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While Lincoln plans its future around a new lineup of vehicles, today's upscale Fords have been criticized for being just that--lightly upgraded versions of cars and crossovers you can get somewhere else, for less.
The 2012 Lincoln MKZ doesn't escape that judgement, but like Lexus and Toyota before it, Ford's figured out how to make badge engineering work for the better. The MKZ's a restyled, better-upholstered Ford Fusion--and that's a great place to start since the Fusion's been one of our top-rated vehicles since its introduction.
Styling's a big differentiator for the MKZ. It's infused with a big winged grille on the front end, one that's all full of drama, but draws some complaints for its size and prominence. Otherwise, down the side and from the rear, it's much more a replica of the Fusion--still attractive and tidy, but lacking some of the impact the nose suggests. The cabin's much more plush after a 2010 renovation, with Scottish leather on the seats and bands of real wood highlighting an interior that's fairly dominated by LCD touchscreens for the gauges and for the audio and navigation systems.
Lincoln offers MKZ buyers a choice of V-6 or hybrid four-cylinder drivetrains, and the hybrid comes off as the better value. There's nothing wrong with the V-6's straight-line performance except a little too much engine noise, but fuel economy is just average, and so is the handling, though the Sport package and its 18-inch wheels and retuned suspension are a good start. Optional all-wheel drive feels like a setback, adding a few hundred pounds of curb weight without promising much more traction, except in the northern tier. The Hybrid's team of a lean-burn four-cylinder, batteries and motors are a beautifully integrated set, and would be our pick for most drivers. Not only is its 41-mpg city EPA rating impressive, but the transition from gas to gas-electric operation is the best we've experienced this side of the Chevy Volt, and its electric steering and regenerative brakes silence some of the most serious criticisms we usually level at hybrids.
The MKZ Hybrid also has a nifty visual trick that helps drivers learn how to drive more efficiently. It says it with flowers: one part of the LCD gauges shows a plant that adds new buds as drivers use their lead feet more judiciously.
In terms of utility and cargo space, the MKZ isn't quite up to the task that a less efficient Chrysler 300 or maybe a Buick LaCrosse could handle better. The smaller scale that gives it a better urban driving feel leaves it with comfortable, plush front leather bucket seats, and with a back seat that's less spacious than some. It's still big enough for four adults to ride in comfort, though, and the high grade of materials is welcome, particularly to drivers also testing Lexus' HS 250h and other compact hybrids.
With its standard suite of safety equipment, including a rearview camera and blind-spot monitors, the 2012 MKZ and MKZ Hybrid have performed well in crash tests, but there's been a dip in the ratings for the new model year. The IIHS still calls the MKZ a Top Safety Pick, but the NHTSA now ranks the MKZ at four stars overall, with a three-star front-impact rating, a downgrade over the federal agency's previous scores under a less rigorous test formula.It's not due to get Ford's trick but controversial MyLincoln Touch system until a full model change comes in the 2013 model year, but the MKZ does have Bluetooth and SYNC, which enable voice-activated control over audio, navigation and phone functions. The audio system in the MKZ is an AM/FM/CD/MP3 unit with Sirius Satellite Radio and a few months of free service. The MKZ also includes standard leather upholstery; heated and ventilated power front seats; and 17-inch wheels.