to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve.
World War II ended 72 years ago, but echoes of the conflict are still bouncing around the hallways of Dearborn and New York. How else to explain the way the standard-bearers for American luxury have become obsessed with beating the Germans at their own game? After decades of listless bloat and creative stagnation, both Cadillac and Lincoln emerged from the recession with the sleek, sporty sedans of Deutschland squarely in their sights. So for the past seven years, it's been out with the old, musty trappings of domestic opulence—boat-like suspensions, La-Z-Boy seats, and lazier engines—and in with the stylish, tightly-wound mystique of their European competitors.
And while you can spend all day mocking the way things used to be, it does feel like some quintessential parts of American luxury are sorely missing from current high-end domestic offerings. I'm not saying things were better when you could fit 20 bodies in the trunk of a softly-sprung Town Car, but there was a comforting grandeur to the old vanguard that's missing from the flashy new recruits. For all their faults, the cars both U.S. luxury carmakers made in the closing years of the 20th Century were all remarkably self-assured, no matter how terrible they really were. Building on nearly a century of experience, they had arrived.
But in this new era, it's back to square one. They're the new kids, anxious and unsure, and they've each taken a different approach to fitting in. With its lithe, rear-wheel-drive sedans and V Series division, Cadillac wants to steal buyers from BMW. Meanwhile, Lincoln's path has been less clear. Its high-end moves, like re-introducing the Continental as a flagship sedan and further fancifying the Navigator, seem targeted at Mercedes-Benz. When you look at its whole lineup, though, the attempts to shape the mushy concept of "generalized luxury" into something marketable call Audi to mind. And let's not even get into those Matthew McConaughey ads.
It's exactly that kind of split thinking that led to today's subject. The Ford Fusion-based Lincoln MKZ has a slick design inside and out, a 400 horsepower, twin-turbo engine, the same torque vectoring all-wheel-drive system from the Ford Focus RS, and loads of fancy tech. But it's also caught between two worlds, like a middle-aged American tourist who's not quite sure about the gimp suit he just put on in a Berlin nightclub. To see which side it lands on, The Drive borrowed a 2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve for a holiday weekend slog from New York City to the beautiful Adirondack Mountains upstate and back.
- Corporate grilles are generally a plague, but the Lincoln MKZ's adoption of the Continental fascia did wonders for the car. The previous design was often mocked as having a whale face; the new clip looks a little more grand on the flagship sedan, but the MKZ carries it with an understated confidence and dignity. I'm a firm believer in the importance of straight lines in car design, and it's nice to see Lincoln dial back the swoop a little bit. People have tried to ding it by calling it a knockoff of Jaguar—previously owned by Ford—to which I say, is that a really bad thing?
- One of the MKZ's coolest features is the voluminous panoramic roof. That's because unlike in a lot of cars, it's more than just a really big moonroof—the entire roof panel slides back at the touch of a button to nearly turn the car into the only targa-topped model the company has ever sold. The glass panel does cut rearward visibility just a tad when it's open, but puttering around the rolling hills of the Lake George region on a gorgeous early fall day, I found the increase in upward visibility and fresh air well worth the trade-off.
- For all its shortcomings—and don't worry, we'll get to those—come on, it's undeniably a net positive for the universe that a 400-horsepower Lincoln can be had from the factory. The 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6 also puts out 400 pound-feet of torque, and chirping the tires in first or second gear is as easy as stomping the gas pedal in Sport mode. It doesn't make you forget that you're piloting around just under two tons of metal and plastic, but there's more grunt at the ready than the average buyer will ever need on the highway. The power isn't shouty or neck-snapping; it's more of a confident upswell, like an airline pilot translating the hectic commands of my right foot into a smooth-yet-authoritative drawl.
- The MKZ Reserve has a pretty robust feature set starting at $40,000, with heated and cooled front seats, voice-activated navigation, and a power trunk lid all dumped in along with the bells and whistles found on lower versions of the car. A $3,400 Driver's Package throws a bunch of cosmetic upgrades like aluminum pedals and blacked-out brake calipers, plus the torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive, massaging seats, and a sportier suspension. There's also an available $4,000 Luxury Package that adds a fantastic Revel Ultima 20-speaker audio system, and I want to commend Ford for developing a very functional, usable infotainment system in Sync. [Agree to disagree. —Ed.]
- I made the mistake of trying to leave New York City at 3:30 in the afternoon on the Friday before Labor Day, which resulted in me and my unfortunate passenger sitting in gridlock near the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel for about an hour. After that, it was another three hours of bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go traffic until things finally cleared up far north of the city. I was happy to let the adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capabilities handle most of that nonsense, and pleased to find I rarely needed to intervene with my feet. And being worn out from swearing at other drivers so much, I was glad to have the lane keep assist scoot me off the rumble strip once or twice as night fell. It was seven hours of mostly hellish conditions, but I've emerged far more exhausted from drives half that duration in other cars.
- The car looks great...from the front. The rest of it is kind of a toss-up. Lincoln basically left everything behind the A-pillars unchanged during the latest redesign, and the old back end looks a little incongruous when paired with the new front clip. That makes sense, considering they hail from two different design languages. Lincoln did the best they could with what we can assume was a limited budget to refresh the MKZ, but a bigger problem is how clearly the Fusion DNA shines through, especially in the roofline and overall profile. Sure, it happens in this game; the Audi A6, for example, looks a lot like a VW Passat. But there's one difference here....
- As optioned, my fully-loaded Lincoln MKZ Reserve tester went for just under $60,000, and that's including incentives currently available on 2017 model year cars. That's a lot of money to spend on a mid-size car that shares a not-insignificant amount of architecture (visible and otherwise) with the Ford Fusion. Going back to the Audi example, you can get a 2018 Audi A6 Prestige with a little less power, almost identical options, and a far superior all-wheel-drive system for just about the same coin. If you're willing to drop down a size, a 2018 Audi S4 Prestige offers much the same in a far more capable package for $56,000. To use an example that's closer to home—and possibly even more damning—the Lincoln Continental itself starts at $45,000, and can be well-optioned in the mid-$50K range while offering more space, greater comfort, and a classier nameplate than the MKZ. Just who is supposed to be buying this hot rod Lincoln?
- Lincoln was insistent on ditching the EcoBoost moniker used by parent company Ford on its current crop of efficient, turbocharged engines. If Ford PR mourned a missed opportunity to expand the brand, they're thanking their lucky stars now. There is simply nothing "Eco" about the 3.0-liter V6 under the hood of the Lincoln MKZ, which returned about 15 city, 24 highway, and 19 combined in real world driving. The six-speed transmission doesn't help much here, but truthfully, neither does the effortlessness with which the MKZ cruises down the highway at quasi-legal speeds. I don't mind poor fuel economy in the name of performance, but I'd like to see a little more bang for my buck here. At least it takes regular gas.
- Some of the interior details feel a little off, lacking the kind of care and precision people associate with Lincoln's Teutonic rivals. The bolstered front seats are infinitely adjustable, but the center of the cushion is strangely hard when the massaging function is turned off, like you can still feel the mechanism under your butt. The swooping interior design is actually less than functional, awkwardly cutting off access to a handy storage compartment underneath the center stack—which itself is a mishmash of buttons. And I wasn't a fan of the two-tone, black and white leather seats. Speaking of, the cooling function for the seats in my tester appeared to already be broken. The button did nothing.
- One of my passengers remarked that the MKZ felt like an old person trying to be young and hip. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but straddling the line between pleasing Lincoln's aging (and shrinking) base and bringing in new blood has resulted in some interesting contradictions. It's got that hot engine, but no hard edges. It's got a stylish interior, but concessions to the old crowd stand out like giant buttons for ease of visibility. It's marketed towards Gen-Xers and Millennials, but priced for Baby Boomers. There's a lot of potential, but Lincoln, you've really got to commit one way or another here.
The 2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve, Ranked
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 3/5
Curb appeal: 3/5
“Wow” factor: 2/5
The Bottom Line
It's been clear for a while now that Lincoln is determined to leave behind the days when American luxury meant floaty land barges and rich Corinthian Leather (though that one was a Chrysler invention, to be fair). But what's less clear is how exactly they intend to make that happen. With its powerful engine and sporting pretensions running headlong into the company's basic impulses, the 2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve is something of a product in search of a market. It's not a bad car by any means, but it is disjointed, and it's fair to say that a $60,000 car should have a more thoughtful, settled feel to it.
You can't expect automakers to turn on a dime, or outrun their legacy overnight. When Lincoln first announced they'd be hotting up the MKZ back in 2015, the overarching industry reaction can be best described as "pleasant surprise" rather than "excitement." No one looked at this as a real potential Audi-killer, because that's not how buyers act in the real world. A car with comparable specs is not automatically a competitor—just look at the Koreans' attempts at moving upmarket in America. But what it did show was that the company was finally getting serious about defining itself with something other than a vague notion of general luxury.
How successful they've been is another question entirely. The reintroduced Lincoln Continental is a good look for the brand, even if it is built on the same front-wheel-drive Ford platform as the MKZ. The new Navigator is also finally here, and both those vehicles are big and brash enough to give Lincoln a little bit of cultural cache as they continue to trickle down into the real world. It's working well enough, with overall brand sales still above the nadir of the immediate post-recession era (and forget about the mid-Aughts, when Lincoln had exactly four models to pick from). But products like the 2017 MKZ are frustrating in what they get right, like a big engine, and what they still get wrong, like a confused interior and a dated platform.
There is a market for a $60,000 Lincoln sedan, but I'm just not sure this is it, and the relatively low sales numbers (about 2,300 a month this year) back that up. Ford probably knows this too, hence the half-done redesign to at least get the new corporate grille on there before debuting an all-new, third-generation model sometime in the next few years. That will be the real test to see if Lincoln has learned its lesson: You come at the king, you best not miss.
The 2017 Lincoln MKZ Reserve, By the Numbers
Price (as tested): $40,010* ($61,060)
Powertrain: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo V6, 400 horsepower, 400 pound-feet of torque; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel-drive with available torque vectoring all-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 17 city, 26 highway, 20 combined (AWD)
Top Speed: 150 mph (electronically limited)
Number of butt massages received over a weekend of driving: 13