First Drive: 2011 Lincoln MKX

Lincoln Follows Ford and Takes the Refresh to a New Level

2011 Lincoln MKX - Click above for high-res image gallery

If there's a sales star of the Lincoln lineup, it's the MKX. Ford's luxury arm has managed to move over 100,000 of the leather-lined crossovers since 2006, and that pace doesn't look to be slowing anytime soon. Lincoln says the crossover market here in the U.S. is bound to swell considerably in the coming years, and since it already represents nearly four percent of the automotive industry as a whole, everyone seems to know that this is no place to cut corners. Fortunately, the MKX is set to enjoy its second refresh since hitting the market four years ago.

Given the vehicle's significance, it should come as no surprise that Lincoln is using the 2011 MKX as a springboard for its vision of the company's future. The refreshed MKX benefits from a raft of updates that include many of the changes we saw hit the crossover's Blue Oval clone, the 2011 Ford Edge. With more power, a quieter cabin and an interior that's finally becoming of a true luxury brand, the MKX has the makings of a sales winner. We're just not sure the Lincoln high-rider is far enough away from its kissing-cousin.

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

Outside, Lincoln has walked away from the semi-retro front fascia of last year's model in favor of the swept corporate nose of the MKT. While we typically despise communal fascia design, the baleen grille does wonders for the nose of the MKX, and helps to further separate the crossover from the Edge. The ample chrome up front gives the CUV a proud face that fits well with the upwardly-mobile Lincoln brand, and that theme is carried on throughout the rest of the exterior. Like the MKZ Hybrid, the new MKX wears more than a few chrome accents. While we have no problem with the shiny stuff on the front fascia, we'd just as soon skip it along the window sills and the door handles.

Speaking of chrome, flashy 18-inch wheels are standard issue, though for a little extra coin, Lincoln will be happy to set you up with 20-inch rollers should your heart desire. Both designs are sharp as a tack, so you really can't go wrong no matter which you choose.

Move to the rear of the 2011 MKX, and you're met with a derrière that's as attractive as a crossover's tail-end can be. Lincoln hasn't exactly taken any design risks with the hatch, but it does a good enough job tying the common themes of the company's design while still being clean and attractive. This is one place where the faux-chrome accents are a blessing. The bezels surrounding the tail lamps do an excellent job of adding just the right amount of flash to the staid rear end.

But as nice as the changes to the exterior of the 2011 MKX are, they pale in comparison to what's gone on inside. Ford brought the full brunt of its enthusiasm for well-crafted interiors to bear on the MKX, and it shows. Buyers can clad their cabin in any number of accent materials and leather color combinations, but we were plenty smitten with the wood/cream combo of our tester. The seats, with their contrasting piping and excellent leather, are a work of art in and of themselves, and the dash is coated with thick, double-stitched hide as well.

Lincoln did an amazing thing for the MKX by sending the old, squared-off center stack of the 2010 model to the dumpster in favor of more organic lines. For 2011, the vehicle makes use of the same touch-capacitive climate and entertainment controls as found in the new Edge, more or less. The Lincoln version of the tech uses unique sliders for the volume and fan controls instead of rotary knobs. Touch your finger to the plastic, slide left or right and subtle lights follow your digit along. It's trick stuff, but it doesn't always work as seamlessly as, say, an iPod.

The one hang-up that we ran across is that the switchgear in the MKX is more or less comparable to the goodies found in the lower-rung Edge SEL and SE. If, like us, you were hoping to see the mouth-watering Sony center stack from the Edge Sport in the MKX, you're simply out of luck. The reason? Lincoln is joined at the hip with THX when it comes crafting its vehicles' sound systems, so there was no room for Sony in the MKX cabin.

That's not all bad news, though. The MKX is available with a surround-sound stereo that's completely capable of vibrating your inner organs to jelly. The THX-II system uses a total of 14 speakers scattered through the cabin along with some impressive software to make the most out of whatever music you're playing. It can even take the traditionally flat sound of an MP3 or music from satellite radio and expand it into a 5.1 surround signal. The company calls it DTS Neural technology, and even better, the system actively works to reduce distortion, so if you happen to be rocking to Queens of the Stone Age's In the Fade at max volume, the stereo will keep the bone-rattling bass line from washing out the vocals. The bottom line is that you can have all of the speakers in the world in a cabin, but if the system's processing software isn't up to snuff, you're just wasting your time.

Interestingly enough, Ford has chosen to saddle every MKX with the new 3.7-liter V6 found in the Edge Sport. While that means that there's a full 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque at your beck and call, it also means that the Lincoln won't be seeing any of the more fuel-savvy power plants that Edge buyers will be enjoying. That includes the turbocharged, direct-injection Ecoboost four-cylinder headed to the Ford high-rider towards the middle of next year.

The good news is the 3.7-liter V6 isn't exactly a slouch in terms of fuel economy. While it produces 40 more horsepower than the outgoing mill, it also nets 1 mpg better fuel economy in both city and highway driving for a grand total of 19/26, respectively. How'd they do it? Tricks like fuel-shutoff while coasting, an alternator that only charges the battery when its needed and low rolling-resistance tires are all part of the recipe.

The engine is bolted to a six-speed automatic transmission, and buyers can have their MKX in either front or all-wheel drive. If you want the glory of all four wheels pulling, expect to pay an additional $1,850.

Lincoln has made much of the fact that the MKX now boasts a new quieter cabin, and it's true. Compared to the 2010 model, the interior is a remarkably more pleasant place to spend time. Tricks like an acoustic windshield and extra baffling all help to keep things quiet inside. Lincoln's engineers say that the interior is even quieter than what the new Edge has to offer, but if it is, we couldn't tell.

Maybe we could have if we hadn't spent the earlier part of the morning destroying our hearing with the THX sound system. But completely worth it.

On the road, you won't run into any surprises compared to the Edge Sport. Acceleration is more than ample, and if you really send your right foot digging into the accelerator, you're rewarded with meaty V6 roar. It's surprising, but in a good way. We were only able to spend time in an all-wheel drive tester, so we can't comment on how well the front-wheel drive version handles all 305 horsepower.

As in the Edge Sport, the six-speed automatic gearbox takes on shifting duties without missing a beat. Selections are quick and precise, and the logic involved is spot-on. When it came right down to it, the cog-box tied with the vehicle's updated brake system took the title for our new favorite mechanical update. Stomp the stop pedal and you're no longer met with the mushy fade of the 2010 MKX. Instead, deceleration feels crisp with a firm pedal that goes a long way toward building confidence. It's a huge improvement.

Lincoln will politely ask you to hand over $39,145 for the base MKX in front-wheel drive guise, and $40,995 for the all-wheel drive variant, excluding destination. That lines up nicely with the competition, including the Cadillac SRX, Audi Q5 and Acura ZDX, but we're more interested in what that kind of change nets you over the equivalent Ford Edge Sport. The short answer is, not much. The Blue Oval equivalent is just as quiet, comfortable and stylish as its Lincoln alternative for around $3,000 cheaper, and there just isn't enough differentiation between the two to make the premium worth it.

Considering that Lincoln says that the fair majority of MKX buyers are "brand-agnostic," that's a problem. We can't imagine there are too many people out there buying Lincoln for the name on the fob, and if the company really wants to put itself on equal footing with the likes of Cadillac, Infiniti and Lexus, it's going to need to separate models like the MKX a little further from its daddy in Dearborn.

Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL

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