I'd like to make a confession: I'm a Lincoln owner.
I have a 2010 MKT EcoBoost and I love it. It has all-wheel drive, 355 twin-turbocharged horsepower and three-row seating like a minivan. Its weird Art Deco-flavored styling is even growing on me. When every crossover resembles a polished oblong river rock, the MKT stands out for at least trying to look like something else. Perhaps that "something else" is a mutant baleen whale from outer space, but at least it's not another river rock.
More important, it's not a Ford Flex. The MKT is, to my mind, the most successful Lincoln because it's the one that's least similar to its Ford counterpart. The Flex is square, but the Lincoln is rakish, and nobody will ever confuse the two.
The recently renamed Lincoln Motor Company would do well to create such a distinction across its lineup, and the 2013 MKZ is a hopeful indication that Lincolns of the future will be stylistically removed from their Ford relatives. The MKZ is based on the Ford Fusion, but the cars share no body panels. Informal man-on-the-street consensus is that the MKZ looks great. But so does the Fusion and that, to me, points to the MKZ's biggest problem: despite the distinctive bodywork, there remains a built-in sibling rivalry with Ford.
Lincoln certainly isn't the only company to spin multiple cars off the same platform. The MKZ's closest competitor is probably the Lexus ES 350, which is a spiffed-up Toyota Avalon. But Lexus is in an enviable position regarding brand cachet, in that it has some. Plenty of people would buy an ES 350 over an Avalon just to get that sleek "L" on the grille. On the other hand, I can attest that nobody spies a Lincoln badge and declares, "Gee, somebody's doing awfully well!" So Lincoln has to try harder to offer something you can't get from Ford.
And it seems as if every time I note something positive about the MKZ, I realize that a similar plaudit applies to the Fusion. The MKZ's standard 240-horsepower EcoBoost 4-cylinder is a punchy little motor, just as it is in the Fusion. The 19-inch wheels fill the fenders with serious-looking low-profile rubber, just as the Fusion's 19-inch wheels do. The Lane Keeper driver-assistance package is groundbreaking in that it will actively steer to keep you in your lane, a feat that is equally impressive when the Fusion does it. Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, torque vectoring -- all great features. And all features of the Fusion, as well as the MKZ.
A few years ago I met with some Ford executives, who told me that the company's sell-off of its premium brands (notably Volvo and Jaguar) meant that the regular Fords would no longer be denied luxury content. Gee, they weren't kidding.
The front-wheel-drive MKZ that I tested had a retail price of $43,145. A similarly equipped Fusion would go for about $35,000. So let's talk about how Lincoln justifies that extra $8,000. (I mean, besides hiring Emmitt Smith as a "brand ambassador" and commissioning Jimmy Fallon to create a Twitter-sourced Super Bowl commercial. What, you don't remember Lincoln's Super Bowl ad? Exactly.)
Other than its exterior styling, the MKZ offers several less significant divergences from its Ford cousin. The Lincoln's leather, for instance, is definitely finer than the Ford's. The MKZ's Bridge of Weir hides make the Fusion interior look as if it's upholstered in sun-bleached scraps of desiccated Naugabeast.
The Lincoln's giant sunroof, a $2,995 option, is quite cool, too, sliding down over the rear window like a jaunty hat. It's the only sunroof I can think of where the size is measured in square feet (15.2). This thing's so big, it should have a baseball field under it. Or a giant telescope.
Lest you fear frying in your rolling greenhouse, Lincoln says that with the roof closed, the SPF factor is more than 100. The car I drove had an even better SPF than that, because like 85 percent of MKZs it didn't have the big sunroof.
Perhaps the oddest option is a $1,565 handling package that includes supercar-worthy Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. So equipped, an all-wheel-drive MKZ tested by Edmunds.com ran the slalom faster than the BMW M5. Edmunds questioned who would buy a Lincoln so equipped, but I love the idea of a rarely ordered performance package that transforms your Lincoln into an M5-beater in the corners. You know, not many people ordered ZL-1 Corvettes in 1969, either.
Fuel economy is decent but not exceptional, with the front-wheel-drive 2-liter MKZ carrying a rating of 22 miles per gallon in the city and 33 on the highway. I had a hard time achieving 30 m.p.g., even on the highway. I know this is a fairly big car, larded with luxury features, but 26 m.p.g. combined? A Honda Accord with a screaming 278-horsepower V-6 is rated at 21 city, 34 highway -- essentially equal.
I thought fuel economy was the whole point of small, turbocharged 4-cylinders. The Ford narrative is that the V-6 is obsolete in a midsize family car -- the Fusion no longer offers one. So then why does the MKZ options list include a 3.7-liter V-6? If the logic is that the availability of a V-6 implies luxury, then I'm still confused, as this is the same basic motor that powers thousands of base Mustangs and $24,000 F-150 pickups with vinyl floors. Where's the 3.5-liter EcoBoost that so enlivens the MKT and MKS?
There's also an MKZ Hybrid that has an E.P.A. rating of 45 m.p.g. both in the city and on the Interstate. Of course, you can also get a Fusion Hybrid. Which is actually different, in that it is rated 47 m.p.g. Curse you, Fusion!
With active noise cancellation and a suspension system that continuously adjusts its dampers, the MKZ is quiet and composed. The biggest shock comes when you try to put the car into gear and realize that there's no shift lever or knob; control of the transmission is relegated to buttons on the dashboard. This is the kind of feature that will probably impress occasional passengers while mildly annoying you, the owner, because you can't choose a gear just by feel. The MKZ demands that you look at its buttons before you go anywhere.
Mostly, the MKZ comes across as a creative exercise in spinning two cars from one. It's as if two automotive Iron Chefs were given the same ingredients but each concocted a slightly different dish. I made a soufflé of Fusion! Well, I made a mid-lux MKZ casserole with an active-noise-reduction sauce and push-button-transmission garnish.
The MKZ is great-looking and competitive with its peer set, but Lincoln would have done well to play it cool and let the car win some accolades instead of pre-emptively acting as if it's the best thing since the 1961 Continental.
What Lincoln needs is at least one car to call its own, one model that you can't find on the Ford side of the lot -- say, stretch the Mustang platform into a four-door coupe and give it a 400-horsepower EcoBoost V-6. Until a car like that arrives, the question attached to any Lincoln will be very simple: is this car different enough from its Ford twin?
In the case of the MKT EcoBoost, I voted in the affirmative. I could even imagine talking myself into an all-wheel-drive MKZ with the M5-baiting tires and an acre's worth of sunroof. That's a novel machine. But I fear that the volume models, the front-drive 4-cylinders, will go forth to battle Lexus and end up fighting Fords instead.
Correction: April 26, 2013, Friday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article carried an erroneous byline. The review was by Ezra Dyer, not Lawrence Ulrich.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.