Fifty feet away and I was already furious. The oh-so-chipper Enterprise rep was leading us towards a Ford Fusion — and that is not a full-sized car in the Enterprise universe. Fusions are mid-sized. I’d specifically booked a full-sizer for this trip around Utah and Idaho. My hope was to receive an Impala, thus benefiting from the legendary 3.9V6 fuel economy and Fender-Twin-Reverb-combo-amp trunk space. This was injury added to insult. We’d waited forty-five minutes at the rental counter as a succession of elderly Mormons returning to SLC for “Pioneer Day” had asked detailed questions regarding the rental insurance, the fill-up policy, and the best place to eat near Temple Square… and now, although the parking garage was quite dark, I could plainly see the Fusion’s distinctive C-pillar ahead.
“Listen, miss,” I began, realizing that I sounded exactly like the kind of fussy old jerk I’ve spent my life avoiding and/or despising, “we requested a full-sized car, and this…”
“…is a luxury car,” she said, “I’m so sorry, we are out of full-sized cars, and I thought you would take a luxury car.” That’s when I saw the Continental star on the fender. No, the MKZ isn’t exactly a Fusion, but is it really a luxury car?
Michael Karesh provided a comprehensive styling analysis in his earlier review of the MKZ, so I will boil my opinions down to the following:
From the side: It’s a Fusion.
From the back: It could be anything.
From the front: It looks pretty good.
There you go. Michael had a loaded-out press car with the Sport package, but my rental was the $35,420 base model. There’s already $1500 cash on the hood at the moment, and if you can find a 2011 on the lots — which, honestly, shouldn’t be tough — there is $4,000 cash back on those. Either way, we are talking high twenties/low thirties.
That kind of cash would buy you a fully-equipped V-6 Accord or Camry, or it would put you into a turbocharged Korean. It will not put an ES350 or Acura TL in your driveway; the MSRP on those two is a few grand higher and the incentives aren’t quite as free-flowing. Still, those two cars are the Lincoln’s natural competition so that it is the context in which we will view it. Luckily for me, I’d just driven a brand-new ES350 a week before so my reference points were reasonably fresh.
Compared to the chunky luxo-Camry, the MKZ’s big windows and low-cowled, cliff-faced dashboard makes it seem like a much smaller car both inside and out. The reality doesn’t support the impression; not only is the Lincoln slightly heavier than the Lexus, it’s virtually the same length and offers slightly more front-passenger room. (Back-seat drivers will prefer the ES, particularly in the leg-stretching department.)
Both cars offer comfortable and not overly-sportly leather seats as standard. Heating and cooling is a $640 option on the Lexus, standard on the MKZ. During the nighttime segments of our 600-mile trip through Utah and Idaho, Vodka McBigbra kept her seat on three red LEDs while mine stayed on three blue ones. This feature alone could save your marriage, or at least save your affair.
Lexus has built a reputation on lexurious, excuse me, luxurious interiors, but while they’ve been treading water, Ford has been swimming for shore. The MKZ’s materials look and feel better than those found in the ES (to this reviewer, anyway) and its dashboard gaps are smaller. The Lexus is assembled in Japan; the Lincoln, in Mexico. Globalism on the hoof. Another surprise; the MKZ really has more interior differentiation from the Fusion than the ES does versus the Camry. I remind you all that this is the company which brought us the Versailles — but Lexus, I suppose, is the company which brought us the ES250.
Both cars ride pretty well, in the modern FWD mode. There’s a lot of weight in the nose, and no amount of gas-charged shock absorption can hide that fundamental problem. Compared to a C-Class Benz, or even my 2009 Town Car, the shocks are softer but the body motion seems considerably more pendulous. Encountering a big pavement wave at the 100-110mph velocities common out West reveals the MKZ’s severe lack of rebound damping. If you’re going to hustle in this car, consider the sport package. On the positive side, it definitely has its torque steer under better control than the Lexus, which will cheefully head for the ditch under any provocation, does.
On the freeway, our MKZ self-reported an average mileage of 26.4; around town, the number was 21.2. Given that the 263-horsepower Duratec 3.5 doesn’t exactly sing to the enthusiast soul, perhaps it’s better to spring for the no-cost hybrid option. If you’re looking for a fast car, look somewhere else — unless your idea of a “fast car” is a 1986 IROC-Z, which will find itself in arrears of the Lincoln’s wide neon taillights.
While the hybrid option is free, the MKZ’s “THX 5.1 theater surround sound” options is not — but it should be mandatory. The “Premium Sound” installed in the base car is so bad that I ended up working the fader and balance controls trying to find the defective speaker, only to come to the conclusion that they were all defective. It’s a shame because the version of SYNC installed in this system was lightning-quick in operating my 13,646-song iPod. It never missed a voice cue, from “Vladimir Ashkenazy” (my request) to “Stronger Than Pride” (V. McB). Not that the Lexus has anything comparable to offer; its sound system will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever owned a Corolla, in operation and features if not sound quality.
The rest of the MKZ is about what you’d expect given its Fusion roots and modern-Ford trimmings. Wind noise is low, road noise is low, the trunk is capacious, nothing fell off, and it idled without complaint for over an hour, running “Max A/C” in 104-degree weather, so V. McB’s mother could recover from an overly-ambitious kayak trip down the Snake River. It’s a solid car and it gives nothing away in that respect to the Toyota.
Is it a luxury car? No and yes. It won’t bludgeon your neighbors with prestige, it won’t impress the valet, and it won’t ever sit center stage in a rap video. Its platform is prosaic, its engines are shared with family wagons and/or CUVs, and its development schedule was less Nürburgring than it was Bürgerking.
All the MKZ can claim to be is a quiet, comfortable, well-made, well-equipped car that is pleasant to drive, enjoyable to operate, and probably satisfying to own. The pricing isn’t bargain-basement but it is a bit of a bargain given the equipment and materials provided. I personally prefer it to both the ES350 and the Buick LaCrosse. If you consider either of those to be luxury cars, then consider this to be one as well, and a decent one at that.