American automotive journalists are often accused of "import bias," that is, a tendency to heap unwarranted praise on foreign models while giving domestic rivals short shrift. Generally speaking, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, our ranks are full of patriotic scribes who are eager to chronicle the renaissance of the American automobile. There's just one problem: The renaissance hasn't happened yet, despite some encouraging signs in recent years.
Broach this topic with the folks at Lincoln, and they'll tell you that the wait is over. "The Future is here," heralds Lincoln's Web site -- and the 2009 Lincoln MKS sedan is leading the way. This "all-new Lincoln luxury flagship" boasts striking styling, inspiring performance and more technology than you can shake an iPod at. It's an unabashedly American luxury car that can go toe-to-toe with the best from abroad.
At least, that's what Lincoln would have you believe. Wait, what's that '90s movie we're thinking of...oh, right. Reality Bites. Truth be told, the MKS is essentially a gussied-up Ford Taurus, sharing that middling midsizer's corporate "D3" platform and sporting an identical 112.9-inch wheelbase. Other Taurus traits are present as well, such as its oddly elevated driving position and disturbingly soft brake pedal. The MKS isn't a trailblazer in the engine bay either, essentially borrowing its 3.7-liter V6 from the Mazda 6 and CX-9. (A turbocharged 3.5-liter V6 will become optional in 2010.) If anything, we thought the familiar V6 sounded less refined in this application, perhaps because our expectations were considerably higher. This is hardly the stuff of which "luxury flagships" are made.
The MKS does feature exclusive exterior and interior styling, and while the standard Sync system is the same one you can specify in the lowly Ford Focus, it's still way cool. But aside from its eminently accommodating backseat and intuitive controls, there's simply no way in which this Lincoln trumps its rivals. As an all-new model, the 2009 Lincoln MKS is supposed to challenge worthy rivals from Germany and Japan for class leadership. Yet its most distinguishing characteristics are its failings -- gnarly engine noises, lackluster interior quality and trawlerlike handling combined with an incongruously firm ride. We're still holding out hope for that American automotive renaissance, but if Lincoln's latest effort is any indication, we might be waiting awhile longer.
The 2009 Lincoln MKS AWD is motivated by a 3.7-liter V6 that generates 273 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque on regular fuel (using premium boosts output a smidge). A six-speed automatic sends this power to the front wheels by default, though up to 100 percent can be transferred to the rear wheels in the event of traction loss. Our test car cantered from zero to 60 mph in a leisurely-for-the-class 7.5 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in 15.4 seconds at 90 mph. EPA fuel economy estimates stand at a thirsty 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined.
Behind the wheel, the 4,349-pound MKS does a fair impression of a crossover SUV, and we don't mean that as a compliment. You sit up high in D3-platform cars, and the MKS is no exception, positioning its passengers well above the ride height of a typical sedan. There's also little roll stiffness to speak of, so the car's formidable mass shifts sloppily in quick transitions. Steering feel in the MKS is M.I.A., and brake dive is pronounced.
The MKS also fails to impress under the hood, as its overtaxed 3.7-liter V6 evinces a coarseness at higher engine speeds that doesn't belong in a $46,000 luxury sedan. The six-speed automatic transmission isn't anything to write home about either -- shifts in general are commendably smooth, but downshifts in the manual mode are extraordinarily slow. At least Lincoln got the orientation right: Push the lever forward for downshifts, pull back for upshifts.
Brake feel is another low point, as the 2009 Lincoln MKS has the same long-travel, soft brake pedal that plagues the plebian Taurus. Our Lincoln was also fighting some power steering gremlins, as the power assist would sometimes drop off dramatically while we turned the wheel at a stop. Furthermore, it was too easy to "get ahead" of the power steering system under these circumstances -- a quick tug at the wheel would defeat the power assist altogether.
Given this laggardly Lincoln's seaworthy handling, we were surprised to discover that its ride over broken pavement was on the firm side. There's not much impact harshness to speak of, but buyers in search of a pillow-soft suspension will be disappointed. Road noise is a bit intrusive for this segment, which is populated by ultra-quiet models like the Hyundai Genesis and Lexus ES 350.
Front seats are nicely shaped, but the power lumbar support is too hard, useful only if you're willing to suffer a few bruised vertebrae along with your lower back relief. Taller drivers may feel as though they're sitting in the backseat due to the forward positioning of the front doors. Speaking of the backseat, it's one of the MKS's strongest suits. There's excellent head- and legroom back there, along with a pleasantly high cushion for thigh support. The standard rear seat heaters are a thoughtful touch.
The touchscreen interface and most center stack controls are well laid out and intuitive, putting the complicated layouts in most rival models to shame. And when it comes to our test car's one-two punch of Sync and Sirius Travel Link, we have to give credit where credit's due -- this is a showcase of current automotive technology. Sync offers largely seamless voice-activated functionality for iPods and cell phones with Bluetooth capability, while Travel Link provides real-time traffic updates, nearby gas station locations (sorted by price), sports scores and even movie theater locations and showtimes. Our Lincoln's rearview camera was also greatly appreciated given the car's high rump and consequently limited rear visibility.
Unfortunately, the top-of-the-line THX-II 5.1 surround-sound stereo was a letdown, producing muddy bass and muffled highs -- and we can't believe Lincoln only supplies a single-CD player for this kind of cash. The air-conditioner also wasn't up to the task, failing to cool the cabin in a timely fashion on hot days. In our real-world usability tests, a standard suitcase fit fine in the 18.4-cubic-foot trunk, as did a set of golf clubs. However, the trunk opening is inconveniently small, and the imposing lift-over height doesn't help matters. We had no problem installing our child safety seat in the MKS's commodious rear compartment.
Design/Fit and Finish
Exterior styling is derivative but largely inoffensive, though it fails to mitigate the 2009 Lincoln MKS's considerable heft. The interior looks nice at a glance, particularly the top of the dash, which is covered with imitation stitched leather. However, the center stack plastics feel low-grade, as do the buttons below the CD slot. Similarly, two of the storage bins in the center console are covered by segmented plastic sliders that would look more at home in a Ford Ranger pickup truck. The cargo pass-through door, which is exposed when the rear armrest is folded down, also feels and looks low-rent.
Fit and finish was disappointing on our test car. For example, the driver door pull handle wasn't securely fastened -- we could feel it moving independently of the door when we pulled firmly. The overhead console, which houses the map lights and sunglasses holder, was so loose in front that we could fit fingers under it. Bass-heavy songs caused various interior panels to rattle at even moderate volumes, and an A-pillar trim piece was misaligned on the passenger side, among other issues.
Who should consider this vehicle
Those who must have Sync or Travel Link in their American luxury sedans.
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