Mike Hudson, News Editor
With lots of public support stemming from the relative success of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans, it wasn't a stretch for managers in the Glass House to expect similar reactions from a Lincoln product built on the same front-drive platform.
Possibly over a bowl of hummus from the La Shish down the street, the product people giddily dreamed about how they could finally win some younger buyers to the Lincoln marque.
"They want power, we'll give 'em a 3.0-liter V6. More pita bread, please. Let's totally reinvent the interior. Could we get another round of those lemon ice things? And we'll price it to start under $30,000. Check, please. Now let's build it."
The result is the Zephyr: a wonderful car from stem to stern. Tight fit and finish. A well-conceived and coherent design both inside and out. And even a modest helping of muscle under the hood.
So Gen X — set your faces to stunned because here comes the new Lincoln or not. When we pulled this car up in front of a group of target-market consumers, one said, "Nice car, Grandpa." Somewhere in Dearborn that hummus is coming back up.
Perhaps it was the satisfaction created by that great lamb kabob or just general complacency, but Lincoln's Zephyr blows lukewarm instead of hot. It weighs only 3,410 pounds and gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway, yet still feels big and barge-y.
Still not convinced to let this one blow through? Well, there's a replacement vehicle called the Lincoln MKZ coming out with a bigger engine, optional AWD and a similar price this fall. Although from the looks of the concept shown at the Chicago auto show, not much is changing beyond the name — so here are a few things they might want to work on before its debut.
A sharp look inside and out (but mostly inside)
Regardless of who this car attracts, it succeeds in projecting a distinct vision of American elegance. Our tester's black clearcoat exterior complemented the squared forms of the sheet metal, aggressive taillight and trunk design, and chrome-bladed grille to give the Zephyr that classic Lincoln appearance of understatement and ever-so-slight menace.
This model also came with the $895 chrome 17-inch rims, a pricey feature that — depending on your POV — either rounds out the American luxury or makes your Zephyr look that much more like a livery car.
The exterior prompts the contradictory feeling of a vehicle that looks like nothing special and nothing else — a delightful blend for those looking to stand out but not show off in a world of mall parking lots filled with the usual BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.
Perhaps most impressive — or at least interesting — is the interior, which takes a firm stand against the clean and antiseptic looks made famous by the Zephyr's aforementioned brethren. Lincoln went for downright imperial with towering door panels and a high dash line, with an opulent clock face dominating center stage. Much like the Ford Mustang, this cockpit gives the feeling of sitting inside a tub of sorts. In this bath, however, the surroundings tickle the senses with chrome accents, wood and sharp lines in every nook and cranny.
Zephyr interior materials are top-notch. The leather-finished seats look sharp, but stand a bit firm to the tush for some tastes. On long trips, however, that lumbar support will probably pay handsome dividends.
Driving views are a bit clipped by the high beltline, but remain relatively ample and clear. Side mirrors are large and even feature ground lighting when you're getting in or out. Creature comforts, cupholders and cubbies abound, with storage spaces and lights for all. Because it's a midsize, there's generous room in the back for your guests. And friends, this trunk is soooo big. How big is it? This trunk is so big we could fit old Honest Abe himself without wrinkling his hat.
For all those engineers reading, we apologize. The trunk is a class-leading 15.8 cubic feet.
Strangely, the instrument panel seems to have been overlooked, with perhaps the most boring speedometer since Oldsmobile got the ax. But that is soon forgotten with the flip of one magic button: the control for the air-cooled seats. In the hot Southern California sun, the wave of cool breeze from the perforated leather upholstery would inspire an embarrassingly girly giggle from even the most hardened brute.
The navigation and stereo are yet another mixed bag, with a $2,495 price tag and obnoxious THX certification graphic wearing down the enjoyment of a competent map program and decent sound from the AM/FM six-CD changer.
Pedal to the metal, wait, repeat
There's something magical about punching the gas and waiting for that power to kick in — if you're driving a turbocharged vehicle from 10 years ago. When you're in a normally aspirated 3.0-liter V6 with 221 horses and 205 pound-feet of torque, you expect a little less waitin'.
When the MKZ comes out, there will be a 3.5-liter V6 added, phasing out modest and aged 3.0-liter Duratec. In our experience, the problem lay not with the engine, which performed quietly and with enthusiasm. But those opportunities were few and far between.
Time and time again, the Zephyr's six-speed automatic transmission failed to synch up with the engine for up to a full second after sudden punching of the gas. Given that our track team was able to improve the car's 0-60 times (best was 7.5 seconds) by turning off the traction-assist program and letting the tires peel a bit, it would be easy to lay the blame right at Big Brother's door.
Traction control probably isn't overriding the gas when you're already going highway speeds — but we still experience the same confusion from the tranny leaving us waiting at the station for the Z-train. And without a "manual" mode, you're stuck on the engineers' schedule.
Looking for answers deeper into the powertrain, Lincoln has an electronically controlled throttle and transaxle, which are tuned along with the gear ratios to ensure "seamless" shifts, keeping noises and jarring starts to a minimum to improve comfort. In normal driving, this system does indeed keep any hoopla surrounding the shifts under wraps. But it is also playing conductor, holding that train we've been waiting for. And in this trade-off, Lincoln shows its preference for wisdom over youth and excitement. In fact, a lot of what Lincoln has done all around this vehicle has been done to reduce jiggles; from special brake tuning to "hydromounts" (fluid-filled bushings) for the engine in hopes of reducing vibration and noise.
The end result is a car that drives much like the soupy Lincolns of the past, with little road feel coming through the steering wheel, prompting a disconnecting feeling for the driver — something many people enjoy. You know, those who tend to remember the Great Depression.
One major difference is side-to-side suspension performance — think a quick off-ramp turn or slalom run — where engineers were apparently given permission to tighten things up. There's little body roll and firm control in tight turns at speed, giving the Zephyr an impressive average of 64.4 mph through our test slalom.
But in an attempt to control "primary ride," Lincoln says, it has tuned the car to adapt well to large changes in road surfaces, like the undulations found at a rough intersection. Perhaps this is why the car will kneel (somewhat dramatically for this class) during hard braking and rear back like a speedboat during full acceleration. This hurt the braking performance, causing some actual skipping and hopping at the track when it stopped from 60 mph in a decent 124.7 feet.
Again, Lincoln was obviously not aiming for sporty and didn't accidentally hit it.
Big, bold and American
In the end, Lincoln came across with a unique vision of an entry-level luxury sedan in a market crowded with BMWs and those trying to be BMWs. It provides a great midsize option for those looking to break out from the norm in the under-$30,000-to-start range.
For those looking for a bit more space than a compact, the Zephyr's $28,995 starting price is a major bargain when pitted against the Lexus ES (starting at $32,300), Infiniti G35 ($33,200) or Acura TL ($33,300), for instance.
Very likely, this car will get eaten up by the smaller competition, particularly given the incredible leaps in the compact entry segment from the BMW 3 Series (starting at $32,300) and subsequent leaps from the Audi A4 ($28,200), Lexus IS 250 ($29,900) or Mercedes-Benz C-Class ($29,200).
Worse still, there's the MKZ coming this fall, with a 3.5-liter V6 adding more oomph and AWD perhaps adding some finesse. So for now, it's hard to argue for buying a Zephyr. But with a few tweaks and a firm commitment to freshening up the transmission and suspension, this vehicle could start getting hard looks from the crowd Lincoln says it's shooting for.
System Score: 7.5
Components: Our Lincoln Zephyr was outfitted with the optional THX II audio system, which adds about $1,000 to the price tag. It's also included in the $2,500 DVD navigation system. Other Lincoln vehicles have THX-certified audio systems, but the Zephyr is the first to offer the next-generation THX II system. The option includes significant upgrades over the standard stereo, like 600 watts of power and a 12-channel amplifier driving 14 speakers including two subwoofers. The THX II stereo also includes Digital Signal Processing (DSP), which allows the user to choose one of three sound profiles optimized for the driver, front seats, or all seats. Speed-sensitive volume is also included.
Our test car was equipped with the optional navigation system, which ties audio functions into the nav's touchscreen. The head unit also incorporates Radio Data System (RDS), so you can see radio station call letters and, in most cases, the title and name of the performer for the current song that the station is playing. However, not all radio stations broadcast RDS information. A six-disc CD changer that also reads MP3 CDs is part of the upgraded package and Lincoln says it now accepts and ejects CDs faster than before. Satellite radio is not available.
Performance: THX is well known for its motion picture sound systems, so we were expecting this Lincoln's in-car stereo to deliver phenomenal sound quality on a par with Lexus' Mark Levinson audio systems. The sound quality is certainly fitting for a premium-branded car, but it doesn't really exceed or even meet our lofty expectations.
The tone and overall feel of the sound are well rounded, and the subwoofers deliver deep bass when appropriate. However, that bass can get boomy at times. The highs are pleasant but we found, like with other Ford/Audiophile systems, that the treble needed to be turned up quite a bit in order for the system to deliver the right amount of brightness. A midrange adjustment would be a welcome addition. As good as the music from this system sounds, it lacks depth and simply sounds too thin to run head-to-head with the likes of a Mark Levinson or Harman Kardon audio system. Those stereos have a warmth and depth that add an extra bit of finesse to the sound quality.
When combined with the navigation system, many of the Zephyr's stereo controls are accessed through the touchscreen. It works well and most menus make sense, but some of the words and symbols are too small and can be difficult to read when the car's moving. Also, the main menu screen is confusing, with too many options and symbols as words. However, once you get into it, using both the nav system and the integrated stereo controls becomes very easy and intuitive.
We'd also like to see a more comprehensive screen when an MP3-coded CD is loaded — perhaps something that lists folders or tracks in a drop-down menu. As it is, only one folder is listed at a time.
Best Feature: Easy-to-use interface with the navigation touchscreen.
Worst Feature: Lack of satellite radio as an option.
Conclusion: The Lincoln Zephyr's THX II audio system seems right at home for a premium-branded car. Although not exceptional, the sound quality is better than average and most Lincoln buyers will be pleased. However, the lack of satellite radio, even as an option, is a glaring omission. — Brian Moody
Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton says:
Of FoMoCo's CD3-platform triplets, the Lincoln Zephyr carries the most gravitas — and the highest price point. While it might not make sense to spend between $5,000 and $7,000 more for what is essentially the same car, there's just something more "right" about this car over the Ford Fusion or Mercury Milan.
Its interior is more handsome and better finished, its deco-theme exterior works more harmoniously on the Lincoln and the performance, while not a benchmark, is what one would expect from a mid-lux midsize sedan. On the other hand, most of those differences are mere surface treatments. I couldn't help feeling like I'd been the victim of a Ponzi scheme if I bought a Zephyr. I'd always feel like people in Fusions and Milans were laughing at me because they knew I had spent too much money or that I was a badge snob. I'd be entirely happy if the Fusion and Milan disappeared and only the Zephyr remained — and I bet more than a few Lincoln owners would, too.
Managing Editor Donna DeRosa says:
When I slipped into the Zephyr and started the engine, the seat automatically adjusted to the perfect driving position for me. I know this was a coincidence, as the car has the ability to remember two driver settings and I just got lucky. But it was a start on the right foot with me.
I already liked the Zephyr's glossy black exterior and immediately found the interior to be accommodating and comfortable, and it looked quite nice, too. The perforated leather seats lend an expensive air and the tri-level heat/cool functions did their job quickly and steadily. It was a hot day, so I cranked the A/C and was grateful it cooled the car quickly, although I thought the fan was very loud even at the lowest blast level. The center console looked fresh and current. The audio system had good depth of quality and was easy to use. The steering wheel, with its exposed wood inserts, had a nice polished feel to it.
Driving was pleasant but lazy. The car accelerated quickly enough, but grumbled a little while doing it. It was not exactly a light breeze as the name would suggest. The ride was kind of bouncy and fairly noisy. I was surprised the shifter didn't have a "manual" mode. It seems old-fashioned to have a straight automatic on a highly designed car like this. For around $34,000, it's a little pricey in the midsize sedan market. You could get a Mercury Milan or Ford Fusion for much less, but you would miss out on all of the Zephyr's niceties.
"Excellent luxury model, with better than average gas mileage. I tested the Acura TL and the Saab 9-3, both nice cars, but the Zephyr blows them away. The Zephyr reminds me of the classic heavy ride I used to get with the older vehicles, such as the Caddy and the bigger V8 cars, but without the gas guzzling." — Pete, May 20, 2006
"This is our first "American made" car since the mid-1980s and we are extremely pleased. We looked at the Lexus ES series and found the Zephyr just about equal in quality but much more affordable. The THX sound system is awesome, the heated and cooled, memory-controlled seats are a nice touch, the instruments easy to read, the ride very comfortable, the pickup more than satisfactory and it's roomy and fun to drive. We also have the moon roof that operatates with one touch and is surprisingly quiet when open. Our Zephyr also has the 17-inch chrome wheels and they sparkle. My wife uses the car daily and has been asked several times about the vehicle. It's a real head-turner." — Ken, May 16, 2006
"I purchased this vehicle for my wife. Its size, great looks and comfort were the deciding factors. The pricing I thought was good. All the bells and whistles offered were purchased for under 36K out the door. She also liked the Acura TL but the exta 25 cent a gal for prem. gas was the deciding factor. Both vehicles were priced similarly and are good buys compared to others in their class but we also wanted to help the economy by buying American." — Mike Nicholls, May 13, 2006
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