Lincoln is a brand adrift in the automotive marketplace. Few of its models set themselves apart from lesser-equipped Fords, and those that do usually fall short of the competition from Lexus, Infiniti and Cadillac. The all-new MKS is the closest the brand has come to delivering a top-class vehicle, and it gives sedan shoppers a reason to enter a Lincoln showroom.
There are a number of areas where the MKS excels, including its spacious interior, sleek looks, technology features and overall value. Its biggest drawback is that it doesn't ride like any big Lincoln sedan we've driven recently, which means the word "cushy" will not come into play for the rest of this review. That may turn off loyal buyers, without a significant-enough performance benefit added to draw in enthusiasts.
Overall, though, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives in what is possibly the best Lincoln since the Mark VIII.
The most striking aspect of the MKS' performance is its steering. From the looks and the sheer size of the car, I was expecting a driving experience akin to yachting, not carving corners. I was wrong; the driving experience doesn't rival a Corvette's, but Lincoln should be proud of how precisely the MKS steers.
Whether you're in a tight parking garage or taking a highway on-ramp, the steering wheel requires little effort to move the car where you want it to be. The feel of the wheel and how the car reacts are completely intuitive — much better than any car this size or price has a right to be. I would rate it up there with any Cadillac (if not better than larger models like the DTS) and even imports like the Volvo S80, with which the MKS shares its platform.
However, you do sacrifice ride comfort for this steering precision. I was shocked at how bumpy the ride was on rough roads. The MKS reminded me of a sport-tuned BMW 5 Series in terms of ride comfort — and that's not a positive comparison to a BMW 5 Series — instead of a big American sedan. Maybe I'm strange, but I like a cushy ride out of my big American sedans, and I think most buyers of big American sedans feel the same way.
My test car was an all-wheel-drive version, which can translate to a rougher ride, but I don't believe that was the reason for my experience. Front-wheel drive is standard on the base MKS, which starts at $37,665, while the all-wheel-drive MKS starts at $39,555. What weren't standard were the 19-inch wheels my test car had, which again would contribute to a rougher ride. The standard wheels, though, are 18-inchers, and I'd bet the resulting ride wouldn't be dramatically improved. Other Cars.com reviewers also commented on the rough ride as an MKS negative.
Power is adequate if not overwhelming, coming from Ford's capable 273-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6. There's plenty of passing power, with little engine noise intruding into the cabin. It's not Lexus-silent, but it's certainly as quiet as most automakers' big sedans; Lexus' cars are just eerily quiet. Lincoln will introduce a turbocharged V-6 for the MKS in calendar 2009, which should add an air of performance to the MKS. It already has the steering and rough ride of a performance sedan, so the turbo makes a lot of sense.
Fuel economy is decent, at 17/24 mpg city/highway for front-wheel-drive models and 16/23 mpg with all-wheel drive. I achieved sub-20 mpg figures in the real world, but I also drove quite a bit in ultra-congested Chicago. Cadillac's aging STS V-6 with rear-wheel drive somehow manages 17/26 mpg with more power.
The MKS also comes with an auto-shift function for the six-speed automatic transmission that allows you to manually select gears without a clutch. Like in most cars with this feature, you move the gear selector up or down to shift gears. The MKS' shifter responds with loud "thunks" each time. No, that's not an engine noise; it's emanating from the shifter. I rarely find this function useful in such cars, and in this one it's definitely a detractor. As is true in most non-performance cars, the MKS' standard automatic operation is far superior to using the manual function, and it still isn't the smoothest transmission in the segment.
Even though the MKS is a comfortable car with a refined interior and a lot of standard features, the first thing people will notice is its bold looks. The profile is vanilla bland, but both the snarling front end and the Maserati-influenced rear will turn heads and make people say, "That's a Lincoln?"
While I was testing this car, I had people stop me to ask if I was driving a new Cadillac. Another passerby knew it was a Lincoln and was impressed, again comparing it to Cadillac's latest CTS in a favorable way.
You can't escape the huge grille up front no matter how hard you try; the chrome-covered plastic grille is indeed the new "look" for Lincoln. It's doubtless the product of an ever-escalating grille war that's pitting automakers against one another in an attempt to design the largest, most in-your-face bumper-jewelry imaginable.
The MKS kind of reminds me of the Cheshire Cat from "Alice in Wonderland" — a comparison I'm not the first to mention; I won't be the last, either. Regardless, it's distinctive without going too over the top, unlike the new Cadillac CTS and its excessively blinged-out grille.
The back end hasn't received nearly as much attention in the press as the front has, but if you put it side by side with Maserati's Quattroporte sedan, you'll see where its inspiration lies. Considering the exterior dimensions of the MKS, its two ends work well together to complement the sedan's sheer size. It comes in at 204.1 inches long, which is longer than a Buick Lucerne and even many three-row crossovers. Basically, this new look will lead to new shoppers, without the whippersnapper in the Lincoln lineup turning off the older set.
Lincoln has taken a leap forward inside the MKS. My test vehicle was decked out in thick, off-white leather that was wrapped around the seats and doors. It's of decent quality, about on par with what you find in Volvo and Lexus cars. I found the front seats extremely comfortable, and it was easy enough to find a good seating position. The backseat is also spacious, as you'd expect from something in this class. Heated and air-conditioned front seats are also standard. Unlike other brands with the feature, these A/C seats really do the job.
The leather- and wood-trimmed dashboard was respectable, but didn't look or feel as luxurious as the seats. The same could be said of the gauges and center controls, which looked like they were from a lower grade of vehicle — namely a Ford.
While they were decent-quality, none of the controls you interact with had the feeling of luxury that a car in this price range should have. This is what separates Lincoln from a Volvo S80, which has similar pricing. While Volvo has gorgeous metal gauges and a unique center swath of controls, the MKS adds a bit of chrome-like film to its plastic buttons, and that's about it.
Luckily, this downside isn't a big enough one to completely ruin the MKS. If you can look beyond it to the car's state-of-the-art control screen and the voice-activated technology hidden behind the scenes, the interior will prove to be a winner.
Technology and Features
Besides the looks, impressive steering and comfortable seating, the other thing the MKS has going for it is an intuitive, feature-packed technology center. Unfortunately, the attractive base price of the MKS shoots up $2,995 with the Navigation Package you need to add in order to get most of the high-tech goodies.
Microsoft's Sync entertainment system comes standard and controls audio and cell phone applications, but the voice-activated feature controls much more when the navigation system is present. How much more? Well, you get voice-activated navigation and directions, like you'll find in Acuras and Infinitis, only the MKS' is a bit more intuitive. You also get local gas prices, movie times, weather and traffic info, all with voice commands.
I've tested the standard Sync system many times since it debuted last year and have found it to be one of the simplest, most useful technology features on the market. The simple approach continues when you add these other features to it, and that's a good thing. Hit a button on the steering wheel and say "weather," and the screen displays your local forecast. Say "traffic" and — guess what? You get an update on road construction in your area. Say "movie times" and a number of theaters are listed to choose from. The same goes for gas prices. All are useful to most drivers, though movie times are a bit superfluous.
On top of that, the screen is brilliantly crisp with easy-to-read graphics, and there are plenty of plain-old buttons to manage features not controlled by voice or to use as shortcuts when you're tired of talking to your car.
Add the Technology Package ($1,115) and you get add-ons like a rear-window sunshade, keyless entry and ignition, rain-sensing wipers, forward sensors that warn of obstacles when parking, and adaptive headlights.
The Ultimate Package ($5,715) combines the features in the Technology and Navigation packages, plus adds a dual-panel moonroof (sold separately for $1,695) and 19-inch wheels ($510 as a stand-alone option). I did the math; that saves you $600 compared to adding them a la carte. However, if I could drop one package it would be the Technology Package, with its features that don't add to the driving experience. Also, no buyer should feel sorry for opting out of the dual-panel moonroof and 19-inch wheels. For my money, the only must is the Navigation Package.
Why is there a whole separate section for the trunk? Because big American sedans should have big trunks, and at 18.7 cubic feet the MKS' is quite big. It's bigger than a Lucerne's (17.0) or S80's (14.9). It could easily swallow two sets of golf clubs and copious amounts of luggage.
Like most new models, the MKS comes standard with a number of valuable safety features, including front side-impact airbags as well as side curtain airbags for both rows. Stability control, antilock brakes and traction control are also standard.
As of this writing, the MKS has not been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the federal government.
MKS in the Market
In July — the MKS' first month of sales — it outsold every other Lincoln on the market, including the more affordable MKZ sedan and the MKX crossover. Sales were four times that of the S80. I'm an unabashed fan of the oft-overlooked S80; it is one of the few models on the market that offers similar features, space, level of luxury, performance and price as the MKS.
That's partly because this segment isn't a well-traveled one any longer. Cadillac's STS and DTS are fading quickly — the MKS also outsold both of those models in July — and haven't been updated enough to compete with these two newer models. Plus, both the MKS and S80 cost less. Japanese brands like Lexus and Infiniti have tried to emulate German luxury sedans with rear-wheel-drive models in this class, so there is a gap in the market that the MKS fills.
Where the Lincoln excels and the S80 fails is in the looks department. There is no question that the MKS makes a statement, even if its looks aren't universally appealing. Personally, I found it to be quite striking during my week of testing, and it should definitely drop the average age of Lincoln sedan shoppers by a few years, if not a generation. The S80, on the other hand, can easily be lost in a crowd; if you don't notice it at first glance, you'll never make it behind the wheel to see how good it truly is.
Lincoln owes a lot to the S80, but the company should be proud of how distinctive its new sedan truly is.
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