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BBC Autos

Review

Lincoln MKZ aims for greatness, settles for grace

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For anyone who has sat in a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, or examined the appointments and cabinetry in one of his domestic masterpieces, such as Pennsylvania’s Fallingwater, beauty is easy to behold.

But there is a reason clients often fought with the star-chitect they paid so well. Objects that prioritise appearance over function, after all, can be infuriatingly impractical in real life.

This, perhaps, is what separates the 2013 Lincoln MKZ from greatness. Utility was sacrificed on the altar of design, and to compete in a segment of sedans that can be optioned above $50,000, it is always more artful to marry form and function than to choose one over the other.

This is what customers expect when they pay $51,000 – the bottom line on the tested MKZ.  The car’s nearness to genuine greatness makes its shortcomings all the more glaring.

It is a shame, because the MKZ is truly beautiful to behold. The car’s arching silhouette minimises its apparent size, and Lincoln design director Max Wolff has seamlessly integrated a contemporary version of Lincoln’s traditional twin-wing grille up front. There is grace at work here.

The cabin is opulent, with sumptuous leather seats, gracious dashboard styling, and a mammoth panoramic sunroof that is breath-stealing, especially when it slides back over the rear window. The side-view mirrors appear to have been styled with more thought than some companies devote to whole cars.

Handling is adroit, with a reassuring response to input that makes it easy to forget decades of floating Continentals and Town Cars. A thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel feels fabulous in the driver's hands, and the seats’ hides are appropriately soft.

Engines at this end of the luxury market are expected to be smooth as silk dipped in cream. With mainframe-controlled vibration-cancelling hydraulic engine mounts. And fairy dust.

Instead, the MKZ’s 3.7-llitre V6 engine, generating 300 horsepower, sends unrefined, tingling vibrations through the steering wheel and pedals at idle. Worse yet, this is the premium engine option, with a four-cylinder turbo and four-cylinder hybrid powertrain as the alternatives. With the base four-cylinder engines or turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost from corporate parent Ford, buyers might tolerate a little buzz in exchange for improved fuel economy, but not from a V6. The premium engine should deliver a smooth, silent stream of effortless power.

Chief among the design miscues is the dashboard styling, which requires drivers to accept an unfamiliar row of symmetrically arranged, identical buttons to start the car and shift. It is an aesthetic triumph, but an ergonomic disaster. The push-button shifter includes an “S” button below the “D” for “drive.”  The “S” stands for “sport”, and pressing it reprogrammes the transmission’s shift points and turns the gas pedal into a virtual on-off switch, leaving the driver little ability to accurately modulate the throttle during genuine at-the-limit sporty driving.

Those shifter buttons, high on the sloping dash, also reside an absurdly long way from the driver’s seat. And on the driver’s door armrest, the window switches are also too great a stretch.  Beyond them lies the power mirror adjuster, which requires the driver to move out of the driving position to reach it.

Then there is the well-documented nightmare that is the MyFord Touch infotainment system, here known as MyLincoln Touch, where capacitive touch-screen inputs may go unacknowledged and submenus may befuddle the most tech-native twenty-something. 

Lincoln fumbles other basics, too, like the turn-signal stalk, which returns to centre even when the signal is activated. The steering wheel contains six two-position buttons, a pair of four-way Nintendo-style controls pads with a central “OK” button and a pair of plastic shift paddles.  With such a muddle of controls, none of their functions are obvious or simple unless Lincoln decides to add a Mario Kart instructional game to the LCD instrument display panel.

Raymond Loewy, a pragmatic, mid-century industrial-design foil to Wright, would have prescribed a more user-friendly approach to building the MKZ. At minimum, he would have ensured the switches were installed at a sensible distance from the driver. That single shortcoming may well epitomise the self-defeating character of the MKZ: greatness, just out of reach.

Vital stats: 2013 Lincoln MKZ all-wheel-drive

  • Base Price: $37,815
  • As tested: $51,205,inclusive of $895 destination charge
  • EPA fuel economy: 18mpg city, 26mpg highway
  • Drivetrain: 300hp, 3.7-litre V6 engine, six-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: 10-way power adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, satellite radio, keyless start, remote start, all-wheel drive
  • Major options: panoramic sunroof, V6 engine, technology package with active park assist, adaptive cruise control and lane keeping, preferred equipment group with back-up camera, GPS navigation, blind-spot warning, heated rear seats

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