Last year’s Zephyr was the automotive embodiment of all that’s wrong with Ford and Lincoln. The barely badge engineered Ford Fusion hammered yet another cheaply gilded nail into the once mighty Lincoln brand’s coffin. So now Ford has given the Zephyr a new name, engine and front end; an MP3 audio jack and [available] all wheel-drive. Is it enough to lift the Lincoln into some semblance of dignity, or does Lincoln still need to reach higher?
Prince may have changed his image since you began the last paragraph, but not much has happened to the artist formerly known as Zephyr. Despite the MKZ’ redesigned waterfall grill, the demitasse Lincoln is still rental-car vanilla searching for some Turtle Soup for the Soul. Sadly, the MKZ’ new front/rear lower valences and iced-out fog lights do little to dress up a relatively hum-drum package. From the plastic C-pillar trimmings– designed to visually lengthen the window outline (or daylight opening in designerese) to more Lincoln-friendly standards without actually doing so)– to its frumpy posterior, the MKZ is still such a Ford Fusion it Hertz.
The MKZ’ interior comes in three basic flavors: slathered in a bland tan so lifeless it cries out for Jackson Pollock’s alcohol-fuelled spastic outbursts, specced-up in Germanic-style charcoal or doused in French gray. All three designs possess a dour demeanor that's deeply disturbed by all the shiny happy plastic satin nickel silver buttons, switchgear and accents. MKZ owners can also spice up their wall o’ dash with maple or ebony inserts, carefully “figured” not to look like fake wood. South Florida condo taste or no, the MKZ’ cabin provides a welcome change from the cookie-cutter cockpits of its foreign and wannabe-foreign competition.
The MKZ’ 10-way (yes way) front seats are as supportive as a drill sergeant, but at least they’re plenty comfortable. Peep the minimalist gauges, soak up the THX stereo’s solid audio attributes, feel the reassuring wood-trimmed wheel and let the heated and cooled seats set your soul on a relaxing journey deep into the heart of American luxury. After all, that’s what makes the uber-Fusion price worthwhile, yes?
Not entirely. The Lincoln MKZ is almost somewhat sort of entertaining to drive. It’s true: the name’s been changed to protect the innocent. The 3500-pound sedan gets a brand spanking new 263-horse 3.5-liter Duratec V6, mated to six forward gears, corralled by [optional] all-wheel drive. The powertrain turns the once sleepy Lincoln sedan into an automotive sleeper. With a first gear shorter than Tom Cruise proposing to Katie Holmes, the bigger motor’s ample torque reserve (249ft.-lbs.) pushes you back in your seat with genuine authority, while the high rpm punch keeps your eyes darting towards the speedometer.
The MKZ’ 6.7 second zero to 60 sprint time means that Lincoln’s finally given Commander Cody fans a hot rod worth singing about. Younger pistonheads (Commander Who and the What?) may despair. Quick as it is, the MKZ serves-up great heaps of body roll, “you’re not the boss of me” downshifts and a boingee suspension. Even so, it’s fun to throw the MKZ a tight curveball, punch it at the apex and rocket out of the corner.
Clearly, this Lincoln is no sports sedan. But it’s the kind of car secondhand owners or short-term leasers can mercilessly thrash to an inch of its life with one hand draped across their passenger’s chair. In the care of less assertive folk, the MKZ also delivers decent enough ride quality: a happy medium somewhere between road feel and no feel. That and acceptable noise suppression make the MKZ a no-brainer for the grandmother of a Subaru WRX pilot.
If you want this admirable powertrain in a cheaper, lighter, tighter, less ostentatious package, tough luck. The otherwise identical Fusion still rolls with the coarse, lackluster 221hp V6 as its top engine choice. Horsepower and refinement exclusivity may be a good thing for Lincoln, but it’s a bad thing for Ford. Instead of blowing away the competition with a big motor and AWD, the Fusion sees nothing but the taillights of V6 Camry, Accord and Altima drivers. In today’s market, not giving the goods to a Ford product in a competitive segment isn’t just a bad idea, it’s a silent killer.
I know: I’m complaining about a Lincoln model not sharing its good fortune with its Ford counterpart while complaining that the MKZ isn’t different enough from its Ford counterpart to justify its place in the Lincoln portfolio. How crazy is that? But brand differentiation is the retro-religion these days. Instead of creating a new, brand-specific automotive orthodoxy, Ford is busy robbing Peter to pay Paul– and they're both broke. The truth is Lincoln needs one no-compromise automobile that says this is who we are and what we do. No matter how you dress it up, the MKZ ain’t it, and never will be.