2015 Lincoln MKC

Back in 2012, Lincoln claimed its comeback bid was finally underway with the new-for-2013 MKZ. But don't you believe them – the renaissance won't actually begin in earnest until the shapely compact crossover seen here reaches showrooms in big numbers. That's because while the four-door MKZ was indeed a proper step toward rebirth, the 2015 MKC is the first wholly conceived vehicle under Lincoln as a standalone brand, a move first announced back in 2012.

That's an important distinction, because Lincoln's newfound emancipation from Ford's design and development processes has given the struggling marque both the corporate wherewithal and the will to develop a more fully formed product. The four-wheeled result seen here is a surprisingly cohesive luxury CUV, one with significantly more aesthetic and dynamic separation from its Ford Escape sibling than the MKZ and its Fusion counterpart. Said another way, after flogging Lincoln's latest for hundreds of miles over canyon roads outside of Santa Barbara, we've come to understand that this is far from a re-grilled Dearborn special with luxury tinsel – it's a bona fide standalone product that readily displays the sort of clear differentiation seen in platform cousins like the Audi Q3 and the Volkswagen Tiguan. It's the real deal.

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The hydroformed clamshell literally and figuratively seals the deal.

As noted before, this is the first modern application of Lincoln's split-wing grille we can get behind. With the hood's deeply sculpted creases drawing down into its slats, the MKC's nose has real directional thrust, with piercing HID headlamps that bookend the grille's sweeping form. It's an aggressive look, with a sturdy, wheels-at-the-corner stance augmented by a fast windshield rake and by our top-shelf Reserve model's optional 19-inch alloys.

The profile is also nice work, with a clever bone-line crease originating in the headlamps that diminishes just above the front door handle only to reappear and gain definition anew above the rear handle. Combined with the narrowing greenhouse (which is wholly different from The Blue Oval Model That Shall Not Be Named) and an elegant piece of tapered rocker panel brightwork, the eye is subtly drawn around the rear of the vehicle to the liftgate. It's that hydroformed clamshell that literally and figuratively seals the deal, though. Not only is it an elegant piece of metalsmithing, it allows for a rear graphic that's uninterrupted by shutlines, giving Lincoln's trademark long-band taillamps the room to stretch out, wrapping 'round the corners and emphasizing the vehicle's width. This is a thoughtful, 360-degree design.

Mercifully, the same can be said of the interior. With a minimalist, uncluttered aesthetic furthered by the absence of a traditional gearshift lever and boasting sweeping expanses of real wood and aluminum trim, the MKC's cabin is a very nice place to be, particularly when fitted with our Reserve tester's panoramic moonroof, which helped keep its ebony interior from being too dreary. It's worth mentioning that low-gloss, open-pore timber again for a moment. That elongated piece on the passenger side? It's slightly concave, making it the sort of minute detail that you'll want to inspect and run your hand over more than once.

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We're still not completely sold on the pushbutton transmission selector.

One thing you won't have to run your hand over is the fussily idiotic capacitive-touch 'sliders' that control key climate control and audio functions on the MKZ. They're gone, replaced by simple, functional rotary knobs and physical switches. Halle-freakin-lujah, Lincoln actually listened. Pass the bubbly.

Of course, we're still not completely sold on the aforementioned pushbutton transmission selector. It works well enough, but it still seems somewhat gimmicky and it can't be operated by feel alone, as you might when shifting a traditional console-mounted lever from Park to Drive. Still, it's a rather unique driver handshake of sorts, one shared with modern Aston Martins and classics of the 50s and 60s, which ain't exactly bad company. We can live with it.

We're much happier about the upscale "Deepsoft" leather from Scotland's Bridge of Weir, which is standard on all but the base MKC Premiere trim. It lives up to its name, with a luxuriously pillowy texture and handsome stitch-lines on both cushions and door panels. The seats themselves are power-adjusted, heated and cooled units that had us wishing for slightly longer lower squabs and perhaps frames that were a bit larger overall, as they're one of the only reminders up front that you're sitting in a compact vehicle.

The MKC is also very quiet inside thanks to copious amounts of sound deadener, acoustic glass, felted wheel wells and active noise cancelation technology. Plus there's a tremendous optional 14-speaker THX II surround-sound audio system with which to blot out the honking horns and construction equipment of the outside world.

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The 2.3L is the engine that has Mustang enthusiasts in an anticipatory froth.

Overall, the MKC's cabin is a really nice piece of work that won't be mistaken for its corporate cousin by eye or by hand. With fine materials, generous standard equipment and a cleaner control layout and visuals than some rivals, it's right in the thick of the segment, standing soft-touch plastic to soft-touch plastic with rivals like the top-selling Acura RDX, as well as Europe's Audi Q5, BMW X3, Land Rover Evoque, Mercedes-Benz GLK and Volvo XC60.

On the powertrain front, Lincoln is among the first in the compact premium segment to go four-cylinder only, with the buyer's choice of EcoBoost turbocharged engines displacing either 2.0- or 2.3-liters. The former is a known quantity, employed in everything from the Fusion, Taurus, Escape and Explorer to the Focus ST and the aforementioned Evoque, tuned here for 240 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 270 pound-feet of torque from 3,000 rpm. The latter is the engine that has Mustang enthusiasts in an anticipatory froth, with a north-south application promised for the 2015 ponycar. That engine arrives first here in the MKC in a transverse orientation, packing 285 hp at 5,500 rpm and 305 lb-ft at 2,750 rpm and coming bundled exclusively with all-wheel drive. Both engines are paired to a mandatory six-speed automatic transmission.

We only had the chance to sample the new 2.3L, but it's an able partner, with a responsive throttle and plenty of torque available around the revband thanks to the dual-scroll turbocharger. There's a Sport mode on the transmission gear selector that helps keep the gearbox on the balls of its feet, but the standard paddle shifters are occasionally dilatory in their responses when called upon in hard driving, and it's impossible to keep the transmission from upshifting at redline. Overall, it's a smooth and willing powertrain in nearly all circumstances, though it's also a pretty dull-sounding unit that lacks the more satisfying noises of some V6 rivals.

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Speaking of eight-tenths driving, it's a surprising strength of this Louisville-built crossover.

In light of its positive attributes, and bearing in mind that this isn't a segment in which eight-tenths driving and a commensurately stirring soundtrack is a top priority, we'd be prepared to table much of the above grousing in exchange for superior efficiency. Unfortunately, despite its low displacement, its clever turbo and its fully modern internals (including polished valvetrain tappets, piston cooling jets and balance shafts for smooth running), fuel economy isn't a clear advantage for this Lincoln. Base 2.0L front-drive MKCs carry EPA ratings of 20 miles per gallon city and 29 highway, with all-wheel drive models falling to 19 city and 26 highway. Despite being paired with active grille shutters, the AWD-only 2.3L is rated at 18 city and 26 highway, figures that are merely class competitive. That's a bit worrisome given that in our experience, EcoBoost engines tend to have real trouble returning their EPA estimates with anything short of deliberate effort. Perhaps a new transmission with more ratios would improve matters.

Speaking of eight-tenths driving, it's a surprising strength of this Louisville-built crossover. We were slightly startled when Lincoln's event planners were brassy enough to include a heady mix of canyon roads meandering over, under and through Southern California's mountain flood zones and fire-devastated forests, but it was the right decision. The MKC-specific tune of the electric power-assisted steering is very well calibrated, exhibiting quick, confident turn-in, proper weighting and a more communicative nature than expected of most EPAS setups. This is particularly true when Lincoln Drive Control is set to Sport. LDC is a driver-selectable system that governs parameters including steering, suspension and even active noise cancelation. The system features the usual trio of modes (Normal, Comfort and Sport), with the latter including automatic downshifting, firmer steering and more aggressive throttle mapping.

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The MKC is capable of being a good little handler when it's time to get yer ya-yas out.

Ah, the suspension. Our test car was fitted with continuously controlled damping, which is standard on all-wheel drive MKCs or a $650 extra on front-drive models. The electronically variable system consists of front MacPherson struts and a rear multilink setup with gas-pressurized shocks and anti-roll bars at both ends. What you need to know is that it works well, both in lollygagging comfort setting and in let's-take-advantage-of-this-wider-track Sport mode. Cornering at speed is pleasingly flat and confident, and when understeer inevitably raises its head, it does so predictably. Credit the CCD's stiffer spring rates (15 percent on average), as well as the MKC's larger anti-roll bars and retuned bushings versus its Blue Oval contemporary.

The all-wheel drive system helps in the fun-to-drive cause, too. When Lincoln Drive Control is set to Sport or if the transmission PRNDL is in Sport, there's more rear-bias to the torque split in certain driving situations than in the its Blue Oval relative. As MKC Vehicle Engineering Supervisor Jonathan Barnes explained to Autoblog, there's "More preemptive all-wheel drive bias to the rear during both straightaways and in turns." There's also "More all-wheel drive 'boost' to aid in preventing wheel slip in the first place," which works out to less reliance on traction control. The system is also quicker to move from "steady state" mode (front-wheel drive) to all-wheel drive, and it stays there longer than its Ford counterpart, too.

Past Lincolns have been marred by mushy brake pedals, but this time engineers benchmarked the X3, and it shows, with good initial bite giving way to a progressive, firm feel from the 13.2-inch front and 12.4-inch rear discs. In terms of swept area, those rotors are similar to the BMW (slightly larger in front and a smidge smaller in back), but they actually have less mass to retard – the Lincoln's curb weight checks in at 3,963 pounds for an all-wheel-drive model like our tester (FWD: 3,771 pounds), whereas an xDrive-equipped X3 weighs between 4,068 and 4,222 pounds, depending on engine. In fact, the MKC is lighter than all key rivals save the class-featherweight Acura and the much stubbier Land Rover.

All in, the MKC is capable of being a good little handler when it's time to get yer ya-yas out, and it's still happy to deliver ride comfort when you just want to have a posh, isolative drive home after a long workday. The last time we remember a Lincoln this dynamically competitive among its peers, it had the letters "LS" affixed to its decklid.

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Lincoln appears to understand that the MKC needs to be very aggressively priced.

The luxury market's other increasingly important touchstones – safety and telematics toys – are present and accounted for, as well. There's the usual cocktail of available features including blind-spot warning, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise and collision warning with brake support, all part of the Technology Package. There's also a new iteration of active park assist that introduces a novel "park out assist" feature that helps navigate out of lot spaces, not just into them. We sampled this system and found that like other such entry-only technologies, it's still a bit fiddly. We'd rather rely on our own spacial awareness and perhaps the standard rearview camera. Finally, the MyLincoln Mobile smartphone app promises fingertip control of things like remote vehicle unlock, remote start (including on a schedule), system warnings and GPS-enabled location.

Thankfully, Lincoln appears to understand that the MKC needs to be very aggressively priced in order to woo potential customers away from more established and more prestigious luxury brands. Indeed, the starting price of a base 2.0L FWD Premiere trim is $33,995 including destination, which is still a good chunk less than the price-leader RDX ($35,790), let alone the much costlier Europeans. Add in all-wheel drive at you're staring at $36,490, but that includes the trick continuously variable suspension system. Our full-house tester with Reserve Package 102A ($6,935 for Vista roof, navigation, blind-spot detection, hands-free liftgate, embedded modem, heated/cooled seats, etc.), miles-deep Ruby Red Metallic paint ($495), Technology Package ($2,235), 19-inch wheels ($395), Climate Package ($580 for heated rear seats and wheel, rain-sense wipers and auto high-beams) and THX audio ($995) rang up at $50,405. That's a considerable sum for a compact CUV, but it's also something of a bargain in its segment – a similarly spec'd X3 will run about 20-percent more. Only the fully loaded Acura asks less, and it's missing a lot of equipment by comparison.

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It's going to be a long time before we'll know if it's possible to resuscitate this damaged brand.

Given Lincoln's long-struggling sales picture here at home, it's perhaps predictable that Ford has significant ambitions for the brand in China, where it has just established a beachhead amidst talk of ambitious volume goals. If anything, it's surprising that it's taken this long for it to enter the market; particularly given the success that General Motors has had with Buick, a similar nameplate that has been working to remove the tarnish from its reputation and balance sheet. Lincoln officials won't admit it, but it seems quite obvious that China is the life raft for the brand – if it doesn't take off the Middle Kingdom, it will be hard to continue investment at home. With China's own CUV sales exploding and none of Lincoln's image baggage weighing on consumers' minds, however, the MKC looks like a reasonable place to start.

It's going to need to be. As it is in China, North America's compact premium crossover segment is just getting dialed-in, but it's already one of the hottest in the market, and the potential for Lincoln to regain badly needed visibility and credibility exists here in a very big way. It's going to be a long time before we'll know if it's possible to resuscitate this damaged brand, probably a decade or more.

Fortunately, the 2015 MKC feels up to the challenge of kicking off the revival.