Say "Lincoln" and the image that pops into most people's mind is either a silver-haired, cigar-chomping exec or a liveried limo driver. The idea of either of those guys driving an environmentally friendly fuel-efficient hybrid is about as hard to swallow as the senior exec's cigar.
Lincoln's out to change that, though, with its first gas-electric car, the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, and it is tossing down a challenge to its competitors by ditching the hybrid technology premium and pricing it the same as its conventionally powered stablemate.
Of course, the hybrid isn't exactly the same. It has a different powertrain that's based on a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine that's designed for fuel economy rather than the extra power of a V6. Lincoln's aim, says Ford Motor Company product development chief Derek Kuzak, is to give shoppers a choice — green luxury with the MKZ Hybrid, or power and luxury with the conventional model. Make sense to you?
The Numbers Game
The conventional MKZ is EPA rated at just 18 mpg city and 27 highway, or 21 mpg combined. That's 46 percent less fuel economy than the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid's combined 39 mpg — 41 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway.
Over 15,000 miles, the hybrid would save about 330 gallons (your own mileage, of course, will vary). That's close to $1,000 on regular grade gas at $3 a gallon. Not a bad deal, especially since neither model requires premium.
Of course, if you can do without the luxury trim, fancy stereo and extra chrome, you can buy the Fusion Hybrid for about $7,000 less. And that is what we would call a screaming deal, as the Fusion is the best all-around package in the hybrid sedan segment.
Lincoln's aiming the MKZ Hybrid directly at the Lexus HS 250h, and in a short back-to-back drive of the two cars we came away convinced that, in this category at least, Lincoln trumps Lexus. Handily.
We weren't able to put a stopwatch to it, but the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid feels at least as peppy as the Lexus, which we've previously timed at 8.7 seconds for a 0-60-mph sprint.
The Lincoln feels larger inside and handles just a bit better, with a tighter, more controlled steering feel and more linear brake pedal action thanks to a better blending of regenerative and conventional brake systems.
The MKZ Hybrid, although leaning a little toward old-fashioned elegance versus the Lexus' more modern look, also offers a much nicer interior. The leather is richer and the seats have more contouring, with slightly plusher seat bottoms. Even the dashboard of the Lincoln is less plasticky-looking.
The MKZ's relatively low roof line also gives it a somewhat sporty look versus the Lexus — which is basically a Prius with a nose job. But the optional moonroof takes away 1.3 inches of headroom and makes it tough for front-seat passengers who are more than 6-feet-2 to sit upright.
All that stuff is subjective, though.
Fortunately for Lincoln, fuel economy, which is measurable, is a big selling point for any hybrid, even a luxury model. This is where the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, at 41 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway, really delivers — especially if much of your driving is in stop-and-go city traffic, where the Lincoln shines.
The Lexus HS 250h, by comparison, is rated at just 35 mpg in the city, almost 15 percent less than the MKZ Hybrid, and 35 mpg on the highway. Its combined fuel economy of 35 mpg is 10 percent less than the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid's 39 mpg overall rating.
Lincoln, following in the Ford Fusion Hybrid's footsteps, achieves such stellar city numbers by outfitting the MKZ Hybrid with a next-generation 1.4 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal hydride battery pack that is lighter and more energy-dense than its predecessor.
That enables the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid to drive for short periods at speed of up to 47 mph in all-electric drive — versus a 25-mph top speed in all-electric mode for the HS 250h. The MKZ's hybrid control logic is programmed so the gas engine shuts down whenever there's enough juice in the batteries to permit low-speed all-electric drive.
Those same batteries — recharged on the fly by the Lincoln's impressively unnoticeable regenerative braking system — let the 40-horsepower electric motor send a nice bit of oomph to the 156-hp, 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle gas engine when extra power is needed for hill climbing, passing and other such endeavors.
Separately, the gas engine delivers 136 lb-ft of torque, the electric motor 166 lb-ft, and when the two are working together the combined rating is 191 hp.
Lincoln's engineers, as Lincoln is wont to do, have opted to tune the front-wheel-drive MKZ Hybrid's ride and handling on the gentle side — not cushiony, as in Lincolns of yore — but not sporty either.
Oh, it gets you around corners and over sinuous mountain routes just fine, but if the boy racer in you screams for the adrenaline rush that comes with hanging the tail out on corners and feeling the seat springs in your kidneys when accelerating away from stop signs in a cloud of tire smoke, well, this hybrid, or any hybrid for that matter, is not for you.
Our test driver said of the 2010 Fusion Hybrid after a track session last year that it delivered "perfectly respectable handling performance." The Lincoln, in our decidedly less skilled hands, seemed to do the same, although it's a pretty good bet that our Fusion Hybrid tester would rate the MKZ Hybrid at least one spot lower on the ride and handling totem pole.
Acceleration and top speed should be about the same, though — despite its abundance of electronic doodads and that big chromed grille, the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid weighs in at 3,752 pounds, only about 50 pounds more than the non-hybrid version, according to Lincoln.
Those doodads include Ford's voice-activated Sync system — called Lincoln Sync for obvious reasons — that provides Bluetooth phone and MP3 player connectivity; a THX II certified, 14-speaker audio system (with 5.1 surround-sound); heated and cooled front seats clad in eco-friendly leather; and a reverse sensing system.
Those leather seats also have 10-way power controls for both driver and front passenger, and the wood trim on the dash is real. There's also keyless entry with a programmable key that lets dad and mom limit the top speed and audio volume when junior borrows the car. But heck, that's pretty much the standard list for all Lincolns and, except for Sync, a Ford Motor Company exclusive right now, for most luxury cars.
What really sets the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid apart is its flowering fuel-efficiency gauge. Fords, Hondas and Toyotas all have green leafy icons on the instrument panel that grow and sprout new leaves or branches as your fuel-efficiency increases — a visual prompt to help you drive more efficiently.
But Lincoln ratchets up the game by adding flowers — apple blossoms, to be exact. They bloom on the MKZ Hybrid's "SmartGauge with EcoGuide" as you improve your fuel economy and you can get up to 20 of them, a veritable bouquet, if you keep at it.
We averaged 35.5 mpg over a 30-mile fuel-efficiency challenge route through Washington, D.C., and the adjacent Maryland horse country during part of our test-drive.
We expect that an owner would get better fuel economy after the newness wore off and the temptation to stand on the accelerator to see what the car will do went away — but we see doing that as part of our job.
Besides, a flower? Wouldn't it be even more inspiring, and thematically correct, if the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid luxe sedan awarded you with images of Cuban cigars or Tiffany diamonds? That would turn some executive heads, or even interest a few limo drivers, we think. Probably attract a few up-and-coming environmental activists, too.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report, which originally appeared on insideline.com.