The mid-sized MKX is Lincoln's first crossover SUV -- replacing the Ford Explorer-based Aviator -- which didn't exactly catch fire. It joins the also-new MKZ sedan and '07 Navigator as an integral part of Lincoln's three-pronged strategy to get back into the thick of the luxury car catfight for customers -- a fight it's been sitting on the sidelines of for at least the past couple of years.

In a way, Lincoln now finds itself in the position that Acura and Lexus were in back in the early 1990s. The only difference being that Lincoln must (SET ITALIC) re-establish (END ITALIC) itself as a well-regarded brand after years of torpor and mediocrity -- instead of building itself up from scratch. That may be harder to do as it's usually easier to make an impression on a blank slate than to erase what's already there and start all over.

That said, MKX is a much more appealing vehicle than the gussied-up Explorer/Aviator ever was.

It offers five-passenger seating, a standard 265 horsepower V-6 (among the most powerful in this price/class; it also runs on regular 87 octane unleaded), a wide ratio six-speed automatic transmission and a dramatic, panorama-style Vista Roof. It comes in either front-drive or all-wheel-drive forms, just like its target competitors -- including most specifically the "benchmark" Lexus RX350.

But -- and this is a key element of Lincoln's comeback strategy -- the MKX is considerably less pricey than its major rival. The standard front-drive model MKX starts at $34,120 -- with the AWD version going for $35,770. Both versions are pretty loaded, too -- with only a handful of big ticket options to add to the price (such as the Vista Roof, GPS unit and upgrade audio system). Do a little checking and you'll find that you can't get near even a base model, front-wheel-drive Lexus RX350 for much less than $37,400 -- or about three grand more than the standard version of the MKX. (The AWD-equipped RX350 raises the bar to $38,800.)

The extra three grand in your pocket is definitely worth taking into account -- perhaps even more so when it comes to luxury-sport crossovers, since the "sport" part (how it looks) is arguably more of an issue than actual sport function. Who autocrosses RX350s or Acura MDXs? So long as it's got good power (the MKX does) doesn't lumber like a farm truck or suck fuel like one (the MKX does neither) the biggest concerns are: Does it look uptown? (check) Has it got the expected "bells and whistles? (check) And: Can it haul a group (family/friends/kids in style and comfort (check) and not get stuck in the snow? (check).

The MKX does all these things about as well, or even better, than the RX350 and other competitors like the Acura MDX. Its standard 3.5 liter V-6 engine only gives away 5 horsepower to the RX350's 3.5 liter V-6 (265 vs. 270), the Lincoln's got a six-speed tranny (the RX has a five-speed) and it offers some pretty cool/unique features like adaptive front headlights that turn with you as the vehicle turns, that huge panorama-style Vista Roof, heated and cooled front seats, available rear seat heaters -- and an available 14-speaker 600 watt THX surround sound audio system with auxiliary iPod jack and MP3 capability.

I was able to try out the optional Adaptive lighting system in some tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina; as advertised, the lights bend with you in a curve, aiding peripheral vision and (says Lincoln) providing up to 36 feet of additional illumination compared with fixed-beam headlights. In rural "deer country" (which includes most of suburbia these days), that extra margin of visibility could mean the difference between a smashed-up front end and a close call.

Definitely worth it.

Another useful MKX feature are the folding and pivoting second-row seats, which also recline up to 15 degrees. The fold/pivot function can be triggered automatically from a remote EasyFold switch in the cargo area. With the second row folded away, the MKX has 68.7 cubic feet of space -- enough to take a nap back there, if you wanted to do that. With the second row in place, cargo capacity is still 32.6 cubic feet -- sufficient room for a 75 pound Black Lab and some bags of stuff.

There's also a door-mounted keypad entry system -- something you won't find on competitor models and a great thing to have if you're like me and have a habit of locking yourself out of the car.

Styling-wise, the MKX is tastefully rendered, with a genuinely attractive exterior shape set off by Lincoln's "waterfall grille" up front and full-length wrap-around tail-light panel with high-visibility LED lighting trimmed in brushed satin/nickle belt-lining out back. The standard 18-inch rims and dual exhaust cutouts add a sporty (but not hyper-macho) flavor. The optional Vista Roof, especially, is striking. It covers almost the entire length of the MKX's roof, with a fixed 15.75 x 31.3-inch rear section and a tilt/sliding 27.3 x 29.4-inch forward sunroof up front. It comes with dual power sunshades, too.

The overall impression of the MKX is "softer" than the crisply cut lines of the Acura MDX -- and smoother and more mellow-looking than the Lexus RX350. Lincoln says the goal was low-key elegance -- expensive and sophisticated in appearance, but not garish or flashy.

It's fair to say that goal was met.

Like the also-new MKZ sedan, the MKX's interior has an interesting and definitely unique "dual breadbox" layout inspired by the Lincolns of the late '60s and early '70s -- with square shapes instead of the typical elliptical/round stuff that's commonplace in other models. As with the exterior, the inside of the MKX is designed, according to Lincoln, to convey relaxed elegance -- and this it does quite nicely. Indirect "cool white" puddle lighting and honey-colored wood/brushed nickel and metal trim accentuate the theme. Visibility all around is excellent and the seats did me no injury during a 5-6 hour drive from somewhere in the wilderness of Tennessee to Asheville, North Carolina.

Another stress-reducer is the absence of over-complex controls as found in an increasing number of luxury vehicles these days. No eye-watering digital readouts or mouse inputs to hassle with; if you want to adjust the climate control's temperature settings or change a CD, just tap the appropriate (and readily identifiable) button or switch. There is still plenty of "technology" where it matters, though -- including standard AdvanceTrac traction control and Roll Stability Control system with side curtain air bags for both rows of seating.

The available GPS navigation system features a touch screen display and text-to-speech technology, too.

Probably the biggest MKX downsides are the absence of a third row, no manual/sport shift function for the six-speed automatic (which isn't as playful as the transmissions found in some competitors) and the still-shaky prestige of the Lincoln nameplate right now. The latter could result in a big hit, depreciation-wise, relative to its chief Lexus, Acura (and even Cadillac) competitors. But that may or may not be an issue for you. And it may not be an issue for Lincoln, either -- if things turn around for Ford's struggling luxury division. After all, Cadillac was in the pit, too -- as recently as five years back. And today it is very much back in the game. Lincoln could make a comeback just as easily.

Maybe it's time to get into an MKX while the deal's are still so favorable.

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