By Chris Haak
There has been a lot of buzz over the past year about Ford’s updated-for-2010 Fusion midsize car. The Fusion – now with an excellent Hybrid model as well – has deservedly been winning accolades from buyers and reviewers alike for its clean design, array of powertrain choices, reasonable pricing, and upgraded interior with state-of-the-art technology and connectivity. Less heralded are the Fusion’s corporate cousins, the Mercury Milan (which is basically a Fusion clone), and the Lincoln MKZ. The MKZ was called the Lincoln Zephyr in its first model year, before Lincoln swapped real model names for the MK_ convention (except for the Navigator, which, like its arch-rival Cadillac Escalade, hung onto its real name). I’ve always been fond of the Zephyr name (in spite of the unfortunate 1978-83 Mercury version of the Ford Fairmont that carried the name). It means “west wind,” which is nearly odd since there’s little wind noise to speak of inside the MKZ, particularly in the updated 2010 model, with its new sound-absorbing laminated windshield glass.
As with the Fusion, updates to the MKZ were extensive for 2010. The car got new front and rear clips, with the front end adopting the Lincoln family appearance seen in the MKS sedan and MKT crossover (and coming soon to the 2011 MKX), while the greenhouse and hard points remained the same. The interior was completely refurbished, and an already-good interior was kicked up a notch or two. Ford ditched the aluminum-colored plastic of the former MKZ that covered nearly all of the center stack and replaced it with a satin black finish accented by vertical aluminum strips on either side of the center stack. The old MKZ’s right angle-heavy dashboard was ditched in favor of one with a more organic shape, and materials were improved throughout the interior. The navigation interface was upgraded from the low-resolution version with ugly graphics and a clunky interface to the new, excellent one that Ford has been installing in all of its recently-launched vehicles. Plus, the new navigation screen is larger than the old one and positioned higher on the dash, so it’s closer to the driver’s line of sight. Speaking of the driver’s line of sight, the shape of the new dashboard helps with visibility, which was a general complaint I had about the 2008 MKZ AWD that I previously reviewed.
When I drove the 2008, I felt like I was sitting in a bathtub and could not find a good driving position; being 6’4″ tall, it’s unusual for me to feel like I couldn’t see out of a car, but the updated MKZ addresses that somewhat. The hard points (doors, roof, glass, etc.) are all the same as before, but the old dash was so squared-off that its top edge was flat and therefore in your face. The new dash tapers away, giving a little more interior room and slightly better outward visibility. Still, there is not an abundance of headroom in the MKZ for some reason; I had to recline my seatback a bit more than I’d prefer just to keep my hair off the headliner. I had the opportunity to drive the MKZ just a few weeks after having driven the MKS for a week. The MKS, of course, is larger, more powerful (especially when equipped with the 3.5 liter EcoBoost V6) and considerably more expensive than the MKZ is.
But aside from the MKS’ intoxicating power (and it is, believe me), I preferred the MKZ in nearly every other way. Its ride/handling balance was much more in line with my handling-centric preferences, while the MKS felt too soft and floaty. Steering feel was better in the MKS, with more weight and the MKT boasted a quicker ratio, tighter turning circle, and a traditional hydraulically-boosted rack-and-pinion setup versus the MKS EcoBoost’s electric power steering. The other thing in the MKZ’s favor over its big brother was that its smaller size (the MKZ is 3.7 inches narrower than the MKS, 14.3 inches less long, is 4.7 inches less tall, and carries around 480 fewer pounds) made it feel much more tossable than the big car. ’Tossable’ is relative in this context, however. It felt like any other midsize sedan in the twisties (but with nicer leather on the seats) and nothing like a Miata.
The Sport Appearance Package included on my test vehicle swapped the standard 17 inch painted aluminum wheels for 10-spoke, chrome 18 inchers; they definitely helped the car’s looks and probably improved its road feel as well. I wasn’t completely crazy about the interior aluminum trim package that replaced the MKZ’s standard wood interior trim with aluminum, but at least it ditched the painted plastic of the old car. While EPA fuel economy figures for the MKZ AWD are identical to the 2008 car’s numbers (the AWD model is supposed to get 17 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway), my observed fuel economy was better than what I saw two years ago (with economy in the 17s). This time, no doubt aided by a 100-mile roundtrip with pure 72-mph highway driving, I was able to top 20 miles per gallon after a week of driving. The EPA says that the front wheel drive MKZ gets 18 city/27 highway (the 2008 MKZ FWD was rated at 18/28; the reason for this decrease is not clear). The 2010 MKZ actually has a higher final drive ratio, at 3.33:1 rather than the 2008′s 3.46:1. This ratio change should diminish performance but improve highway fuel economy; instead, it appears to have done the opposite. My seat-of-the-pants observation agrees with Ford’s published numbers; the company claims that 0 to 60 mph acceleration times have dropped from 7.7 seconds to 7.1 seconds, in spite of all six transmission ratios being identical and the engine’s horsepower and torque outputs staying the same.
Ford announced at the New York Auto Show earlier this month that it’s launching an MKZ Hybrid for 2011, which shares all of the Fusion Hybrid’s and Milan Hybrid’s powertrain, but with the Lincoln body and interior. The MKZ Hybrid will top all other luxury cars in fuel economy, including the smaller Lexus HS 250h.
The six-speed automatic now has SelectShift (manumatic capability), and the 263-horsepower, 249 lb-ft 3.5 liter V6 emitted some nice growling under heavy acceleration. A 7.1 second zero to sixty time isn’t going to win many drag races, but it feels a little faster than it is. In fact, Ford claims best-in-class zero to sixty acceleration for the MKZ (against the old MKZ, Acura TL 3.5, and Lexus ES350). I’d add the Buick LaCrosse or Buick Regal to that competitive mix, but neither of the Buicks could likely better the Lincoln’s time either. The base price of my test vehicle was $36,855 (including destination). It included Rapid Spec 103A (the Ultimate Package, THX II Sound System, power moonroof, technology package, and navigation package for $5,595 and the Sport Appearance Package (18″ aluminum wheels with V-rated tires, floor mats, interior aluminum trim package, and all-leather steering wheel) for $795. The total MSRP was $43,245 (including destination).
Many friends who consider themselves car enthusiasts still have to think hard about which Lincoln I’m talking about when I say I have an MKZ (“the one that used to be the Zephyr, based on the Fusion”), the MKS (“the one that shares the Taurus platform, but with more chrome and luxury”), the MKT (“the rebodied Ford Flex that ist’t boxy”), and MKX (“the smaller crossover, equivalent to the Ford Edge.”) If you tell someone you’re driving a Fusion, they know what you’re talking about, and you can also save thousands of dollars over the Lincoln. Overall, the MKZ is probably the most driver-oriented car in the Lincoln lineup. The car’s improvements for 2010 make it a more enjoyable car to drive and the technology updates put it near the head of its class in that department. If you are able to live without the additional glitz that the Lincoln provides, a Fusion shares most of its dimensions and body panels, and has most of the same available features, but costs thousands less. And with the Fusion, you don’t have to worry about confusing people as to which Lincoln you’re driving. My hope is that future Lincolns will be as differentiated from their Ford cousins as the MKS and MKT are. Such a move (which is likely) would help Lincoln stand out in the market, rather than having a reputation for selling Fords with more chrome for a lot more money.