Review: 2011 Lincoln MKS

Up Front

My guess is that Ford Motor (F) Chief Executive Alan Mulally spends a lot of time thinking about the luxury car business. Having shed Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, and Aston Martin, Ford has placed all its bets on a single luxury brand, Lincoln. And Lincoln is lagging. While sales of Ford-brand vehicles soared 21.5 percent last year, to 1.8 million, Lincoln sales nudged up a mere 3.6 percent, to a paltry 85,828. Meanwhile, over at General Motors (GM), Cadillac sales soared 34.7 percent, to 145,925, making Lincoln's archrival not just America's fastest-growing major luxury carmaker but also one of the fastest-growing marques in the world.

Other competitors are outpacing Lincoln, too. Lexus' (TM) U.S. sales rose 6.9 percent last year (to 229,329), BMW's 12 percent (to 220,113), Mercedes-Benz's (DAI) 13.6 percent (to 216,448), Audi's 22.9% (to 101,629), Acura's (HMC) 7.2 percent (to 133,606), and Infiniti's (NSANY) 27.5 percent (to 103,411).

There are signs of revival at Lincoln, but mainly because of popular SUVs, such as the MKX and MKT. Lincoln really has only two car models, if you exclude the badly dated Town Car. Those are the MKZ, a gussied-up Ford Fusion, and the MKS, the subject of this review, which is based on the Ford Taurus. The MKZ had a slight sales increase last year, but sales of the MKS, Lincoln's flagship luxury sedan, plunged 16.1 percent, to 14,417. That's a pretty disastrous performance in a recovering car market.

So, is the MKS an underappreciated gem that should be selling better? Or is it a dog that deserves its falling sales? To my mind, it's a little bit of both. It's a nice enough car, but it doesn't stand out among the many truly marvelous models in the segment, notably the new Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5 Series. The base MKS sells almost entirely on price. The high-end version, with Ford's marvelous Ecoboost V6 engine, costs nearly as much but can't match the refinement of its German and Japanese competition.

Design-wise, the MKS's strongest selling point is it's a big, roomy, American-style luxury car with a gigantic, 18.7 cu. ft. trunk. Exterior styling, with its big toothy grille and chrome highlights, also is distinctly American. The price is definitely right: According to the Power Information Network (PIN), the MKS sells for an average of just $44,724, way below even the least expensive among its rivals, such as the 2011 Audi A6 (average price: $51,159), and the Cadillac STS ($53,248).

You'll pay a lot more than average, however, for the Ecoboost MKS, which is the only version of the car I would want. Including standard all-wheel drive, the Ecoboost MKS starts at $48,985, and the price rises to about $57,000 when the car is well-loaded with options. That erases much of the MKS's price advantage. For instance, an all-wheel-drive 2011 BMW 535i sells for an average of $57,825, according to PIN. The 2011 Infiniti M56 averages $62,909, the Mercedes E550 $64,976.

Why pay extra for the Ecoboost engine? The high-tech, 3.5-liter, 355-hp V6 features twin turbos and direct fuel injection and makes the MKS both quicker and more fuel efficient. It genuinely lives up to Lincoln's sales pitch that it offers V8 power with V6 fuel economy. The standard engine in the MKS, a 3.7-liter, 273-horsepower V6, simply isn't competitive with the latest engines out of Germany and Japan.

The Ecoboost advantage is evident in the car's fuel economy stats. With the standard V6, the MKS is rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 24 on the highway with front-wheel drive and 16/23 mpg with all-wheel drive. The ratings rise to 17 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway in the Ecoboost MKS, even though the engine is 30 percent more powerful than the base V6.

Behind the Wheel

The other advantage of the Ecoboost engine is obvious when you punch the gas. The base MKS is something of a laggard, accelerating from 0 to 60 in about 7.5 seconds. With the Ecoboost engine, the time drops to about 5.5 seconds, about the same as a BMW 535i. The Ecoboost MKS easily tops 60 mph in second gear. Acceleration is smooth and linear, and there's plenty of reserve power for passing at highway speed.

The MKS, however, still can't match the technology of its German and Japanese rivals. The only transmission offered is a six-speed automatic, while smoother, more efficient seven- and eight-speed automatics are becoming standard in high-end luxury cars. There are some techie options, including a hard-drive-based navigation system, backup camera, automatic parking system, and active cruise control, but numerous newer high-tech features that are offered on German and Japanese luxury cars aren't available as standard options on the MKS. These include night vision, lane departure warning, heads-up display, and rear-seat entertainment.

Also, there's no MKS convertible to compete with such models as the Mercedes E350 Cabriolet, and you can't get an MKS with a manual transmission.

The MKS also can't match the tight feel and taut handling of its German and Japanese rivals. The Ecoboost MKS has an upgraded suspension and electric power steering, but it still only borders on being sporty. The suspension is relatively stiff without being harsh but feels squishy during hard cornering. The steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters that come with the Ecoboost V6 feel jury-rigged into a car they weren't intended for. The bulky paddles are poorly designed and clumsy to use.

The interior is well-appointed, with standard leather seats and a good-looking stitched leather dash. Wood interior trim (ash or ebony) is available for an extra $495. The rear seats are unusually roomy, with plenty of head and leg space for full-size adults. Standard equipment includes features that usually cost extra, such as a retractable rear-window sunshade, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and heated rear seats. The floor matting and some of the instruments, however, look to me like they belong in a less expensive car.

Another quibble: The trunk is spacious but less practical than it might be, because the trunk opening is too small.

Buy It or Bag It?

Lincoln suffers from image problems resulting from years of neglect while Ford dabbled with Jaguar and other European marques. The brand is still marred by the Town Car's downscale image as an airport limousine. Ford plans to upgrade Lincoln dramatically, with seven new or refreshed models over the next four years, according to a spokesman. The company won't discuss plans for the MKS, but officials hint that the model is due for an upgrade in the 2013 model year.

Meantime, the MKS is neither fish nor fowl. Cadillac solved the problem of not alienating traditional buyers while moving toward European design and handling by offering three distinct models: the DTS, a traditional American luxury car; the CTS, a smaller and sportier model directly targeted at BMW; and the STS, which falls between the other two. Lincoln's MKS is like a combination of the Cadillac DTS and STS rolled into one model, which doesn't quite work.

Shoppers attracted to the base model because of its low price should test-drive the MKS against such competitors as the Acura TL and Hyundai Genesis, which are smaller but less expensive.

The Ecoboost MKS is a much better car than the base model. When test-driven against a BMW 535i, Mercedes E350, or a Lexus GS 460, most shoppers will probably find it comes up a bit short. But for those who don't care about all the latest technical bells and whistles, it offers excellent value. Among other things, with sales off last year, dealers are probably willing to bargain on price.

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