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In the Autoblog Garage: 2007 Lincoln MKZ AWD

click above image to view high-res pics of the 2007 Lincoln MKZ AWD

This review won't be as long as most since we had the opportunity to test the 2006 Lincoln Zephyr just last year. For 2007, the Zephyr becomes the MKZ (pronounced Em Kay Zee) and gains improvements that should have been present last year when the car debuted. Items like a more powerful 3.5L V6 and all-wheel drive have been added, along with the most mild of tweaks to the front end. So the question that arrived along with our Lincoln MKZ AWD tester is whether or not what's been added for 2007 has improved the car's appeal.
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We concluded last year that the Zephyr relied on style to set it apart from its platform mates, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. Where those two less expensive cars are about as different as the old Taurus and Sable were, the Lincoln brand got a car with divergent styling that on the outside is unremarkable and on the inside striking.

We favored the Zephyr's unique interior that used symmetry of lines and deep depressions to good effect. Though some find it garish, we found it interesting and a welcome relief to the flush waterfall designs of so many modern day dashes. Thus, we're pleased that virtually nothing was changed inside the car during its transition from Zephyr to MKZ. The comfy and supportive seats, top-notch nav system (love those digital breadcrumbs!) and excellent sound system return to make the new MKZ an excellent decompression chamber during the commute home.

Likewise, the MKZ's exterior design hasn't changed much at all from the Zephyr's. When the MKZ first debuted, Lincoln did boast about the car's revised front end, but we hardly consider tweaking the lower air intake and adding chrome surrounds to the driving lights a proper revision. The only real change to this car's exterior is the addition of MKZ badging, so if you loved it or loathed it last year, you'll likely feel the same way about it now. We were fond of the Amethyst Clearcoat Metallic paint that coated our tester this time around, though was disturbed to learn while refueling that the gas cap had no where to hang except against the purple paint job.

The main reason we were eager to get this Lincoln back in the Autoblog Garage is the new 3.5L V6 that lies underhood. Replacing the Zephyr's underpowered 3.0L V6 that produced 221 horsepower and 204 ft-lbs. of torque, the new powerplant offers a substantial increase in power -- up to 263 horsepower and 249 ft-lbs. of torque. What's more, the new 3.5L is destined to play a large part in Ford's future powertrain plan, ending up in 20% of Blue Oval-badged vehicles by 2010.

For 2007, however, the new 3.5L V6 engine stands as the primary distinguishing feature between the MKZ and less expensive Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, which are still only available with the 3.0L V6. Whereas it was difficult to argue the Zephyr was nothing more than a pricier Fusion, the MKZ finally offers an exclusive feature.

Unfortunately, we were less impressed with the 3.5L V6 than we expected to be, especially considering that Ward's placed the brand-new mill on its 2007 Top Ten Engines list. Perhaps high expectations skewed our judgment, but the new 3.5L V6 is not a game-changing engine among high-volume V6s. It's powerful, reasonably refined and as efficient as its competition, but doesn't lead the segment in any one area.

The availability of all-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic are the other new items available for 2007, though they're also available on the Fusion and Milan. We suspect that the six-speed automatic had something to do with our lackluster reaction to the new engine. While a smooth shifter, the new six-speed lacks any type of manual control. Even though we hate manumatics, it would have been nice to choose and hold our own gears since we often disagreed with the new automatic's gear selection. Often while cruising, a decent jab of the throttle would drop the transmission down only one gear when we were expecting two.

While it's tough to judge the efficacy of the new all-wheel drive system, at least not without a layer of fresh powder, we do note its availability as addressing what's becoming a necessity in this entry-level luxury class. While the additional security of AWD is welcome, the added weight and parasitic loss of power through the extra drivetrain components wasn't. It's true that either AWD or rear-wheel drive are the most popular arrangements in this class, but Ford's CD3 chassis has established itself as one of the better handling front-wheel drive platforms on the market. In fact, the most fun we've had in one of these cars came during our time behind the wheel of the I4 Ford Fusion with a manual transmission. It's nimble handling made up for a lack of grunt, and perhaps that's why the heavier MKZ felt less fun to drive despite its horsepower advantage.

Despite our criticisms, the MKZ is a better car than the Zephyr was with its bigger V6 that clearly casts it as the premium selection in Ford's triumvirate of midsize family sedans. Lincoln's larger concern, however, should be how the MKZ compares to its similarly priced competition in the $30k to $35k range. Dave Thomas at compiled a list of entry-level luxury sedans that can be had for $35,000 or less, which include an Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chrysler, Subaru, Volvo and a pair of Lexuses. While each offers varying levels of content, luxury and power compared to the MKZ, all are compelling. For that matter, as Thomas points, so is a loaded Ford Fusion V6 AWD at $28,265.

To answer the question we posed at the beginning of this review, yes, the MKZ is a more appealing car then the Zephyr. The problem facing Lincoln is that the standard for this segment keeps rising and its siblings from Ford and Mercury represent a better value. In the end, the MKZ relies on what style it has to charm potential buyers, just like the Zephyr before it. Since style is subjective, it won't be at the top of everyone's list, but those who do choose the Lincoln MKZ will have enough here to hang their head high.

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