Ford created a winning hybrid power train for its Fusion midsize sedan last year, so it became a no-brainer to extend it to the Lincoln MKZ, a badge-engineered version of the Fusion. With the same specs as the Fusion Hybrid, the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid achieves 41 mpg in city EPA testing, an impressive number for a segment that barely tops 30 mpg.
But the problem with badge engineering has always been too little differentiation between car models, and that criticism applies to the MKZ Hybrid. Although it gets a big Lincoln grille, the body is essentially the same as that of the Ford Fusion. Likewise, the ride quality does not feel substantially better.
The cabin looks more dressed up than in the Fusion, and amenities like heated and cooled seats add a level of comfort. Although most of the cabin tech is identical to that available in the Fusion, the THX audio system, with its finely detailed sound output, will be the deal maker for music lovers.
For buyers already looking at a Lincoln MKZ, the hybrid version makes for an easy choice, as Lincoln prices them the same. The only compelling reason to choose the standard MKZ over the hybrid is the availability of all-wheel drive in the former. Compared with the gas engine front-wheel-drive MKZ, the hybrid version gets about 15 mpg better fuel economy.
We couldn't help geeking out over the MKZ Hybrid's power train while driving it, thanks in large part to the instrument cluster display. This display uses two small LCDs, one on either side of the speedometer, with four different configurations showing more or less information.
Settling on the most data-laden display, its power gauge showed how much throttle we could give the car and stay in electric vehicle mode. As the car gains momentum, we were able to add power. Another gauge on the display shows the charge level of the car's nickel metal hydride battery pack, with an arrowed green circle indicating when regenerative braking is active.
A Lincoln engineer previously told us the best way to drive the car is to give it gas from a stop, letting the engine help it accelerate to cruising speed. Using this tactic, we got up to 30 or 40 mph quickly, then watched the gauges show us that the car was operating under electric drive, with the engine shut off.
Lincoln says the MKZ Hybrid can go up to 47 mph in electric mode. We easily kept the car running under electric power at speeds of just over 40 mph by feathering the throttle, using the power gauge on the display to show how much we could accelerate and stay in electric mode. Driving onto the freeway, our speeds became too high for the electric part of the hybrid system, and we had to content ourselves with normal driving.
During some driving, such as the first couple of miles on a cold morning, the car proved reluctant to go into electric mode. Even keeping a light touch on the accelerator, the power gauge refused to show us the green box that indicates its electric potential.
The power train is made up of a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine complemented by a 106-horsepower electric motor. The engine outputs 156 horsepower, but the overall horsepower rating from the system is only 191, all going to the front wheels. The MKZ Hybrid takes off from a stop easily, and the electric motor and gas engine work together well. We could feel when the gas engine turned on, but it was subtle, with little noise or vibration.
On a two-lane highway, we crossed the dashed yellow line to pass slower traffic, and the car picked up speed well, getting out ahead and letting us ditch back into the lane before oncoming traffic showed up.
Driving up a twisty mountain road, the MKZ Hybrid held its own, but was clearly out of its element. The electric power steering is well-tuned and provided enough road feel to let us know when our moderate speeds through the turns were close to getting us in trouble. As is typical with suburban-oriented midsize sedans, the front wheels plow into corners without grace.
When going over bumps, we felt a clear thump through the suspension, although it did not lead to any real oscillation. The car damps out the rough spots but does not insulate its occupants with a soft ride.
At 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, the MKZ Hybrid shows the typical hybrid penchant for low speed, stop-and-go driving. For the size of the car, these numbers are exceptionally good. They fall pretty far short of the 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway achieved by the Toyota Prius, but the MKZ Hybrid feels more powerful.