In 1998, Lincoln's overall sales made it the number one luxury brand in America. The Navigator, Continental and Town Car weren't exactly world beaters -- let alone an enthusiast's cup of Darjeeling, but the typical Lincoln buyer was getting precisely what he or she expected: soft, cozy, squishy cruisers for soft, squishy old people. In the decade that followed, Ford's U.S. luxury arm has seen about as much success as a modern day typewriter salesman. Mistakes have been made. The Blackwood. The Aviator. The LS. All big-time blunders -- tragically so with the Romulan cloak-inspired design of the LS, as it was a pretty good car under that anonymous sheetmetal -- and all consigned to history.
Fast forward to 2009, and yesterday's gaffes have been replaced with a group of indecipherably-named vehicles that don't seem to be catching the eye of the car-buying public. The MKS, MKZ and MKX are nice enough, with tons of tech and luxury amenities, but America's buying public doesn't seem impressed.
Admittedly, the biggest reason Lincoln was kicking ass on the luxury sales charts last decade was the Navigator. It was big, it could haul heavy loads and it had an over-the-top style that affluent Americans were looking for at the time. Today's Lincoln lineup continues to feature the Navi, but the hefty SUV is no long the toast of the town and its massive girth and lousy fuel economy are borderline synonymous with PR losers like global warming and dependence on foreign oil. The 2010 Lincoln MKT is sized to replace the Navigator, but with the improved packaging, comfort and efficiency of a car-based crossover. We exercised a pair of EcoBoost-powered luxury barges through the twists and turns of Ann Arbor, Michigan to answer one simple question: does the 2010 Lincoln MKT have what it takes to become the spiritual successor to the Navigator and help shake the Lincoln brand of its decade-long sales slump?
For every vehicle that Lincoln has in its lineup, there is a mechanically identical Ford on the more pedestrian side of the gene pool. The MKT is no different, sharing its platform and powertrains with the boxier Ford Flex. To distinguish the two CUVs, Ford is employing a "differentiated top-hat strategy." That means precisely zero sheet metal and fewer interior parts are shared between the two models. That's a terrific change of pace for Dearborn's luxury stepchild, as the days of Lincolns that looked way too much like their Ford siblings are still fresh in our minds. Heck, the "in showrooms now" MKX is still a dead ringer for the Ford Edge, so thorny reminders of its blue collar heritage are still alive and well within Lincoln's current lineup.
When we first laid eyes on the concept version of the MKT at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show, we were surprised by its odd-looking aesthetics. The tintless glass roof made the massive crossover concept appear to suffer from male pattern baldness, while the exaggerated D-pillar was overshadowed by a bulging hindquarters that made J-Lo's booty look benign. Fortunately the production MKT manages to be better looking than the concept, but we wouldn't exactly say Lincoln's new Freightliner is a looker, either.
Up front, Lincoln turned up the design DNA with its new corporate mug. The split waterfall grille is divided by the four pointed star, and whether you love or loathe Lincoln's new face, it's hard to argue that it's now easier than ever to tell a Lincoln from 100 yards out. The front end rounds nicely into the MKT's overtly chiseled belt line, which moves across the profile undisturbed until it ramps up at the rear wheel.
When viewed from behind, the story gets better, as the smooth transition from the roof to the minimalist bumper and interesting, if over-the-top, tail lamps shows that this Lincoln looks best when it's ahead of you. That rump, by the way, was forged with magnesium and aluminum, shaving 22 pounds from the MKT's 5,000-pound curb weight. Sure, Lincoln's newest crossover is a bit homely, but there isn't exactly a plethora of visually stunning luxury family haulers on the market, either.
While we were less than thrilled with the MKT's polarizing exterior, the story improves once you step inside the CUV's commodious interior. High quality leather and soft touch materials abound, with truly impressive blond wood accents that add plenty of visual pop. Ford has faithfully provided very comfortable seating surfaces for some time, and the MKT continues that tradition, but with an added dose of leather-clad luxury.
The MKT can be had in several interior combinations, all of which include a third-row seat. Our Ecoboost-powered test vehicle came equipped with the $4,000 Spec 201A package, which includes Ford's excellent Travel Link navigation package, chrome 20-inch alloys, a panoramic moonroof and second row captain's chairs that mirror the excellent seats in the front row. The third row looks to be about the same size as its Flex sibling; just big enough for a couple of amiable teenagers.
With all rows upright, there is 17.9 cubic feet of space aft of the third row, but available cubes jumps all the way up to 75.9 when the second and third row seats are stowed. Spec 201A also includes a compressor-powered mini-fridge between the second row seats; a feature that MSRPs for $895 as a stand-alone option. The fridge can hold all of seven cans (or about three water bottles) of cooled refreshment, and it can freeze ice in half the time of your Maytag -- a good thing considering it costs as much as the appliance in your kitchen.
Behind the wheel, we were immediately presented with the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel with a real "hold me" feel. Beyond the tiller are Lincoln's corporate white-on-black gauges, which are simultaneously stylish and easy to read. The supple seating surfaces are matched with equally impressive armrests at the door and the center console. The general largesse of the MKT is also evident in the cockpit, as both leg room and hip clearance is plentiful, even for the widest of Autobloggers.
When it's time to take off, the MKT starts with a touch of a button (doesn't everything), bringing Ford's newest powertrain to life. The twin turbocharged 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 boasts 355 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque from 1,500 RPM all the way to 5,250 RPM, resulting in healthy, lag-free acceleration in almost any situation. Ford's claim of the EcoBoost V6 delivering the power of a V8 with the fuel economy of a six-pot are born out through the numbers, returning an EPA-tested 16 MPG in the city and 22 MPG on the highway.
To properly show off the capabilities of the MKT's twin-boosted powerplant, Lincoln provided a V8-powered Audi Q7 to compare and contrast. The Q7's 4.2-liter powerplant flexes its muscles to the tune of 350 hp and 325 lb-ft of twist, similar numbers to the MKT, yet the four-ringed crossover manages only 13/18 EPA numbers, or four fewer highway mpg than the Lincoln. The MKT is also a bit friendlier to the environment than the Q7, as Lincoln claims 19 percent fewer CO2 emissions. When driving the vehicles back to back, the MKT felt significantly more powerful than the 400 pound-heavier Audi, as the Super CUV went from zero to cruising speed with more authority, while providing more punch when accelerating from steady speeds.
The EcoBoost V6 sounds good, too, with a quiet roar on heavy acceleration, and the MKT doesn't just win in terms of power, either, as the large crossover proved to be more agile in the curves while sporting a more impressive, quieter cabin. The Q7 felt tank-like in comparison to the longer, lighter MKT, though the Audi did supply more steering feedback and confidence-inspiring braking compared to the MKT's somewhat numb wheel and spongy stoppers.
The Lincoln engineering team tells us that special attention was paid to the MKT's road handling prowess, and the Ecoboost-equipped variant received a stiffer suspension both front and rear. The Ford stat machine says that the MKT registers a roll gradient score of 3.8 and a roll dampening tally of 23.6, better than the Q7 or the Acura MDX. Our experience with the MKT showed that the big crossover did remain flat and composed at speed on twisty roads, and we feel that the MKT's lower, wagonesque stance helped keep its 255/45/R20 Goodyear radials firmly planted to the road.
Despite the MKT's fairly impressive performance chops, this three-row crossover is still at its best when cruising, proving flat out comfy in every environment, with a plush, bump-soaking ride, a pristine THX sound system and terrific ride height and visibility. During our road trip we were able to hold conversations in muted tones thanks to laminated glass and sound deadening insulation. We did detect some minor road noise emanating from the spanking new Goodyear radials, but the back roads we traversed could be at least partly to blame for the intermittent issue.
With the 2010 Lincoln MKT, the Blue Oval appears to have a very competent luxury cruiser that can stand up to the competition in terms of performance, efficiency, technology and luxury amenities. But while we enjoyed our time behind the wheel, we still don't see Lincoln's new crossover as being the answer to Ford's prayers. The MKT may have the size and luxury to replace the Navigator, but despite its assertive love-it-or-hate-it design, it just doesn't have that "King of the Road" swagger that made Lincoln's first SUV a smash hit in the urban jungle. The MKT is most certainly a fine entry in the large luxury crossover market, though, and that might be all that's needed to keep Lincoln buyers in the family when the time comes to trade in their aging Navis.