It takes more than good genes to survive almost 100 years in the U.S. auto business. It requires grit, stamina, courage and, in the case of Lincoln, a tremendous amount of chutzpah to "introduce" a company that's been around longer than the light switch. Like 111-year-old geriatric Cadillac and the even more elderly 114-year-old Buick, Lincoln is part of an automotive old folks club that refuses to go gently into the night.
With its 2013 MKZ, Ford's luxury division kicks off a four-model reinvention strategy designed to appeal to buyers who are younger than the brand's 65-year-old median age but still AARP-eligible. Unusual as it seems to reboot a legacy brand with a redo instead of an entirely new model, the MKZ makes a certain amount of sense. In the seven years it's been on the market, the midsize sedan has become Lincoln's best-seller. It is also part of the fast-growing, entry-level luxury segment.
What luxury means, of course, is relative. In the case of the MKZ, it means a car that forgoes dramatic exterior design for creature comforts and safety features in a vehicle priced ever-so-slightly out of reach of mere plebes. The version I tested cost $49,585.
The first vehicle to emerge from Lincoln's dedicated design studio in Detroit, the 2013 MKZ sports a slightly more aerodynamic and edgy style than the outgoing model with a large panoramic roof, LED brake lights that extend across the entire rear end and a split-wing grille vaguely reminiscent of a Beemer. Still, its most significant innovations are technological.
The base model MKZ is powered with a 2.0-liter inline-four cylinder engine. I was driving the 3.7-liter V-6, which was responsive off the line and felt completely comfortable cruising the carpool lane at speed. It did, however, yield an abysmal 21.7 mpg. A hybrid model more than doubles the car's fuel economy to an EPA-estimated 45 mpg and is priced the same as the gas model, which starts at $36,800.
In an effort to streamline its controls and simplify its interior, Lincoln has moved the MKZ's gear selector next to the eight-inch touch screen which accesses the car's three drive modes, as well as the entertainment, navigation, climate and phone systems. The car's push-button start tops a vertical stack of buttons for park, reverse, neutral, drive and sport, the result of which is more space at the driver's right elbow for various cubbies.
A standard feature on all three trims of the MKZ is Lincoln Drive Control, which automatically adjusts the suspension, steering, engine, transmission, traction and stability control settings based on driver inputs. Lincoln says the suspension settings alone are updated 50 times a second, including on the all-wheel drive version I inadvertently tested on the dirt and sand access roads leading into an off-highway vehicle recreation area on a recent weekend. Even at speeds exceeding 60 mph, the MKZ held its ground without skidding into the scrub.
One of Lincoln's goals is to distinguish the brand through personalization. To that end, Lincoln is comping buyers with three years of live operator assistance accessible through Sync Live. With the press of a button, drivers are connected to a real human being who can send custom navigation to the car and provide them with addresses, similar to GM's OnStar. That same information is also accessible through the car's built-in nav, but it can't be operated while driving.
As a whole, the MKZ is so safety-conscious it's borderline hypochondriac. In addition to a lane departure warning system integrated into the side mirrors, there's long-range radar that senses what's in front of the car and auto-adjusts the speed to avoid a fender bender, as well as a camera integrated into the rearview mirror that reads the road's lane markers and alerts drivers to hazards with blindingly bright lights and dramatic beeps.
Considering all the money spent "introducing the Lincoln Motor Company" with its "new" MKZ, the car doesn't feel like a dramatically different direction for the company. The five-door five-seater is comfortable. It's spacious with a good amount of head- and legroom, front and back. It's nicely finished with understated black leather seats and color-matched soft plastic touch points on the interior door panels and dash. It's easy to drive. But ultimately the MKZ lacks distinction other than the fact that Lincoln, 96 years into its existence, has become something of a novelty.