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Ford created a winning hybrid power train for its Fusion midsize sedan last year, so it became a no-brainer to extend it to the Lincoln MKZ, a badge-engineered version of the Fusion. With the same specs as the Fusion Hybrid, the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid achieves 41 mpg in city EPA testing, an impressive number for a segment that barely tops 30 mpg.
But the problem with badge engineering has always been too little differentiation between car models, and that criticism applies to the MKZ Hybrid. Although it gets a big Lincoln grille, the body is essentially the same as that of the Ford Fusion. Likewise, the ride quality does not feel substantially better.
The cabin looks more dressed up than in the Fusion, and amenities like heated and cooled seats add a level of comfort. Although most of the cabin tech is identical to that available in the Fusion, the THX audio system, with its finely detailed sound output, will be the deal maker for music lovers.
The MKZ Hybrid features a few more amenities in the cabin than its sibling, the Ford Fusion Hybrid.
For buyers already looking at a Lincoln MKZ, the hybrid version makes for an easy choice, as Lincoln prices them the same. The only compelling reason to choose the standard MKZ over the hybrid is the availability of all-wheel drive in the former. Compared with the gas engine front-wheel-drive MKZ, the hybrid version gets about 15 mpg better fuel economy.
We couldn't help geeking out over the MKZ Hybrid's power train while driving it, thanks in large part to the instrument cluster display. This display uses two small LCDs, one on either side of the speedometer, with four different configurations showing more or less information.
Settling on the most data-laden display, its power gauge showed how much throttle we could give the car and stay in electric vehicle mode. As the car gains momentum, we were able to add power. Another gauge on the display shows the charge level of the car's nickel metal hydride battery pack, with an arrowed green circle indicating when regenerative braking is active.
The power display on the left shows when the car is driving in EV mode.
A Lincoln engineer previously told us the best way to drive the car is to give it gas from a stop, letting the engine help it accelerate to cruising speed. Using this tactic, we got up to 30 or 40 mph quickly, then watched the gauges show us that the car was operating under electric drive, with the engine shut off.
Lincoln says the MKZ Hybrid can go up to 47 mph in electric mode. We easily kept the car running under electric power at speeds of just over 40 mph by feathering the throttle, using the power gauge on the display to show how much we could accelerate and stay in electric mode. Driving onto the freeway, our speeds became too high for the electric part of the hybrid system, and we had to content ourselves with normal driving.
During some driving, such as the first couple of miles on a cold morning, the car proved reluctant to go into electric mode. Even keeping a light touch on the accelerator, the power gauge refused to show us the green box that indicates its electric potential.
The power train is made up of a 2.5-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine complemented by a 106-horsepower electric motor. The engine outputs 156 horsepower, but the overall horsepower rating from the system is only 191, all going to the front wheels. The MKZ Hybrid takes off from a stop easily, and the electric motor and gas engine work together well. We could feel when the gas engine turned on, but it was subtle, with little noise or vibration.
The MKZ Hybrid's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is aided by a 106-horsepower electric motor.
On a two-lane highway, we crossed the dashed yellow line to pass slower traffic, and the car picked up speed well, getting out ahead and letting us ditch back into the lane before oncoming traffic showed up.
Driving up a twisty mountain road, the MKZ Hybrid held its own, but was clearly out of its element. The electric power steering is well-tuned and provided enough road feel to let us know when our moderate speeds through the turns were close to getting us in trouble. As is typical with suburban-oriented midsize sedans, the front wheels plow into corners without grace.
When going over bumps, we felt a clear thump through the suspension, although it did not lead to any real oscillation. The car damps out the rough spots but does not insulate its occupants with a soft ride.
At 41 mpg city and 36 mpg highway, the MKZ Hybrid shows the typical hybrid penchant for low speed, stop-and-go driving. For the size of the car, these numbers are exceptionally good. They fall pretty far short of the 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway achieved by the Toyota Prius, but the MKZ Hybrid feels more powerful.
The Ford Fusion Hybrid delivers the same driving experience and fuel economy, but it doesn't get a THX audio system. For the MKZ Hybrid, this audio system means a 600-watt amp and 14 speakers, plenty to fill the car's small cabin. That system includes two subwoofers and a center channel array at the top of the dashboard.
HD radio is one of the MKZ Hybrid's audio sources.
The system can produce 5.1-channel sound with the right source, a DVD movie or DVD audio. It also uses a new digital signal-processing technology called DTS Neural Surround, designed to transform the stereo audio from an MP3 player into surround sound.
We've praised THX systems in Lincolns before, and found this one equally worthy. Music plays with rich detail, unearthing layers in tracks that remain buried when heard through lesser systems. Highs and bass are very well-balanced, never overwhelming the listening experience yet backed by plenty of power. After parking, we always felt some hesitation in turning off the car, as it would stop the music playback.
Lincoln offers many audio sources to feed this THX system, our favorite being an MP3 player connected to the car with the Sync system. Sync allows for a variety of MP3 players, not just iPods, and includes an amazingly good voice command system to control music playback. We remain impressed how well Sync lets us request music by name.
MP3 player connectivity works through a USB port, but the stereo also supports Bluetooth audio streaming. As is typical with Bluetooth, the interface only offers stop/start control over music playback. Lincoln reserves 10GB of space on the car's hard drive for music storage, and makes it accessible with the same menu structure and voice command as used for a connected MP3 player. Satellite radio is also an audio option, and forms a key conduit for data to the navigation system.
The maps may not offer rich detail, but this navigation system is generally excellent.
That navigation system has been one of our favorite features in recent Lincoln and Ford vehicles. Hard-drive-based, it works quickly, calculating routes, scrolling the map, and responding to address inputs. The maps are not particularly rich, but street labels are easy to read and it includes both 2D and 3D views. Under route guidance, the system reads out the names of upcoming streets on the turn list.
Data integrated with the navigation system, delivered via satellite radio, includes traffic, gas prices, and movie times. We particularly like that it lets you see per gallon prices at nearby gas stations, select one, and have its location programmed into navigation. For traffic information, the system will create detours around severe problems.
Lincoln also ties in the Bluetooth phone system with some of this location data. For example, you can dial a movie theater from the movie times screen. Sync voice command also controls the phone, letting you make calls by saying the name of a person in paired phone's contact database.
Sync also works as a telematics service, offering an automatic 911 call feature and a maintenance report on the car. A Sync Apps screen shows these services, and includes slots for future apps. Lincoln has already demonstrated Pandora integration using an Android phone, so we expect apps like this to be deployed to the car in the near future.
This app screen has open slots, ready for Lincoln's new smartphone app integration.
Lincoln offers a few driver assistance features with the MKZ Hybrid. We had a rearview camera and blind-spot detection on our car, which both worked very well. But it falls short of more advanced options such as adaptive cruise control and automated parallel parking. Rain-sensing windshield wipers and adaptive headlights are nice luxury touches.
With one of the best hybrid systems on the market, it is easy to geek out over efficient driving in the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. And aside from hyper-miling, it also drives fine as an everyday car, with plenty of boost for accelerating. The suspension stands out less, merely providing a reasonably comfortable ride, without the luxury character we would want in a Lincoln.
The car really excels in cabin tech. The maps could look better, and adaptive cruise control would be nice, but Sync works great for voice command and we love the external data feeds into the navigation system. The THX audio system is more icing on the cake, delivering audiophile quality sound at price much below that of competitors.
For looks, the MKZ Hybrid doesn't really stand out from the pack of midsize sedans. In fact, its angular styling makes it look more stodgy than most. But you can't beat the practicality, with easy access to comfortable front and rear seats. The cabin tech interface also features good design, with intelligently placed buttons and a nice, modern style for onscreen menus.
|Model||2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid|
|Power train||2.5-liter four-cylinder with hybrid electric transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||41 mpg/36 mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||35.3 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based with traffic, weather, and other data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with dial by name|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod, Zune, many others|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, internal hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, HD radio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||THX 14-speaker 600-watt system|
|Driver aids||Blind-spot detection, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$41,370|