On The Road Review: Lincoln MKZ Hybrid



Sales of luxury automobiles have been increasing even as the overall economy moves in fits and starts this year. GM’s Cadillac Division is up big, BMW is jumping ahead of a year ago, while Infiniti, Audi, Mercedes and Porsche are all showing credible growth. Sales at Toyota’s Lexus Division, however, are soft — somewhat explainable given the corporate brand’s recent woes — while Ford’s remaining luxury arm, the Lincoln Division, also is seeing a sales slide despite overall growth in the industry. With Ford Division sales up a healthy percentage over 2010, there has to be some consternation in Dearborn about Lincoln’s malaise.

To battle soft sales, Lincoln is hyping its midsize MKZ sedan, now available with a hybrid powertrain. Essentially a rebadged Ford Fusion Hybrid, the MKZ Hybrid uses a 191-hp four-cylinder engine/battery pack hybrid drive system to achieve EPA mileage ratings of 41-mpg city, 36-mpg highway. Replacing the six-speed automatic transmission found in all other MKZ models is a CVT -continuously variable transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard; the all-wheel drive that is optional on other Fusion/MKZ models is not available on the hybrid version.

 

As with the majority of other hybrid sedans on the market — Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Toyota Prius, Lexus IS — the Lincoln does a commendable job of seamlessly integrating its electrical hybrid componentry with the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Steering feel, however, can be vaguely numb at times — it is electric-driven power steering rather than the former mechanical setup that is common — plus the regenerative brakes take some driver adaptation so that you don’t do too many face plants, or worse, wait too long to start braking. The car is, however, very quiet going down the road and the hybrid system provides more than adequate power for meeting daily driving needs — no matter what operating style you employ.

The MKZ rides on low-rolling resistance Michelin Energy radials that are a fine balance between ride composure and high mileage efficiency. They did not, however, excel at slushy, spring-snow traction, as the Lincoln was a handful during an April snow event that once again reminded us all that Mother Nature says it will be spring when she is good and ready to be done with winter.

Once the skies cleared, the MKZ proved to be a comfortable road warrior. The heated (and cooled) front seats lack much in the way of lateral support, but this car is not designed to mimic the sporting intentions that might have been promised in the recent Buick Regal. Think smooth, buttoned-down stability like Lexus designs in its top-selling ES350 and you’ll be more on target for the emphasis here.

In front of the MKZ driver is a bank of multicolored bar graphs to monitor the hybrid system. Engine output, battery power, mileage efficiency and a ‘green’ reminder of plants and flowers under the miles-per-gallon display reinforce the feel-good cultural message. There is no tachometer — really, none is needed — as the CVT selects the appropriate ‘gear’ ratio and holds it until you lift your right foot. The MKZ does not travel very far on pure electric power — you would need a super sensitive foot and no one else behind you — yet the Lincoln’s instrument cluster reported 37.4 mpg for 340 miles of mixed driving. My experience with trip computers tells me that there normally is a 3-5 percent negative error rate. If the Lincoln falls into this range, it still averaged over 35 mpg under less than ideal driving situations.

Ford has bet all-in on Lincoln. The venerable Mercury brand has been shut down so there would be no more cannibalism of Lincoln-branded vehicles, plus Ford has sold off Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and even its minority interest in Mazda. Clearly, Ford is banking on Lincoln to carry a heavier load and earn more success.

Recent sales numbers illustrate that the marketing plan has to change. While GM’s recent travails put all of its brands under greater consumer scrutiny, Cadillac has rebounded from bankruptcy with robust sales increases of 50 percent or greater so far in 2011. Lincoln’s sales, on the other hand, have declined 15 percent. Lincoln looks at its primary competition for American market success as Cadillac, its traditional rival. So far in 2011, Lincoln’s sales are barely 40 percent of the volume of Cadillac as well as a similar number behind upstart Buick’s resurgence.

From this viewpoint, Ford has to make two changes with Lincoln. First, the alphabet soup list of Lincoln product names is not working. Lincoln is not, and will not become, Mercedes or BMW where this sort of alphabet soup nomenclature has been the norm for decades. Buyers are very familiar with 3-series BMWs and E-class Mercedes sedans; most drivers have no idea what the difference is between a Lincoln MKS, MKT or MKZ. These labels mean nothing; they tell shoppers nothing.

Really, what driver boasts to his friends that he has an MKZ? Most friends would stare back at you, express dismay and sympathy and inquire whether you had a good doctor and how painful the treatments are. Give us a great name, a powerful sounding name that demonstrates superiority, not a confusing mish-mash of letters that indicate AARP membership.

Clearly, this naming pattern only works in certain instances — ask Acura. Honda’s Acura Luxury Division used to have one of the best car names in the business for its top sedan — the Legend — one of Acura’s very first cars. Acura got cute and wanted to mimic the high-price German sedans and changed this top-selling car’s name to the RL. What the heck is an RL when you used to have a Legend? Predictably, RL sales plummeted. It is now the slowest selling Acura model.

Secondly, Ford needs to better differentiate Lincoln models from Ford models. Currently, every Lincoln car or truck is nothing more than a tarted-up version of a similar Ford model. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but it does make it harder to justify the huge price variance between similarly built cars and trucks. Make the styling dramatically different while retaining the mechanicals, or, devote the engineering money for separate platforms; otherwise the Lincoln prices are too high and buyers will continue to seek true premium class competitors and Lincoln sales will continue their downward slide.

Right now, Ford is selling more Focus cars each year (with a stellar new Focus model guaranteed to make this number expand greatly) than the whole six-vehicle Lincoln lineup. If this doesn’t change soon, it will be hard to justify Ford keeping the Lincoln brand. While no one wishes it to be so, Mercury could have a partner, again.

Just the Facts: Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

Lincoln MKZ is a midsize entry-level premium sedan with front- or all-wheel drive. Pricing for the front-drive Hybrid model starts at $34,330 plus $850 destination fee. As tested, list price was $39,270 with the optional navigation system, blind-spot detection system, rear view camera, 5.1-Surround Sound system, plus Executive Package interior trim. AWD gas-engine MKZ lists for $36,495.

Hybrid powertrain makes 191 total horsepower and earns EPA mileage estimates of 41/36-mpg. Other MKZ models use a 3.5-liter 263-hp V-6 with EPA estimates of 18/27 mpg.

MKZ measures 189.8 inches long on a 107.4-inch wheelbase, or the same as the Ford Fusion and comparable to a Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima or Lexus ES. Base weight is 3,598 pounds or about 300 pounds more than a base Ford Fusion with the 2.5-liter engine.

Compare to Buick Regal, $28,690, Cadillac CTS, $35,165, or Lexus ES350, $36,025. Ford Fusion Hybrid starts at $28,340.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.