It used to be the king of the hill. It was long, luxurious, powerful and even a bit imposing. They called it 'Town Car' and if you were lucky enough to ride inside of one, you experienced something just a tad bit softer than surfing on a baby pool wave of marshmallows. All the while, the driver had the available power on hand from a bulletproof V-8 engine. It was the definitive luxury car of the 80s, inspiring middle managers across America's boardrooms to throw their rivals under speeding buses in order to climb up another rung in the corporate ladder. If you had one, you had arrived.
Where Lincoln previously meant something real, honest and earned (even if the guts of the Lincoln Town Car back then could be bought for much less coin in the Ford Crown Victoria and Mercury Grand Marquis), the last decade proved that car companies are not something to be put on autopilot. In 2009, only 82,847 cars were sold with a Lincoln badge -- barely a burp compared to the company's appetite in the past (even the year 2000 saw Lincoln move almost 200,000 cars, about the same as Mercedes-Benz sold the same year). Since then, the Lincoln badge lost a lot of luster, looking even more disingenuous compared to the way GM had successfully revived Cadillac over the course of the same period of time.
While Ford promised for years that Lincoln would get dedicated products to boost sales, that never materialized. With the Blue Oval products getting better and better every year and with consumers becoming smarter and smarter by the day, Lincoln's high-priced switcheroo wasn't working.
Today the only unique product you can buy on a Lincoln dealership that you can't find in a Ford store is, ironically, the Town Car. Barely modified from its rear-drive platform from the 80s, the Town Car today is no longer an aspirational vehicle for the up and coming shooting star. It's the domain of the airport shuttle set, found resting in covered condominium parking garages throughout Boca Raton and heard rumbling to life at 5:45 PM to grab the last hot plate served during Steak & Ale's early bird special. For a $46,000 luxury car, the interior is something you'd expect to find in a Chinese taxi.
All this adds up to the fact that we really miss Lincoln having a Town Car that means something. And the opportunity is sitting right there: with no full-size sedan from GM (Cadillac's DTS is going away, while their XTS sedan won't come online until 2012) or Chrysler (its 300 comes close, though), Ford's Lincoln division could really stand tall amongst those buyers who want something domestic, luxurious, spacious and -- most of all -- honest.
The New Town Car
Although it doesn't have the name going for it, we feel that Lincoln's MKT is actually that car. In fact, when we asked our friend at Ford's ad agency why the MKT isn't called the 'Town Car' she smiled and said, "A lot of us have been asking the same question."
We can't figure out why the MKT wouldn't be the perfect heir to the Town Car crown: it's long, luxurious, powerful and imposing. Unlike every other car in the Lincoln lineup, it's perhaps the most masculine of the lot. The front of the vehicle has Lincoln's largest grille (the new, double scapula grille as opposed to the Navigator's adult braces look), while the shoulder line throw off a very smooth dogleg kink behind the rear doors, giving it a swagger we don't see elsewhere in the Lincoln lineup. It's incredibly long too, although still 8 inches shorter than today's Town Car (yet more useful inside). As far as we're concerned, it is the new Town Car.
If the MKT looks familiar, it's because the Ford Flex is its corporate cousin. And found deep within their architectures, the MKT and Flex actually share a lot of platform components with the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS.
But after a month of driving the Flex and MKT back-to-back, we're true believers in the differences between the two cars and think that the baseline price difference of $15,000 from Ford to Lincoln is probably about right. The MKT starts at $44,200, while the version with the Ecoboost engine (a twin-turbo V-6, and one of our favorites) costs $5,000 more. All Ecoboost MKT models come with all-wheel-drive, something that's not necessary for a lot of buyers given the car starts life as a front-driver. But you can't buy the Ecoboost MKT without it, so take what you can get. All-wheel-drive can be had on the base 3.7-liter V-6 engine, though, for about $2,000 more.
Like the Flex, the MKT has the benefits of a station wagon with some of the design characteristics of a modern-day crossover. Technically the MKT is a crossover in that it rides on a car-based platform, but by most counts it is actually just a really useful large luxury sedan. It's tall inside (8 inches taller than the Town Car in total height), easy to get in and out of, but breaks the mold with three rows of seats. The second row can be had with a bench seat or two bucket seats and a long storage area that's useful for stashing stuff (you can even keep drinks cold in the refrigerated section). Opt for the tailgate feature on the third row and those seats flip back so you can sit facing the rear (with the tailgate open only).
Further distancing it from the Flex, the MKT comes with a rather dramatic glass roof -- Lincoln calls it Panoramic Vista -- which can be fixed in place or power-driven to allow for full sky access. There's also a host of goodies that are part of the luxury game in today's market: a standard back-up camera and a beautiful touch-screen LCD display with a navigation system.
One of the highest compliments you can pay a luxury car these days is to be able to use the interior controls without asking for help. Where BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi seem focused on removing buttons from the experience in order to get the driver to use a control device (often a wheel near the gear lever), Ford's system is more useful. It's a massive LCD screen that's easy to read in different sunlight conditions and other than some lag time between different screens, it's one of our favorites anywhere in the market.
Sure, $50,000 isn't cheap. But in the context of luxury sedans (think of the Audi A8, Mercedes-Benz S-class, or BMW 7-series), it's actually well under market value. Some buyers of the named German marques are buying those cars more for some semblance of sportiness, but plenty of others aren't. They want something large and luxurious and premium. For that type of buyer, the MKT is actually a very smart alternative, even if it's called a crossover by other comparisons.
When you talk to buyers of large luxury cars about how they use their vehicles, they typically mention style, the ability to transport colleagues and family comfortably in the back seat, and ample trunk space.
Because the MKT gives up its trunk space to the gods of the third row, there's no actual trunk in the vehicle. Yes, the seats have room behind them (they fold down, too for more cargo space), but there's no traditional closed trunk. In this sense, the MKT falls down a bit against classic sedan comparisons. But we think buyers should get over that; we'd prefer to have the usability of the third row (or fold the seats flat).
Don't get us wrong: this Lincoln won't be bought because of its incredibly sporting character. The Ecoboost (also found on the Flex) is a great engine but it's not a rocketship, nor will it mask the fact that you're driving a 5,000-lb vehicle. Steering is not razor sharp, but it's not meant to be. The driving experience is strong in a straight line, relatively composed under braking and low-speed turns and otherwise comfortable over the worst expansion strips you'll find on the highway (a super long wheelbase has that benefit). The Flex isn't as quiet or soft; compared to other full-size sedans, the MKT is not attempting to recreate a smaller sport sedan: it's just finds a good balance.