Shows other luxury hybrids how it's done

2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid – Click above for high-res image gallery

On the whole, luxury manufacturers just can't seem to figure out what to do with hybrid drivetrains. Sure, there's some vague notion of improved fuel economy, but for every fuel-sipping Lexus HS250h, there's a 455-horsepower, 26-mpg BMW ActiveHybrid 750i to balance the scales. Part of the problem is that fuel economy and luxury traditionally play as well together as 50 Cent and KC and the Sunshine Band. High-end autos are synonymous with power, weight and cabins large enough to comfortably raise a middle-class family, while their miserly counterparts tend to be tinny contraptions with the driving dynamics of low-rent washing machines.

But that doesn't mean there aren't automakers trying to meld the two. One of the big buzz phrases making its way around automotive circles right now is "The 'And' Car." That is, a vehicle capable of being all things to all people through the miracle of technology. Lincoln believes it's come up with just such a creation in the 2011 MKZ Hybrid – a sedan that bests the fuel economy of the competition by a wide margin and provides all of the luxury amenities buyers demand. The question is, have they pulled it off? (this post continues after the jump)

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

Lincoln's designers have done a smart job crafting the MKZ Hybrid so that the average passer-by would have a hard time telling it shares more than a few bones with the electrified Ford Fusion. Like its non-Atkinson cycle brother, the MKZ Hybrid wears completely different sheetmetal from the A-pillar forward. More subtle fenders, a hood with fewer compound details and, of course, Lincoln's baleen grille on the front fascia are additions that do well to differentiate the MKZ from its more common cousin. Likewise, splashes of chrome along the lower fascia, mirrors and window sills also help to separate the two. We're not crazy about the shiny stuff, especially when it comes to the perpetually-smudged door handles, but this is a Lincoln, after all – chrome is a birthright in these parts.

The rear of the MKZ Hybrid holds up its end of the bargain when it comes to separating itself from the Fusion. Broad, horizontal taillights replace the trapezoidal pieces of the Blue Oval and lend the car a more stately appearance. The tall Lincoln crosshair emblem does seem a little crowded by the vehicle's rear-view camera lens, but that only comes to light if, like us, you've spent more than a minute or two with your eyeballs locked on an MKZ in front of you in D.C. traffic.

Unfortunately, we'd be lying if we said that the Lincoln's interior was anything short of disappointing, especially when it comes to the instrument panel and center stack. While our photo tester was clad in an Executive Package that swapped the vast expanses of cheap-feeling black plastic for wood veneer culled from renewable forests, the base trim serves up surfaces that are far below what we've come to expect from most Ford vehicles, let alone the company's luxury wing.

Without the wood overlay, the vehicle's squared-off center stack is neither attractive nor fitted with climate or entertainment controls that feel worthy of its MSRP. The same could be said for the door panels – a real shame considering that the massive LCD touchscreen mounted mid-dash is downright gorgeous. Likewise, the dual-LCD instrument cluster with its large center-up speedometer carries the kind of tech-centric design we'd love to see elsewhere in the cabin. Unfortunately, it's just not there.

But where the dash falls short, the standard leather seating surfaces absolutely shine. The hides are from some far-flung corner of Scotland where the tanners still use a chromium-free curing process – something that's important when you're selling a car that's supposed to be doing its part to save the planet. The perforated thrones breathe well, are nearly infinitely power adjustable and they're heated and cooled. Even better, they're standard equipment.

The good news is that while the instrument panel may not be the most stunning piece of interior design we've come across, it is well sorted. During our brief stint behind the wheel, we couldn't come up with anything to complain about ergonomically. The steering-wheel mounted controls for cruise and entertainment are easy enough to memorize and the buttons on the center stack, while cheap, are a cinch to navigate. Inside, the MKZ Hybrid is a case of function over form.

Of course, those shopping for a luxury hybrid will be most interested in what's going on under the hood, and to that end, the new Lincoln hybrid is no disappointment. The MKZ makes use of the same 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine found in the Fusion Hybrid, complete with a combined 191 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. The mill is mated to a CVT gearbox that handles putting power to the front wheels without relying on an abundance of buzzing rpm. Lincoln and the EPA claim the combo is good for 41 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway, though we're here to tell you that if you leave the car idling for two hours for a photo shoot, those figures will fall off precipitously. Just sayin'.

Before setting our lenses on the 2011 MKZ Hybrid, we saw around 38.6 mpg in mixed driving – damned impressive for a car with a total of 99 cubic feet of passenger room and the burden of lugging around a nickel-metal hydride battery. In an age when most compacts are struggling to crest the 40 mpg barrier, a mid-sized luxury cruiser that hits the mark is something worthy of wonder. But for us, the best part isn't the fact that it could conceivably save its owner 2,000 gallons of gasoline over 150,000 miles, it's the fact that it drives just like a normal vehicle.

There is no waiting for acceleration or awkward transition between gasoline and electric power. Like the Fusion Hybrid, the MKZ variant can whisk you along on all-electric go-go at speeds up to 47 mph. Were it not for a lack of engine idle at start up, we would have a hard time telling the difference between this MKZ and its non-hybrid counterpart. In short, buyers really don't have to make a sacrifice when it comes to opting for better fuel economy. For the first time in history, you really can have all of the legroom and trunk space of a mid-size luxury bruiser and the fuel economy of a compact in the same package.

Despite having just below 200 horsepower on tap, the MKZ Hybrid is a comfortable driver. We never found it out of breath while jousting with beltway traffic or accelerating for a pass, and on some of the spirited tarmac outside of D.C.-proper, it proved to be a surprisingly well mannered platform. While incredibly comfortable over broken pavement, the MKZ Hybrid doesn't deliver the typical slosh-and-dive indicative of prehistoric American luxury products. Its electronic systems and suspension are all well-matched for a finished product that's very well-rounded.

Surprisingly enough, Lincoln has sought to make the MKZ Hybrid a value story on top of being the most fuel-efficient car in its class. At a starting price of $35,180 (including destination), the MKZ Hybrid will set you back just as much as its V6 counterpart. Given this news, we start to understand some of the shortcuts the company took in the cabin, even if we don't approve of them. We would just as soon see the MSRP climb by a thousand dollars if it came with the kind of world-class interior we know Ford is capable of. If you don't believe us, have a close look at what the Blue Oval is up to in the 2011 Edge.

Fortunately, Lincoln says that we should hold onto our hats. According to the automaker, it's planning a deluge of new and updated models to be rolled out in short order, and we're hoping those plans include a refreshing of the MKZ cabin.

Even with its less-than-inspired innards, the MKZ Hybrid has no problem besting its closest competitor, the Lexus HS250h, in every way. With more room and power, a quieter cabin, a comparable MSRP and significantly better fuel economy, it's simply a better vehicle. Lincoln may not have seamlessly wedded the two worlds of luxury and fuel economy with the 2011 MKZ Hybrid just yet, but it has started down a path that will eventually result in a luxury hybrid that doesn't ask its owner to make any compromises.

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

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