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Test Drive: 2013 Lincoln MKZ

If the 2013 Lincoln MKZ is anything, it is important, perhaps the most important car of the year. The fate of an entire company could hang on its success.

After years of poor sales, the Lincoln Motor Company is on the ropes, but has been given one last chance to prove itself, and the resources to execute a full overhaul of its product lineup.

As the first all-new car of this effort, the MKZ sets the tone of what’s to come, and its performance in showrooms could be a clear indication as to whether or not the ship has been turned far enough around to keep it from following Mercury into Ford’s extensive portfolio of former brands.

Like its predecessor, the midsize four-door sedan is based on the same platform as the Ford Fusion, which itself was redesigned for 2013 and has been selling like crazy since it went on sale a few months ago.

But the MKZ has a completely different look from the Fusion. Its split-wing grille, fastback profile and Lincoln’s signature full-width tail lights creating a streamlined, vaguely nautical shape that definitely catches eyes, with a little help from a selection of unique paint colors that includes Ginger Ale, Crystal Champaign and Bordeaux Reserve, (remember, don’t drink and drive.) Side view mirrors sitting on chrome pedestals are a well-executed affectation.

Although it appears to be a hatchback like the Audi A7, the folks at Lincoln say that would’ve cut into rear seat headroom and made it noisier inside, so they gave it a trunk instead. Luckily it’s a large one, so your luggage carrying needs should be well provided for, even if you have to rent a van for trips to the antique furniture shop.

The cabin presents a sleek and modern design, with very little wood, lots of silver trim and an abundance of touch-sensitive controls on the center stack. I can live without the unresponsive virtual sliders for volume and fan speed, but gear selection is effectively handled by buttons on the dashboard, eliminating the need for a transmission selector on the center console, which floats on a suspension bridge-inspired framework. The materials everything is made from are a little less hoity-toity than they could be, but they’re still the best you’ve seen from Lincoln in years.

It’s not the roomiest interior, a little narrow and a short on rear legroom compared to the midsize class leaders, but four average Joes and Janes should fit just fine. Vertical space can be increased by the addition of a 15.2-square-foot, single-pane retractable panoramic glass roof for $2,995. It doesn’t open all of the way, but slides so far back that it obstructs the view out of the top of the rear window, a fair trade on a lovely day.

Sync and the touch-screen, steering wheel button and voice-activated MyLincoln Touch infotainment system come standard on all MKZs, which have a starting price of $36,820. That buys you either a 45 mpg hybrid model, or one with a 240 hp turbocharged four-cylinder good for 33 mpg highway.

Both of those powertrains, two other four-cylinders and a plug-in version of the hybrid are also available in the Fusion. A 300 hp 3.7-liter V6 has been reserved for the MKZ as a $1,230 option and, along with the turbo, can be equipped with all-wheel-drive, as was my loaded to the gills test car.

The MKZ has a standard active suspension, as we’re told all future Lincolns will, with adaptive dampers that constantly adjust to the road surface and your driving style. Switching between Drive and Sport modes -- which also recalibrate steering, throttle and transmission response – there’s a noticeable difference in ride quality, from not quite floaty to firm.

For many shoppers in this segment, power still equals luxury and the V6 MKZ steps of the line with authority. The engine was cribbed from the Ford Mustang, after all. It isn’t the kind of overtly sporty, engaging car that eggs you on to drive like you did when you borrowed your dad’s Lincoln as a teenager, but it is an able performer, very sure-footed, and the engineers got the sound of the V6 just right.

More to the point of its mission, the six-cylinder MKZ is a relaxed cruiser, supremely quiet inside when you’re just tooling around and, overall, very comfortable in its skin. A long list of optional driver aids aim to make the daily grind even less of a chore. Among them are a self-parking system, front and rear collision alerts, blind spot warning, radar cruise control and a drowsy driver alert. I actually got pinged once by the last of those and was definitely spaced out at the time, so there’s something to it.

Most impressive is a lane keeping feature that monitors the road with cameras and aggressively uses the electric-assist steering to guide the car between the lines. There’s no suggestion that you should take your hands off the wheel and let it play Jeeves for you, but it works nearly that well.

None of this comes cheaply, of course, and my close to full zoot example rang up at $51,185. Even if you just look at the number and variety of vehicles currently on sale between that and the base price of the MKZ your head will very likely explode, so please don’t do that.

But, if you narrow that down to front-wheel-drive-based midsize luxury sedans, there are really just two direct competitors on price and size: the aging Acura TL and the Lexus ES, which bodes well for Lincoln. The ES may be the king of the hill, but I’ll wager that the MKZ is different enough to garner more than a few cross-shoppers. As it turns out, Lincoln’s new boss, Jim Farley, used to run Lexus, so you can bet he’s taught his sales force a few tricks.

The real problem facing Lincoln is that, aside from the V6 and panoramic roof, the Fusion offers almost everything that the MKZ does in a package that’s nearly as refined, costs about six grand less in its highest trim level, and is a looker in its own right. Considering Farley is also the head of marketing for Ford, you’d think he would’ve made sure that the mother ship gave its infirm child more of a head start in this sales race, but survival of the fittest and all that.

Regardless, the 2013 MKZ is a much better car than the one it replaces, which wasn’t half bad, but based on the predicament Lincoln is in, clearly wasn’t good enough. Is the new one?

That could be the big story next year.

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2013 Lincoln MKZ V6 AWD

Base Price: $39,940

As tested: $51,185

Type: 4-door, 5-passenger Sedan

Engine: 3.7L V6

Power: 300 hp, 277 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/26 hwy

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