Review: 2010 Lincoln MKT

Up Front

Just about the only thing I don't like about Ford's (F) new Lincoln MKT is the way it looks. The big, toothy grille of this new crossover vehicle is overly garish and its side profile is downright depressing. The front end is too short for the rest of the body and the squared-off rear end seems designed to accommodate a coffin. In dark colors, the MKT looks like a hearse.

If you can get past its exterior styling, however, the MKT wins you over in a hurry. Designed to compete with models such as Honda's (HMC) popular Acura MDX and Volkswagen's (VOW:GR) new Audi Q7, the MKT is a full-size crossover vehicle with a third-row seat that raises its maximum seating capacity to seven, vs. five for the Lincoln MKX midsize crossover. The MKT has a luxurious interior, comes packed with high-tech features, and drives like a dream.

Just keep in mind that you'll end up spending $50,000-plus for an MKT if you go with the new twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6—which I would definitely want. It's a great engine that provides BMW-style speed with hardly any loss of fuel economy.

With the standard engine, a 3.7-liter, 268-horsepower V6, the MKT starts at $44,995 with front-wheel drive and $46,990 with all-wheel drive. Stepping up to the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 provides a major increase in oomph: It's rated at 355-horsepower and 350 lb.-ft. of torque. The starting price jumps to $49,995, but since the EcoBoost MKT comes with all-wheel-drive, that's only three grand more than a comparable AWD base model.

That's a small premium to pay. The EcoBoost V6 will propel the MKT from 0 to 60 in just 6.3 seconds, almost as fast as a BMW 328i, yet fuel economy is barely compromised. With front-wheel-drive, the base MKT is rated at 17 miles-per-gallon in the city and 23 on the highway; the EcoBoost MKT is rated at 16/22, exactly the same as the base model with AWD—and better than the Acura MDX (15/20) and V8-powered Audi Q7 (13/18). The EcoBoost MKT's stats are remarkable for a full-size crossover vehicle that weighs 5,000 lbs and is 207.6 inches long (half a foot longer than the Ford Flex, on which it's based, and 17 inches longer than the MDX).

The MKT is a "Top Safety Pick" of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard equipment includes stability and traction control, and front, side, and head-protecting side curtain airbags. Safety options include systems that warn the driver of an impending collision and alert when cross traffic is approaching and when an overtaking vehicle enters the driver's blind spot.

Ford is on a roll in overall sales, having gained market share last year for the first time since 1995. Excluding Volvo, unit sales fell 15.9% for all of 2009 but rose by one-third in the month of December, to 179,017. Lincoln sales rose 15.6% in December, to 10,567. It's too early to tell how well the MKT will sell, as it's a niche model that sold 858 in December.

Behind the Wheel

When I first slipped behind the wheel of the MKT, I was struck by how much progress Ford has made in the last few years. The build quality, ergonomics, and technological sophistication of this vehicle are astonishing, especially considering that a decade ago, Lincoln was known mainly for the badly outdated Town Car and even top Ford executives sometimes belittled the division as an also-ran.

The MKT is by no means sporty, but it handles remarkably well within the constraints imposed by its size and weight. The EcoBoost V6 not only makes it surprisingly quick, but is equipped with a pressurized direct fuel-injection system that eliminates turbo lag, the hesitation often suffered by turbo-charged engines. When you punch the gas pedal, the EcoBoost MKT takes off like a shot. The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters are molded for easy manipulation and may be the best-designed I've ever tested.

The MKT drives more like a wagon than a crossover vehicle—which is a good thing. My test vehicle felt controlled and steady at all times. The suspension handled potholes with a minimum of bumps and jolts, and in truly terrible ice and snow conditions it never slid or spun its wheels. The cabin remained hushed at all speeds, and the EcoBoost engine provided plenty of passing power at highway speed.

The build-quality and ergonomics of the MKT's interior is close to matching that of a Mercedes (DAI) or Lexus (TM), with high-quality stitched leather throughout. A twin-panel panoramic glass roof is standard and gives the cabin an open feel (although you have to pay extra for a panoramic sunroof that opens). Going with bucket seats in the second row ($995 extra) reduces maximum seating to six, but it's worth considering if you don't do a lot of carpooling. In that setup, there are deep, rolltop-covered storage bins between seats, giving the cabin a limousine-like feel. For $895 extra, there's even a little five-quarter refrigerator for cold drinks.

The third-row seats are best left to small kids. The second-row seats adjust forward and backward and have a slide/fold forward feature to allow access, but it's still no fun crawling back into the third-row, where head and leg room is too limited for most adults. There's 17.9 cu. ft. of luggage space behind the third-row seats, more than in the MDX (15) and Q7 (10.9).

The MKT comes with numerous high-tech features and options, including a $4,000 package that adds everything from a voice-activated navigation system to the blind-spot warning system. I found that system—which flashes a light in the outside mirrors to signal overtaking vehicles—very helpful when I was driving down the Palisades Parkway into New York City in heavy traffic. It didn't seem to be set off by trees along the roadside, as have other such systems I've tested. My test vehicle didn't have the automatic parking system (an extra $595), which sizes up parking slots on the street and parallel parks the vehicle with little help from the driver. I doubt it would work in the heavy-duty winter driving conditions I experienced.

The standard backup camera was usually fogged up during my test drives. That was unfortunate because one of the negatives about the MKT is that you can barely see out the rear window with the third-row headrests deployed.

Buy it or Bag It?

For me the MKT's exterior styling would probably be a deal-killer. All I can say is, if you buy one, order the Ingot Silver or Cinnamon Clearcut Metallic paintjob—or any other light or bright color that softens the vehicle's appearance. In Tuxedo Black, the MKT looks like it should be leading a procession of mourners to the nearest cemetery.

The MKT sells for an average of $49,676, according to the Power Information Group (PIN). Going with the EcoBoost engine raises the price to the mid-fifties with options, but that's still competitive with many of the MKT's rivals. For instance, the Mercedes GL450 sells for an average of $66,962, the Audi Q7 for $56,834, and the Land Rover LR4 for $55,122, according to PIN.

If your budget is tight, the Acura MDX, which sells for an average of $45,844, is the MKT's strongest competitor. The MDX is more of a traditional SUV and slower than the EcoBoost MKT, but handles well. If you can get by with two rows of seats, the new Cadillac SRX, at $40,839 on average, is also worth considering. However, powered by a turbo-charged V6, the new Caddie costs $50,000 or more and still can't match the quickness of the EcoBoost MKT.

The bottom line: If you're shopping for a luxury people-hauler, the MKT is well-worth a test drive. If you haven't driven a Lincoln lately, its quality, sophistication. and performance will surprise you.

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