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Old 11-16-2006, 09:23 AM   #1
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Default First Drive: 2007 Lincoln MKZ (edmunds.com)

First Drive: 2007 Lincoln MKZ (edmunds.com)


Lincoln takes a do-over. Says it'll be way cooler this time!

With the introduction of the 2007 Lincoln MKZ, Ford's luxury brand is taking a do-over.

You know the do-over. It's one of the critical rules by which the prepubescent live. It goes like this: Say you're preparing to jump your BMX bike off of the curb and your pant leg gets caught between the sprocket and chain and you wipe out. Or maybe you slip on the grass during your turn of the impromptu crab-apple-throwing contest, muddying your new pair of cords. In either example, the aggrieved party could petition for a do-over.

A do-over, if granted by all other parties present, would effectively erase both your wasted turn and expunge the embarrassment of the slipup. Essentially, it winds back time to immediately before the unfortunate incident. This might seem an awfully childish thing for a company 90 years old. But it is exactly what Lincoln has done with its entry-level luxury sedan. "Cheaters!" you cry? Well, you and what army are going to stop them?

After one fleeting year on the market, Lincoln has yanked the front-drive Zephyr and replaced it with the 2007 MKZ, which is better in a few important ways than the car it replaces. Its name is not one of these improvements.

Double-dog do-over
Lincoln, which has appeared aimless for the last several years, is not new to this whole do-over game. In fact, the 2006 Zephyr was itself a do-over. Back in the day, the company introduced a rear-drive sport sedan called the LS. This vehicle was to spark the rebirth of Lincoln as a true competitor to the European premium brands. Instead, the LS languished. And Lincoln introduced a few oddities such as the Blackwood pickup truck and an endless parade of show cars that all looked roughly like a 1960s Continental.

With Cadillac going hard at the rear-drive BMW-style sport-sedan market, Lincoln decided instead to aim for Lexus and Acura and their front-drive entry-level sedans. And, hey, parent Ford Motor Company had the well-received midsize Mazda 6 sedan lying around. Add some satin-nickel interior trim, a retro-style dash panel and vaguely art-deco-style body with a toothy grille and, voilà, a Zephyr.

Unfortunately, in its eagerness to get things moving, Lincoln forgot to put an engine in the Zephyr. Instead, it installed a boat anchor of a 3.0-liter V6, making a paltry 221 horsepower in a mostly unpleasant fashion. Ford had an all-new 3.5-liter V6 in the works, but it wasn't ready in time for the Zephyr launch. Why the company wouldn't wait until the new motor was ready, we cannot say. Call it premature introduction.

Let's book outta here
It is the 3.5-liter DOHC V6 that distinguishes an MKZ from a Zephyr. The interior is the same distinctive unit as in the previous model. And the exterior is the same, other than some trim differences. Only a hard-core Lincoln wonk would notice the modified front fascia that arrives with the engine and name change. And we're not sure there are any hard-core Lincoln wonks.

This engine, which will power a wide variety of Ford Motor Company products including the new Edge crossover, uses a dual-plenum intake manifold and variable intake valve timing to produce 263 hp at 6,250 rpm. More important than the increase of 42 horses, the 3.5-liter grinds out an additional 44 pound-feet of torque compared to the old engine. And it does it at a lower engine speed, meaning it feels more responsive in day-to-day, around-town driving.

Lincoln also pinched the all-wheel-drive system from the Ford Edge/Lincoln MKX crossovers for use in the MKZ. But more on that later.

Playing with the big kids
The Lincoln's power is now on par with its two most obvious competitors, the Acura TL (258 hp) and the Lexus ES 350 (272 hp). Like the newly introduced Lexus, the MKZ has a six-speed automatic bolted to its engine. And the similarities don't end there. All three cars are within an inch and a half in overall length. They all ride on standard 17-inch wheels. And they all offer about the same interior space for a maximum of five passengers each. And each car is based on an offering from a non-luxury division (MKZ: Mazda 6 and Ford Fusion; TL: Honda Accord; ES 350: Toyota Camry).

Where these vehicles differ most is in their personalities. The Acura TL, clothed in a sporty arrowhead body, is the most aggressive of the trio. It trades some ride comfort for its quick responses. The ES 350 is tuned pretty much as previous versions of the ES were, which is to say soft and serene.

Lincoln plants the MKZ's ride-versus-handling character directly in between those two. We drove the MKZ, equipped with the new all-wheel-drive system, on some impossibly tight and twisty roads through the Smoky Mountains. And, considering this tortured piece of pavement is best suited to a Caterham 7 or a Mazda Miata, the midsize MKZ acquitted itself admirably.

The MKZ's steering system is smooth and linear which allowed us to pour the Lincoln into turns without upsetting our passenger too much. The body rolls slightly but in a progressive, predictable manner that's more than acceptable given the MKZ's relatively plush ride. The overall feel is neutral and competent. It's no BMW 3 Series, nor even an Acura TL, but it handles better than most Lincoln buyers are likely to expect or demand.

The Lincoln's only major glaring fault is the absence of a sequential-shift system for its transmission. Even the cushy Lexus allows its driver to choose his own gears. The MKZ has an O/D off button which locks out high gear and, according to Lincoln, puts the transmission in "hill mode" that theoretically should hold lower gears longer and be more likely to downshift. Still, we repeatedly caught the MKZ's tranny in too high a gear during our mountain drive, letting the engine loaf.

Uh, boring!
Even equipped with the new all-wheel-drive system (a $1,875 option that came on our test vehicle), the MKZ is essentially a front-drive car. But the all-wheel-drive system can transfer torque to the rear even before the front wheels slip. For example, when the driver floors the throttle, the system will transfer power rearward in anticipation of slip. Neither of the MKZ's two main competitors offers all-wheel drive. Both, however, are fitted with standard electronic stability control, which the MKZ does not offer — not even as an option.

The Lincoln comes standard with dual-stage front airbags, driver and passenger side airbags and side curtain airbags. And the MKZ comes reasonably well equipped with real wood trim inside and standard leather, heated and power-adjustable front seats and an auxiliary audio input. Major options include the all-wheel-drive system, a power moonroof and HID headlamps.

At a $29,890 base price (including destination), the 2007 Lincoln MKZ undercuts its Japanese-brand rivals by a significant $4,000. But, if recent history is any judge, the Acura and Lexus will retain a far higher portion of their value over the years.

With the new engine, Lincoln's entry-luxury sedan is at least equipped to fight the established contenders, if not exactly whoop 'em. That's not a bad result for a do-over.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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