Ten years ago I would never have considered comparing a Lincoln to a Lexus, but times change and with Lincoln heading up market with their latest product refreshes and Lexus searching for their soul in the mass market, the stars have finally aligned. And nothing out of Detroit strikes so closely the heart of the Japanese competition as the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. After all, reliable entry-level luxury and hybrid tech are two things the Japanese mastered long before anyone else. Is it possible for an American company to beat Lexus at their own game?
The Lincoln MKZ aka the Zephyr, has had a hard life, and despite following the same formula that made the Lexus ES a success – take your mid-size volume car, add some bling and call it luxury – the MKZs sales figures are less than half the competition from Japan. With the 2010 refresh of the MKZ and Fusion models Ford may finally have some competition.
From the outside the MKZ finally has some style; like it or not, the corporate proboscis has been grafted on just about every Lincoln product. While I personally hate the baleen whale motif, I have to admit that in a land of bland styling the Lincoln sure stands out. In my week-long stint in the MKZ people either loved or hated the look; a definite improvement considering nobody could ever recall the previous car. Sadly, however, Lincoln decided to restrain themselves when it came to the sheet metal and plastic out back. Pity, I think a resurrection of the fake-spare-tire hump could have been an interesting look. Sure the MKZ’s rump is decidedly more Lincoln than its Fusion brother, but I had hoped for something more daring.
Inside the MKZ the first thing you notice is that Ford has been spending some money on their interiors lately. The fit and finish in our tester was excellent, although parts quality was something of a mixed bag. The center console looks fantastic when covered in the stained walnut that our tester had, but a quick jaunt to the local Ford shop reveals that buyers unwilling to pay for the $495 executive package will get a console with questionable plastics. Adding injury to the $41,370 MSRP (as equipped) are the Ford-parts-bin parts. It’s not that the borrowed components are bad… if they match. What makes the mirror and door lock switchgear objectionable is how good the other interior parts are, allowing for a quality clash within arm’s reach. Keep your paws off the borrowed parts however and you’ll notice tasteful wood, chrome, leather and faux-suede accents in all the right places. My only further quibble is with the Ford corporate tiller: it’s not a bad steering wheel per se (its thin rim lacks any kind of sport grip and the leather feels cheap), but it doesn’t belong in a $40,000 car.
Speaking of pricing, Ford is trying something novel with the MKZ Hybrid, starting at $34,340, the Hybrid MKZ manages to be the exact same price as the FWD MKZ with the 263HP 3.5L V6. Buyers just have to decide if they can give up 72 horses in exchange for an 86% improvement in fuel economy. So far in 2010 Ford claims the Hybrid MKZ has had a 25% take rate so early indications are that buyers are willing. My local Lincoln dealer thinks the take rate would be much higher if they could keep the leather coated battery hauler in stock.
Out on the road our inevitable comparison to the HS250 begins to bear fruit for Ford. While Toyota may have been first to market with the Prius and arguable still holds the innovation title in the hybrid arena, the HS250 is far from the “Lexus Prius” everyone had hoped for. Oddly enough, that title really goes to the Lincoln MKZ and here’s why: The HS250’s economy ratings are honestly a failure. Rated at 41MPG city, the MKZ bests the Lexus by 15% (35MPG) and its combined economy of 39MPG makes the MKZ Hybrid 10% more efficient overall then the HS250. Ouch. Over the course of a week and almost 900 miles we averaged 36.5MPG (mostly highway with plenty of steep-hill driving) overall and easily managed 41.8MPG overall when treating the MKZ more gently (this involved highway speeds of 75MPH and a daily commute involving going over a 2,300ft mountain pass). The last vehicle I tested that yielded this many MPGs was the much-lighter Ford Fiesta. Even the EPA is infatuated, ranking the Fusion/MKZ/Milan triplets the second most efficient cars in America. The HS250? Not even on the top 10 list.
When the road starts to curve the difference between the Fusion and MKZ become more obvious. While I would not say the MKZ handles poorly, it is obvious it is tuned for a more compliant ride than its platform mates. Under hard braking the nose dive is extreme, but otherwise it’s about what you would expect from a baby Lincoln. The seats are cushy and rear passengers are treated to enough leg room for a moderate road-trip, 5 passenger odysseys should be kept to lunch-runs with your thin coworkers however. It will be on these short runs that the MKZ’s real party trick becomes obvious. Thanks to a larger traction motor and bigger batteries than Ford’s first gen hybrids, the MKZ is able to drive electric only up to 47MPH (as long as you keep your right foot light) compared to the 25MPH electric-only top speed of the HS. This means that in heavy traffic that isn’t quite stop-and-go, the Hybrid system in the MKZ pays dividends.
While the MKZ Hybrid will never be a track star, the 191 net horse power system (156HP 2.5L I4 and 40HP motor) are more than adequate for most situations. The system integration is well executed and the transitions from electric only to hybrid power are as seamless as anything from Toyota save for the LS600hl. What the MKZ lacks in scoot, it more than makes up for in electronic goodies. Gone are the days that going American meant settling for old tech, the SYNC system with the massive LCD nav screen in the dash is quite simply the best voice command infotainment system shy of BMW’s iDrive system. Seriously. For the tech-nerds out there, Ford has added twin LCD screens on either side of the speedo that adds some Star-Trek bling to the cabin.
As my week with the MKZ Hybrid drew to a close I realized that I would actually miss the car. Lincoln’s MKZ may be less appealing than much of its regular gasoline powered alternatives, but compared to the hybrid competition, the MKZ really shines. When you factor in the 2,000 gallon fuel savings over a supposed 150,000 mile lifetime with no additional cost at purchase, the MKZ even makes a compelling argument against other more premium marques in the segment. While this “Ford in drag” can’t compete with the likes of the Audi A4, BMW 3, Mercedes C or the former Ford stable-mate the new Volvo S60, it never the less adds an interesting dimension with the superb fuel economy. With January to October sales of the MKZ barely totaling 17,466, the MKZ may just be the best kept secret in Detroit. Pity.
Ford provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.