Behind the Wheel: Lincoln MKZ Hybrid

THR takes a spin in the carmaker's do-or-die luxury sedan, which is key to a turnaround.

When Cadillac nearly drove off a cliff a decade ago by allowing the brand to become irrelevant to younger buyers snapping up BMWs instead of Sedan de Villes, it slammed on the brakes, sent its designers to the woodshed and produced the CTS, a radical stylistic departure with more angles than a Stealth fighter that reinvigorated the carmaker's entire line. Cadillac effectively tossed its land-yacht legacy down the memory hole and reemerged as a plausible competitor to Mercedes, BMW and Lexus, the troika that had been eating its luxury lunch. Cadillac’s remarkable U-turn away from the brink was praised by Forbes as nothing short of “one of the biggest brand makeovers in automotive history.”

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Today, Lincoln—Ford’s remaining luxury marque after it sold off Jaguar, Aston Martin and others during the recession—finds itself in a dilemma almost identical to Cadillac’s a decade ago. Sales have been sliding for years, and the typical Lincoln driver today is likely to have been born during the Truman administration. It’s a trend--sluggish sales and an aging core demographic—that Lincoln needs to reverse for the brand to have a future.

Ford has taken aggressive steps to right the ship, renaming the division the Lincoln Motor Company and launching a marketing assault comprising elaborate TV spots while salting social media with content hosted by putatively hip spokesmen--a Super Bowl ad with Jimmy Fallon collating Tweets about the brand and a web site stuffed with high-end content, including an interactive video of Beck reinterpreting David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.” Lincoln also upgraded dealerships, instituted a concierge program to assist buyers and dangled incentives like a night’s stay at a Ritz-Carlton.

But all the marketing in the world won’t revive Lincoln unless the cars are up to scratch with buyers in the brutally competitive luxury category, so Lincoln is revamping its entire line, starting with the 2013 MKZ. Built on the same platform as Ford’s well-received Fusion, the MKZ is an attractive trade-up from its predecessor and cracks the svelte foreign-coupe silhouette that often eludes American carmakers. The base MKZ, priced at $36,820, comes with a 2 liter four cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine or a hybrid, making 188 horsepower, at no additional cost. (A 3.7 liter V-6 is available.) The interior of the MKZ is as silent as vault, thanks to double-paned glass and active noise cancellation, the ride firm but luxo silky. When fully optioned with extras like a retractable glass roof, all wheel drive and 19-inch wheels, the MKZ can sticker for more than $40,000. Critics have noted that a loaded Ford Fusion has many of the same features but costs thousands less, and that while the new MKZ is an immense improvement over earlier versions, it lacks the bold innovation a game-changing car in the segment must possess to convince buyers to forsake their BMWs and Lexuses.

Unlike Cadillac’s scorched-earth image reboot, Lincoln actively invokes the glories of its past--the MKZ’s winged grille echoes that of the prehistoric Lincoln Zephyr. (When at last year’s L.A. Auto Show the car maker displayed a brace of restored classic Lincolns, including Liz Taylor’s 1956 Continental Mark II, the strategy had the collateral effect of making most of Lincoln’s current output look bland by comparison.) Finally, the new MKZ got off to inauspicious start when some of the first cars off the assembly line in Hermosillo, Mexico had to be shipped to a Ford plant in Flat Rock, Michigan to correct quality control issues, delaying shipments to dealers while the promotional drums blared. This week 500 MKZs were recalled to repair insulation on the engine block heater’s electrical cord.

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The Hollywood Reporter recently caught up with Rich Kreder, Lincoln’s vehicle engineering manager, and marketing manager Kim Cape, who introduced us to the MKZ Hybrid and the thinking behind the car. Both were candid that Lincoln is in need of a reboot and that the new MKZ is crucial to changing drivers’ opinions of what, exactly, Lincoln stands for in a segment crowded with superlative automobiles. “We realize we’re on a journey,” Kreder told THR. “I think we have to prove ourselves. We don’t have that strong brand image that others enjoy. So our cars have to better.”