For the last year and a half, Ford has repeatedly discussed EcoBoost as its high volume, mainstream technology for reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. While Ford is putting a lot of effort into developing hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles, the high cost of those technologies will keep volumes low for the near term. Meanwhile, engine downsizing combined with turbocharging and direct fuel injection (GTDI) can cut consumption for a much lower cost. The technology arrives this summer, and while it has a green sheen to it, there's plenty of excitement for gearheads, as we've just learned.
Ford's first GTDI engine is the 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 that is set to debut in the Lincoln MKS, MKT, Ford Flex and Taurus SHO. Over the last eight months, Ford has conducted a number of background preview drives with EcoBoost equipped vehicles that we haven't been allowed to discuss. With production starting in the next few weeks, however, Ford allowed us to drive some pilot production examples of the two Lincolns powered by EcoBoost engines at its Romeo Proving Ground in Michigan. This time, we can finally tell you about it and give you a preview of the new MKT.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc
With sales of the big Navigator sinking into oblivion along with just about every other full size SUV, Lincoln is introducing the MKT as a three-row, seven-passenger alternative for those who need something a bit bigger than the MKX. The MKT shares its Volvo-derived architecture with the Ford Flex. The rectilinear super-sized Mini styling of the Flex has been replaced with a look more in keeping with the current Lincoln design language that debuted on the MKR concept before being adapted to the production MKS. It is a look that's at once distinctive and controversial – not everyone will like it, but the MKT certainly stands apart from the crowd.
For our preview drive, we had the chance to compare the EcoBoost-equipped MKT against a more SUV-minded crossover, the 4.2-liter V8-powered Audi Q7. The Audi was chosen because, like the Lincoln, it can accommodate seven occupants (five in actual comfort) with a similar footprint. When developing the MKT and MKS, Lincoln considered whether to offer a V8 engine to compete with premium competitors. However, given the expectation that fuel economy and emissions standards would get tougher, the choice was made to follow a different path.
Thus, the Blue Oval has wrought an EcoBoost V6 that produce power levels equal to or better than competing 4.2- to 4.6-liter V8 engines, but with substantially better torque. We've already described the EcoBoost technology at length so we'll just briefly recap here. Turbocharging is nothing new to Ford or other automakers. Ford first started playing with downsized turbocharged engines in the early '80s. At that time, carburetors and and later port fuel injection meant that compression ratios had to be cut in order to prevent knocking and detonation. The result was weak low end torque, followed by a sudden rush of power. These engines had reliability issues and generally weren't that pleasant to drive.
The key to these new engines is direct fuel injection. With the turbochargers now pushing nothing but compressed air into the combustion chamber, there is no longer an opportunity for pre-ignition. Directly injecting fuel into the combustion chamber actually cools the compressed intake charge allowing the compression ratio of the EcoBoost engines to be kept much higher than in the past. The result: the 3.5-liter EcoBoost hits its torque peak of 350 lb-ft at just 1,500 rpm and stays there all the way to 5,250 rpm. The power peaks at 355 hp at 5,700 rpm. By comparison, the Q7 V8 generates only 325 lb-ft and peaks at 3,500 rpm.
For our preview drive of the EcoBoost MKT, we started off with three laps of the Romeo Proving Ground's five-mile high speed oval in both vehicles. For the first lap, we ran at speeds of up to 100 mph to evaluate the power and smoothness of the engines at sustained high speeds. For the second lap, we dropped speeds down to about 40 mph and tried out light to medium throttle tip-ins to simulate what a driver might need to make a pass on a two-lane road. For the third and final lap, we set the cruise control to 70 mph and reset the mileage readout to record highway mileage at constant speed.
Anyone who's driven any of the bigger Fords and Lincolns of the past couple of years will be familiar with Ford's 6F50 six-speed automatic transaxle. This unit was co-developed with General Motors, but each company does their own control software. In Blue Oval guise, this transmission is one of the smoothest shifting units on the market. For EcoBoost applications, the gearbox has been upgraded with beefed-up gears and clutches and an optimized torque converter. The EcoBoost versions also get steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and standard all-wheel drive.
As we soon discovered, the engine and transmission combination seems particularly well matched in these vehicles. In fact, anyone who was to climb in and drive off in a MKT without knowing what was under the hood would be hard pressed to guess that only six cylinders are doing the heavy lifting. In spite of the immense torque, the MKT just pulls away from the line smoothly and quietly. In fact, quiet is the major element of the MKT driving experience. Ford's aerodynamicists have put a lot of effort into subduing wind noise, which, combined with thicker acoustic side glass and an upgraded structure, allow the MKT to cruise in comfort at speeds well beyond 100 mph. When cruising at more modest velocities, the EcoBoost V6 is nearly silent and vibration free, only making its presence felt audibly when you stand on it. Even then, it produces a quality mechanical sound that's a satisfying addition to the driving experience.
Where the EcoBoost engine really showed its performance advantage over the Audi was when it came to throttle tip-in. The EcoBoost's fat and flat torque curve gives the Lincoln a response that is almost diesel-like, albeit without the attendant soundtrack. A light squeeze on the go pedal results in a seamless sweep of the speedometer needle clockwise around the dial, even without a kick-down of the transmission. Simply put, it's just a rush of acceleration. Regardless of whether you're going from 40 to 60 mph, from 50 to 70 mph, or 70 to 100 mph, the result is the same. Attempting the same feat in the Q7 results in a response far less impressive in its forcefulness. As good an engine as the Audi V8 is, it simply doesn't have anywhere near the low-end torque of the EcoBoost V6.
Of course, the biggest reason for going with a boosted V6 rather than a V8 is better fuel consumption. We ran a five-mile lap in each vehicle with the cruise control set at 70 mph. This is obviously far too short a test to be considered definitive, but it gives a reasonable indication of the results we can expect. Winds were blowing at speeds up to 40 mph on the day of our drive, but since we ran in both directions on the oval, its impact was minimized. The final EPA numbers for the MKT aren't ready yet, but Ford is expecting them to be at least 16 mpg city and 22 mpg on the highway. For comparison's sake, the Audi Q7 is rated by the EPA at 13/18 mpg and it registered 18.8 mpg on our short test. The same resulted in an average of 22 mpg for MKT, with a peak of 23.8 mpg on the tailwind side of the oval. That's a healthy 17% better than the V8-powered Audi, although other factors like weight, aerodynamics, mechanical drag, etc. need to be considered in this comparison.
Following our oval laps, we headed over to the hill route and durability loops for some ride and handling evaluations of the MKT and Q7. When we drove the Flex last summer, we were particularly impressed with the dynamic behavior of the big wagon. For such a large vehicle, it felt remarkably well-balanced with a great combination of spring and damping rates that kept body roll and understeer in check while still delivering a comfortable ride. For the EcoBoost MKT, the engineers have continued tweaking the formula, and when run back to back against the Q7, the difference was immediately apparent. In short, the Flex drives like a vehicle much smaller than it is, and the same is true of the MKT in spite of its luxury ambitions. You can manhandle the MKT hard into a corner, and the combination of well-tuned mechanical bits and seamless stability control intervention allow it to just track through at speeds that are surprisingly high for a CUV.
Unlike many of the other premium vehicles on the road with automatic transmissions, the MKT doesn't offer an explicit sport mode for the transmission. Sport modes typically move the shift points higher and enable downshifts under braking. Normally, moving the shifter to the manual mode enables the steering wheel paddles. However, moving the gearshift to manual (but not touching the paddles) enables a hill mode that behaves in much the same way. While the EcoBoost doesn't really need the higher revs to optimize performance thanks to its ample torque, the automatic downshifts can be handy and entertaining during more aggressive driving.
Aside from changes to the springs and dampers, the only real mechanical change to the suspension of the EcoBoost vehicles is the debut of electric power steering assist. The EPAS system will eventually be rolled out to non-EcoBoost models, as well. EPAS is notoriously hard to calibrate for good feedback, with only a few vehicles doing an excellent job, other systems border on terrible. The MKT falls somewhere in the middle. There are no on-center dead zones like we've experienced in the Acura TL and TSX, but the effort is a bit on the light side under some conditions. Overall, it is a good effort and the steering engineers will no doubt continue to tweak the calibrations.
Around the facility's durability route, there were a variety of different surfaces, many of them uneven, replicating roads that can be found out in the real world. It was here that the MKT really outshone the Q7. The big German bobbed nervously up-and-down and side-to-side over uneven pavement in a manner that would prompt most drivers to slow down significantly. The MKT, on the other hand, exhibited far superior control over both its vertical and lateral body motions. At the same time, the bumps and valleys were simply gobbled up by the suspension, keeping things serene inside the cabin.
Speaking of the cabin, we found the inside of the MKT a wonderful place to be. The dashboard and door panels are trimmed in cut-and-sew leather, and all models get the same eight-inch LCD touchscreen in the center stack – regardless of whether they are equipped with a nav system. Even without nav, you get the same basic graphical interface that we've found to be among the easiest to use of any on the market, regardless of price. The MKT seats are also outstanding, with nice, long lower cushions that provide excellent thigh support. All MKTs get a massive glass roof as standard, with a retracting panel over the front row as an option. The one place where the Lincoln loses out to its Ford-badged sibling, however, is the third row. The forward sloping rear glass and downward trending roof means the back row is a bit tighter in terms of headroom than the cubist Ford.
Once we finished with the MKT, we ran the same evaluations with the MKS four-door and found much the same results. For the sedan, Ford offered up competition in the form of the Infiniti M45X and Cadillac STS. Both of the competitors are at the end of their lifecycles, but remain competent vehicles, particularly the former. Perhaps when Lincoln gets around to longer drives of the EcoBoost MKS, they will bring out the new Mercedes E-Class instead. Regardless of the competition, the MKS revealed itself to be a surprisingly good car. That's significant, because as recently as a decade ago, the thought of a big Lincoln sedan that could run like the MKS was all but unthinkable.
Over the same hill route as the MKT, the MKS more than held its own and felt surprisingly tossable. The EcoBoost V6 proved to have plenty of grunt for pulling out of corners, and the suspension kept the car remarkably composed. Just as in the crossover, there is no adaptive damping on the Lincoln, but the system kept body motions well under control at all times. When we hit the oval with the sedans, the results also corresponded to what we experienced with the MKT.
In spite of the ten-inch longer Lincoln weighing some 300 pounds more, it felt significantly more responsive both at full and part throttle compared to the Infiniti, whose 4.5-liter V8 is rated at 325 hp and 336 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The MKS' mileage results were also similar to its more family-minded sibling. We averaged 25.1 mpg around the loop in the Lincoln, while the M45x only achieved 21 mpg, a disadvantage of 16.4%. Again, the results of our too-brief test should be taken with several grains of salt, but they should also provide a reasonably accurate forecast at what to expect in real-world driving.
All four EcoBoost models go on sale later this summer, and we'll have more in-depth reviews when they are available. Come 2010, Ford promises that a longitudinal version of the EcoBoost V6 will find a home in the F-150 pickup (and most likely in the Mustang eventually, as well). We've already driven an early prototype F-150 with EcoBoost, and while it was far from finished, our initial impressions were positive. In fact, it bordered on "Who needs a V8?" Sometime later next year, we also expect to also see the first four-cylinder EcoBoost engines in the bay of the next-generation Focus. Although the latter application will probably be more fuel-economy minded than performance oriented, but we can hardly wait.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc