Redefinition of the Lincoln brand is just one focus of Ford’s turn-around plan. To that end three new Lincolns were presented to the assembled press recently in the Smoky Mountains. Targets of all three vehicles are segments within the “American” luxury market where competition in intense.
How might they define this market? When they’re talking about “American” luxury, what do they mean? Is there such a thing anymore or is the global nature of the car and light truck business blurring the lines between American and other world products? The answer lies in how products are developed, designed and marketed. The question this week is: can the folks at Lincoln make their new stuff match the semantics? I think the answer is yes.
The three new Lincolns we drove on this junket are all new and fit very specific segments: a freshened Navigator full-size SUV, a cross-over SUV (sometimes called a CUV) the MKX and a mid-sized sedan called MKZ (formerly Zephyr). Now, don’t say “Mark X” and “Mark Z” like we’re so tempted to do, the Lincoln folks say. It’s M-K-X and M-K-Z. Don’t ask me why. The pickup version of the Navigator is called Mark LT, and we still have fond thoughts of historic Lincolns for the “Mark” moniker. Go figure. Perhaps they should call the Navigator M-K-N.
The company will introduce more new vehicles within a shorter time frame than any time in the brand’s history and they’ll back them up with more promotional and advertising dollars than ever. The Lincoln folks are aiming not at the whole luxury market but at a segment they’ve defined as the “American Dream” market: upscale buyers who are optimistic, self-made, confident, realistic, and not just self-indulgent. So, let’s wish them good luck!
The Lincoln MKZ is the upscale cousin of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. A midsize luxury sedan, its price is a tad below the competition in this segment, beginning at just under $30,000. MKZ came out just about a year ago as the Lincoln Zephyr, a name with respected historical significance within the Lincoln brand.
MKZ differs from the antecedent Zephyr primarily in the powertrain, the efficient new 3.5-liter, 265-hp Duratec V6 introduced in other Ford and Lincoln products this year, and the addition of optional all-wheel-drive mated to a sophisticated new 6-speed automatic transmission, initially codesigned with GM. That combination gets lots of power to the road efficiently and expeditiously. Most of the journalists in this group complained about the lack of a manual mode for the otherwise very nice transmission. We can override the two overdrive gears and even bump it down to low if we feel the need, but it’s not like having complete control of the trans. How many potential Lincoln customers would feel the way a batch of automotive journalist do on this issue is anyone’s guess.
Our test drive followed a road affectionately called Tail of the Dragon, winding through the foothills and lakes at the southern edge of the Smoky Mountain National Park. Chassis tuning has been revised with higher spring rates, upsized anti-roll bars and increased damping force. Neither my codriver nor I found any quirks or complaints about the handling or performance through the twisties. Driving position is excellent and controls feel good. Steering is precise. We dodged and wove briskly through miles and miles of wonderfully tight mountain curves without a worry.
At the break we admired the looks of the MKZ. Some styling and trim changes dress it up just a bit more, though Zephyr was already a nice-looking luxurious car. We especially like the light-colored leather and wood along with the classy satin nickel trim. Sparkling taillights and the broad classic grille attest to the image of being more upscale than its Ford and Mercury siblings.
It looks like we could haul lots of luggage and other cargo in the 15.8-cubic-foot truck, largest in its class, they claim. Better yet, with a low, wide load opening and compact, out-of-the-way hinges all the space is imminently usable. A spring-assisted 60/40 fold-down rear seat accommodates and even larger load.
Once through the first stretch of mountains we hopped into the brand new MKX, a crossover utility vehicle (CUV), cousin of the Ford Edge we just reviewed in California a few weeks earlier. Ford’s benchmark for Edge was the Nissan Murano. Edge came in priced less than Murano with comparable content, with fresh, innovative design - not as edgy as Murano but certainly attractive.
This Lincoln SUV is pricier than the Edge, of course, starting a bit under $35,000. Benchmarked to the Lexus RX350, MKX is substantially dressier than the Edge with more content and way more panache. Taillights are dramatic sparkling clear across the rear with intensity. The shape is identical to the Edge but details are distinctive.
Drivetrain is the same as Edge and MKZ, the 265-hp, 3.6-liter V6 mated with the new 6-speed automatic transmission described above - fine powertrain, indeed. With almost 250-lb-ft of torque we never felt deprived of grunt uphill or in traffic.
Driving dynamics are similar, though in keeping with the Lincoln theme handling is a tad silkier and smoother, less firm and crisp than the European competitors, and similar to the Japanese ones. We had some more good roads to test it on, particularly along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The optional intelligent all-wheel-drive system, with which our test car was equipped, was unobtrusive. With the higher seating position of the SUV we felt in complete control on this beautiful stretch of road.
The feeling was luxurious but not too soft or imprecise. Particular attention was paid to interior quietness with much success. These heated and reclining rear seats fold with the spring-assisted release creating 68.7-cubic-feet of volume back there. Throughout the interior we feel pampered and relaxed. Lots of room for everyone and as much stuff as they want to bring along.
Adaptive headlights are a first for Lincoln though others have had them, including the wonderful old Tucker of the 50s. The halogen low beams swivel to light the way around the corner.
Is the Navigator “America’s original luxury SUV” like it says in the promotional material? I was surprised by the claim. I thought Escalade pioneered the genre. Not the case, insists the Navigator marketing folks. Navigator preceded Escalade. With this fresh redesign The Lincoln Navigator is meant to be a more civilized, sophisticated and less blinggy challenger to Escalade. Our Lincoln presenters explained that the brand character they’re after eschews the exaggerated styling, the raucous drivetrain feel and general garishness of the competition. When they talk about the “American” luxury market they see it as more quiet, understated, and civilized, reflecting the fresh philosophy of the brand.
The Navigator designers went to great lengths to distinguish this truck from the garish Escalade. But, forgive me Lincoln folks, that optional chrome on the nose and the shiny chin grill the Navigator looks to me like a diva with an botched lip job. It certainly has a bold and aggressive look with that extra visual stuff on the front but it’s as garish as the competition. Without the extra chrome, however, it’s much more in keeping with the stated philosophy – “unpretentious.”
I really like the automatic self-storing running board. It comes out just when needed and folds up to become the rocker panel when not needed. Eighteen-inch machined aluminum wheels are standard and 20-inch chrome wheels are optional. There is no cartoonesque 22-inch option like Escalade.
Of major note is the new five-link independent rear suspension – no more trucky solid rear axle. Four links are dedicated to lateral forces and the other one controls fore and aft movement.
Navigator is motivated by a 300-hp, 5.4-liter V8 mated to a wide-ratio, 6-speed automatic transmission. Lincoln claims a 7-percent increase in fuel efficiency with that transmission over the previous 4-speed automatic.
The interior is redesigned and very nicely so. The dash design has hints of Lincoln heritage in the rectangular “eyebrows” that define the instrument clusters. The Lincoln folks relate the design to modern trends in eyewear. Two colors of wood trim, a dark and a light, are available and both are very attractive, I think. All three new Lincolns share the steering wheel design though there are subtle differences. The steering wheels all integrated wood and leather and have a wonderfully luxurious feel and look. Front seats are heated and cooled, 10-way power adjustable and generously comfortable.
My stint at the wheel, sadly, was not on the back roads. But I guess that wouldn’t be its forte anyway. I drove it from Asheville to Knoxville on I-40, the first hal of which is as twisty as freeways get. The fall colors were spectacular and the drive was fun. The Navigator is remarkably quiet with added insulation and thicker glass. I have no complaints about it roadworthiness. I could have driven it all day.
The new Navigator is on sale now and the long-wheelbase L (14-inches longer and 25 cubic feet extra cargo area) will be coming in February.
Watch for more thorough road tests of these new Lincolns as they become available.