Ford has smartly sharpened its product portfolio in the past three years, yet the same can’t be said for the Blue Oval’s supporting brands. Just this June, it was announced that Mercury would be put out to pasture after decades of carbon-copy engineering, and Lincoln’s lineup suffers from virtually the same indifference. However, Ford tells us that the 2011 Lincoln MKX is the first vehicle in a product revolution that is planned for the luxury brand’s lineup.
Ford says that the new models will bring genuinely distinctive bodies -- not just fascias and soft points -- over shared mechanicals, much like Lincoln’s MKT three-row crossover related to the Ford Flex. But for now, the new MKX is simply a refresh that follows the same old formula: a Ford with a nicer interior, different looks, and more premium features.
More style inside and out
While the 2011 MKX update leaves the sheetmetal between the mirrors and the gas filler virtually untouched, the exterior facelift is more dramatic than the traditional mid-cycle update. Instead of tweaking the details, Ford has started fresh with both front and rear fascias. By dropping the old egg-crate grille in favor of Lincoln’s signature split-wing opening, the MKX strengthens the brand’s visual identity. It’s a concept that most automakers have embraced for years, but Lincoln’s lineup has somehow failed to build a cohesive look in recent times. With the MKX showing the family face, only the Town Car and Navigator remain as holdouts.
As significant as the exterior update is, the interior refresh has even more impact. Lincoln designers and product planners were well aware that the outgoing model lacked the effortless style and luxury of a well-executed premium interior. The new cabin is a fusion of Lexus quality with Cadillac modernity, features a more elegant, graceful design and smarter use of materials. Leather covers the dash, seats, steering wheel, and shift knob, while trim is either aluminum or one of two woods. The new My Lincoln Touch navigation and entertainment system dominates center stack and serves as a highlight of the interior.
In addition to the high level of craftsmanship, the cabin is marked with exceptional quietness thanks to acoustic laminated glass and insulating efforts. The seats are comfortable with generous amounts of room for three rear-seat passengers. Heated and cooled front seats are standard and heated rear seats are an option. Passive entry and keyless ignition, reverse sensors, and remote starting are also standard. Other available equipment includes a heated steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof, a backup camera, adaptive cruise control, and a 600-watt, 14-speaker THX II stereo. The MKX rolls on standard 18-inch wheels or optional 20-inch wheels. Pricing starts at $39,95, which makes the Lincoln more expensive than the Cadillac SRX, the Lexus RX350, and the Mercedes-Benz GLK-class, and close in price to the BMW X3 and the Audi Q5.
As it is today, Ford’s Sync system encompasses so many functions that it’s a challenge to comprehend its many abilities until you’ve spent time in the car. With the next generation, that becomes even more difficult as new features and a fresh interface create new ways to interact with the car. The Lincoln MKX is the first product to arrive with “MyLincoln Touch powered by Sync,” the new infotainment system that will be standard on every new Lincoln model going forward. The system is centered around an eight-inch display with four core functions: navigation, phone, entertainment, and climate. Below that screen, Lincoln has replaced the traditional physical controls with touch-sensitive nubs. That affords designers increased freedom in how they style the center stack, but in our use it also comes with a few drawbacks. Using a button no longer provides the satisfying haptic feedback of a physical detent and you can’t hunt for buttons by feel (unless you’re willing hit six other buttons in the process), forcing you to take your eyes off the road. Touch-sensitive sliders have replaced fan-speed and volume controls, but trying to execute fine adjustment, particularly with the volume, is often unreliable. What was so wrong with the tried-and-true knob?
Consolation comes in the form of steering-wheel-mounted controls and improved voice command. Two five-way controllers on the wheel operate the 4.2-inch LCD screens that flank the central speedometer. The left display shows vehicle functions, such as the trip computer, fuel economy, or a digital tachometer. The right screen works as a redundant display of the center screen, allowing access to the four core functions. There are also dedicated steering-wheel controls for the audio system. The voice recognition system now has a larger vocabulary and has fewer menus to wade through. Passengers connect their devices through Bluetooth or the MediaHub with its two USB ports, an SD card slot, and a set of red/white/yellow RCA connectors. The vehicle can also connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot when parked or you can plug a USB modem into the car to create a mobile Wi-Fi connection for laptop-toting passengers.
Powerful, comfortable luxury
Power comes from a 3.7-liter V-6 with twin-independent variable cam timing. The engine is shared with the Ford Mustang and produces the same power output: 305 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, and it provides strong acceleration. A six-speed automatic is the only transmission, but buyers can choose front- or all-wheel drive. In front-wheel drive form, the MKX is rated at 19/26 mpg city/highway. Those numbers allow Lincoln to claim best-in-class power and fuel economy for the luxury mid-size crossover segment. Opting for all-wheel drive brings a sizeable fuel economy penalty, dropping mileage to 17/23 mpg.
A retuned suspension and revised bushings have improved handling without adversely affecting ride quality. Wider wheel improve grip. The Lexus RX350 may be more willing to change directions, but won’t hang on with the grip of the MKX. Steering that was once lifeless has been revived by reducing the friction in the steering gear using a new variable-displacement hydraulic power steering pump borrowed from the European Ford Mondeo sedan. Feedback is sorely lacking, but the effort and on-center response are excellent. Front-wheel-drive models transmit a noticeable -- but not significant -- amount of torque steer through the steering wheel during quick acceleration.
Viewed in it’s own context, the MKX comes off as a convincing luxury crossover, sumptuous inside with a cosseting driving experience and a bit of flair on the outside. This is Lincoln’s best product -- and that speaks to the quality of the Ford Edge on which it’s based. However, savvy buyers will recognize that other luxury makes offer more distinctive five-passenger crossovers, that aren’t so obviously based on a less-expensive vehicle. The Ford DNA may be a great starting point, but to truly thrive as a luxury brand, Lincoln still needs to establish its own character.
2011 Lincoln MKX
On sale: Now
Base price: $39,995
Engine: 24-valve DOHC V-6
Displacement: 3.7 liters (227 cu in)
Power: 305 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 280 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front- or 4-wheel
L x W x H: 186.7 x 76.0 x 67.3 in
Wheelbase: 111.2 in
Legroom F/R: 40.7/39.3 in
Headroom F/R: 40.0/39.3 in
Cargo capacity (Second row up/folded): 32.3/68.6 cu ft
Curb weight: 4251 lb
EPA rating (city/highway): 19/26 mpg (front-wheel drive)