The design of the 2007 Lincoln MKZ incorporates a subtle boldness we appreciate from an American carmaker. Too often, a company produces homogenous products designed to offend no one, which end up appealing to no one either, especially when that company is drowning in red ink. But the Lincoln MKZ drops a retro grille among a thoroughly modern-looking front end, a look that some might find cacophonous, but we like.
Lincoln throws in a few other odd features that end up being high points in what otherwise might be a very mundane sedan. First, it has the best factory stereo of any car on the road. Second, all-wheel drive gives it surprisingly good handling. Oh, its engine might not have the throttle response we would like, and Lincoln hasn't entered the world of Bluetooth hands-free calling yet. But this car makes itself interesting.
If you've never heard of the MKZ, that's because it used to be called the Zephyr. Still confused? The Zephyr was launched as a new sedan for the 2006 model year, with its platform mates the Ford Fusion and the Mercury Milan. (And if you're thinking that the Lincoln Zephyr was originally launched in 1936, kudos to you for your knowledge of automotive history.)
Test the tech: Is it live, or is it THX?
As we considered the audio quality from the MKZ's THX-certified stereo, we thought of the old advertising slogan, "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" We decided to rephrase that slogan as "Is it live, or is it THX?" In other words, we wanted to see if the THX sound system could break a wineglass. As we mentioned above, this stereo is the best factory system on the road. It has 14 speakers powered by a 600-watt, 12-channel amplifier. The system uses digital signal processing (DSP) to balance the sound through all of the speakers.
The experiment is pretty simple--we got a wineglass and determined its resonant frequency by tapping it and recording the sound. We used Audacity, an audio-editing program, to analyze the frequency and reproduce it as a tone. We burned the tone onto a CD and put it in the car stereo. For backup, we also got a tone generator and ran it into the car's auxiliary audio jack.
We were sure this audio system had the power to destroy all sorts of wineglasses, so we called up Laurie Fincham, chief science officer at THX, to find out what went wrong. He explained that the DSP in this system is programmed to fade back anomalous sounds, like our steady tone, so as not to damage the speakers or the eardrums of the car's occupants. The stereo could easily play music well past the 120 decibels needed to shatter a glass, but it tamps down odd noises like we were using.
In failing to break our wineglass, the system actually proved its excellent engineering and refinement. And we were quite happy to stop playing annoying tones through the system and put in some actual music.
In the cabin
With wood accents, leather seats, and faux brushed-aluminum panels, the Lincoln MKZ strives for a sense of luxury that it mostly achieves. The interior holds the appearance of luxury, but it doesn't feel quite as good as the BMW 328xi, for example. We like the array of buttons on the steering wheel, which not only control audio and cruise, but also temperature and fan speed. Likewise, cooled and heated seats are a very nice addition.
Instruments come through with wonderful clarity. We listened to a CD by the Black Keys and were considerably impressed by the way the Hendrix-like guitar riffs came through. The system keeps the brightness tamed with the same technology that kept it from shattering a wineglass. In fact, we enjoyed the music so much that whenever we traveled under route guidance we found ourselves wishing the audible turn instructions would shut up so we could go back to listening to the music.
Although the speakers and amps portion of the sound system is incredible, some aspects of the stereo head unit let it down. The head unit is impressive in its array of sound sources, using an in-dash six-disc changer to play MP3 and regular CDs. It's also equipped for satellite radio and has an auxiliary jack for an MP3 player. But we would like to see better navigation options for MP3 CDs, as it only lets you go from folder to folder, without letting you seek through artists or albums. Also, a hard drive for music storage would be a nice addition, considering the sound system. Options to adjust the audio included the standard bass, treble, mid, balance, and fader, along with settings to focus the sound on the driver, the front seats, or the entire car.
But the feature that really stands out for us is the ability to set complex routes. Each time you enter an address, you can make it a waypoint or the final destination. It lets you enter addresses, choose points of interest, pick freeway on- or off-ramps, and choose spots on its map. And once you've entered a list of places you need to go, you can touch the onscreen optimize button, which will sort your destinations along the most efficient route.
There is no hands-free cell phone option in the MKZ yet. You will have to wait until Ford integrates the Sync system from Microsoft in the 2008 model year.
Under the hood
The Lincoln MKZ isn't as sedate as its luxury interior might suggest. Its 3.5-liter V-6 Duratec engine produces 263 horsepower, plenty to make this relatively small sedan go fast. And its 249lb-ft of torque doesn't hurt, either. Unfortunately, initial throttle response is very laggy--the car hesitates for a moment or two before deciding to get up and go.
This engine is mated to a six-speed automatic, a nice, modern transmission that shifts smoothly. The sixth gear is great for the freeway--at times we noticed the tachometer holding steady at 1,500rpm at speeds of around 65mph. And for the first time in an automatic, we actually wanted a manual gear selection mode. The MKZ only has Drive and Low for gear-range choices.
However, the poor throttle response negates this car's potential for sport driving. If you try to lay on the power going through a turn, you'll be halfway through before the power is running to the wheels.
Under the EPA's new fuel economy testing, the Lincoln MKZ with all-wheel drive gets 16mpg in the city and 24mpg on the highway. During our test period, we came in at 19.4mpg overall, a reasonable number for a car with this kind of power. On emissions, the MKZ isn't bad, earning a ULEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
Our 2007 all-wheel-drive Lincoln MKZ had a base price of $31,050. Its options included heated and cooled seats ($495), high-intensity discharge headlights ($495), Sirius satellite radio ($195), and the navigation and THX audio package ($2,495). The total, with a $715 destination charge, comes out to $35,445. You can also get the regular front-wheel-drive MKZ for a base price of $29,305, and the THX audio system can be had separately from the navigation system for $995.
The full price of our MKZ comes close to the base price of a BMW 328xi, another all-wheel-drive sedan with generally better performance. Among cars that only have two wheels driven, the Nissan Maxima can be had with more tech for about the same money. If you want to tone down the luxury and spend a lot less, the Saturn Aura is a good choice. But none of those cars, or any other for that matter, can match the quality of the 2007 Lincoln MKZ's audio system.