lincoln's version of the universally disdained My Ford Touch infotainment system) touchscreen dominates the center console and lords over a number of capacitive touch buttons that control some of the cars functions. I have harped on my dislike for capacitive touch in cars in past reviews so I will simply leave you with the fact that I still dislike them and have yet to come across an implementation that has changed my mind.

Being a hybrid, there is no engine noise or vibration upon starting the car so long as the battery is charged enough. Press the "D" button that flanks the center console and the car is ready to go. Easing out of the dealer's lot, I took no mercy and dropped the hammer to get the car moving quickly. The engine fired up and began contributing its power to the wheels, getting the car up to speed in a respectable manner. No one is go
ing to be winning any drag races in this thing, but, like the Fusion that it's based on, driving a hybrid no longer has to be tantamount to torture. Another thing inherited from the Fusion is the excellent steering, which feels precise and well weighted for a family car. The ride is definitely cushier than the Fusion, but not so soft as to severely compromise the handling, which certainly channels the Lincolns of old. Nothing is outstandingly good or bad in the way it drives and it is predictably bland, which for Lincoln's target audience is likely not a bad thing.

After taking it around for a while, I returned with the car to the dealers lot, still scratching my head as to why anyone would pay the extra money to acquire this over a top of line Ford Fusion. There might be a few feature elements that the Lincoln badge buys you, but odds are that most features in the top of the line Fusion will match what the Lincoln offers. One thing the Lincoln does offer is much nicer leather, which might be important to some buyers. Also, the exterior appearance is certainly distinct on the MKZ and does offer a sense of presence that is not there with the Fusion's more handsome mug, albeit more pedestrian body. As a brand, Lincoln certainly does not have the cachet to pull off charging the kind of premium that Lexus does over Toyota, but that does not mean they will not try. I personally do not see the value over a Fusion, but shockingly, I feel that the Lincoln is a much better value than the other car in our series, the Lexus ES300h.

Stay tuned for our next article where we take an in-depth look at the Lexus.

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