American sedans were once the yardstick of the industry. Capacious, stylish and powerful, they set the benchmark for what could be done on four wheels and a budget. But fifty years have passed since that was the case, and now German and Japanese cars are the standard against which all others are measured, or at least that was true until General Motors unveiled the all-new Cadillac CTS. That car’s build quality, balance and style have come to be widely regarded as on par with most cars in its class, despite significantly undercutting its rivals on price. Now Ford has stepped up with the all-new 2009 MKS sedan, and it’s clear that they’re swinging for the fences. Is the Lincoln MKS Ford’s CTS?
Put simply, yes. It’s a good car in just about every measurable way, and falls short mostly in ways that are easily forgiven. Due to a minor scheduling snafu at Ford we got to spend nearly three weeks in the MKS, ensuring that foibles that might have seemed minor in our usual one-week stay would have plenty of time to come to light. For the most part, however, they didn’t.
It’s worth noting here that I'm not an inveterate fan of American-made machinery; if anything I'm enamored of the precision engineering and excellent performance bargains of the Japanese. But the MKS does nearly everything as well as the in-class cars the Japanese have to offer and then some. It even takes the Germans on in their own territory and comes out even in many cases, and ahead in some. Those are strong words, but this is a strong car. For the $45,570 sticker price of our fully-loaded example, only the CTS can offer it any real competition. There are better cars, to be sure, but they’ll cost significantly more.
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Now that nearly every luxury car fan and enthusiast on the planet has had his or her feathers ruffled, let me explain why I’m spouting such heresy.
The MKS is no beauty in the harsh light of the Internet. The predominance of the chrome accents and its toothy, leering grin wipe out the seductive curves and subtle styling tucked into its haunches. But in the living, moving flesh, the MKS is a stunner. The chrome hits just the right level of flash without becoming the OEM equivalent of after-market Lexus wheel arches, the new vertical-bar Lincoln grille is pulled off remarkably well by the car’s strong fore end, and the overall package is coherent and sleek. Do bring along a microfiber cloth if you're at all bothered by fingerprints and smudges, however, as all that door-edge chrome seems to act like a magnet for them.
It’s not as muscular-looking as the CTS, to be sure, but it’s nowhere near as sedate as the Buick Lucerne, either. It’s several steps ahead of the most recent BMW 3-series iteration (with the exception of the rather gorgeous coupes, but that’s another review) on originality alone, though it’s hard to hold derivative styling against a car when its own forebears were the inspiration. Still, the 3-series’ look is tired, and what’s new isn’t as appealing as what it replaced. The new C-Class holds its own against the MKS, but it’s clearly targeted at a different type of buyer with its edgier looks and more new-age vibe.
And that target market difference highlights the MKS’s greatest strength, one it shares with the CTS. It’s priced to undercut the 3-series and C-Class cars of the world, but it’s really the size of the 5-series and E-Class. In fact, the MKS is marginally larger than the CTS, especially in the back seat, where passengers are sure to find a comfortable and entertaining ride.
Moving beyond the competition or the MKS’s rank in class, the car itself is fairly easy to like. Our example was painted in a brilliant shade of Dark Ink Blue Metallic and upholstered with a creamy off-white ‘ultimate cashmere’ leather interior. The combination is classic, classy and attractive. The rest of the interior features a two-tone black-and-white color scheme, highlighted by satin-finish aluminum and polished wood trim. Every aspect of the interior of the car looks and feels premium - with one glaring exception. The door lock button.
Lifted straight from the corporate parts bin and found in literally identical form in the Escape, Mustang and more, the door lock/unlock button is the exception that proves the rule, so to speak. It’s so glaringly out of place in the MKS only because everything else in the cabin is so well turned out and seemingly custom-designed for the application.
For example, the two-pane sunroof gives a nearly panoramic view of the sky with two presses of a button, and closes as easily. The mesh covering that hides it when closed does a good job keeping out the summer sun, even when parked for hours with the windows up.
The steering wheel is so solid and unitary it feels as if it were chiseled from a block of soft-touch granite, but the feedback it gives is a pleasing balance of road feel and power assist - not too heavy, not too informative, but neither is it numb with electric or hydraulic aids. Unfortunately for taller drivers, it does not telescope outward very far, so finding a comfortable arm position is a trade-off with finding a comfortable distance from the pedals.
Even the sport-shift gearbox is on par with the CTS’s remarkable automatic. Holding gears under acceleration and pre-emptively down-shifting when switching quickly from throttle to brake, only the truly dedicated or obsessive would insist on a greater degree of control. The MKS is not a sports sedan, strictly speaking, however. Instead, it errs firmly on the side of luxury in the luxury-sports sedan equation.
The remainder of the powertrain in the MKS is a mixed bag to some degree, however, with the standard front-wheel drive offering decidedly lacking in the performance department, though those that spend any portion of the year with snow on their doorsteps will likely appreciate it instead of the obligatory luxury-sedan rear-drive. Those that don’t can opt for the all-wheel drive powertrain as our test car was equipped. It’s not an impressively engaging system like Acura’s SH-AWD, which you can actually feel delicately shuffling the torque around in on-the-limit corners. Rather it’s an impressively transparent system that just provides grip, and plenty of it. Even disabling traction control and flooring the 275hp (205kW) 3.7L V6 in sport-shift mode from a dead stop will elicit little more than a chirp of the meaty 255/45 tires wrapped around the optional 19-inch alloy wheels.
The all-wheel drive option does incur a nearly 150lb (68kg) penalty compared to the standard front-wheel drive, but at 4,127lb (FWD) and 4,276lb (AWD) it’s a moot point - the car isn’t light. Saddling the 275hp V6 with so much weight accentuates the difference in direction from the CTS, but that’s not to say the car is sluggish or slow in daily use. It gets up to freeway speed quicker than traffic will, and on those rare occasions when you’ve got free run of the highway, it’ll sail along in high-dollar-ticket territory with ease. And while the Ford 3.7L six-cylinder isn’t as powerful as the 3.5L direct-injected unit found in the CTS, it’s also not as peaky-feeling. Every last one of the MKS AWD’s 270lb-ft (365Nm) of torque are used, and used well.
The one truly disappointing aspect of the MKS’ stay with us was the fuel efficiency. At an EPA-rated 15mpg city and 23mpg highway, the MKS is already lagging behind its competitors, but in real-world use we routinely saw performance around town in the 11-13mpg range, though highway cruising was nearer the target figure. If your commute involves lots of idling or hilly areas, expect results similar to ours. The heavy weight of the car may not cause it much trouble on flat ground, but it requires an equally heavy foot when the grade turns steep, and that’ll impact your fuel bill quickly. The same holds true for flatlanders that engage the SST-mode of the transmission with regularity.
Leg room, head room and seating comfort all around reflect the designers' choice of luxury over sport. Some of the CTS’s appreciably tauter road feel was due in part to its firm seats, but that communicative feel came at the expense of slower-pace comfort. The MKS reverses the bargain and offers comfort in spades with just enough feel.
Ride quality also reflects the choice for luxury feel. It is smooth, settled and quick to respond but over broken pavement or driveway bumps, the MKS is gentle and graceful where the CTS would be a bit too firm, and the Infiniti G35 - an admittedly sport-focused luxury sedan - would be outright harsh. Cabin noise is minimal - so minimal, in fact, that some sounds you might want to hear, such as emergency vehicle sirens, are muted or inaudible until very close to the car.
Even the electronic systems of the car speak to its luxury aims. The Sync system by Microsoft offers essentially unparalleled connectivity and multimedia capabilities. The system readily recognized and interfaced with my iPhone, allowing calls and music playing with ease. Full song information, including artist, album and track titles plus an array of voice commands make the system very easy to use.
And you’ll be using it at every opportunity. The non-branded THX-certified audio system in the MKS can take standard stereo fare and turn it into a genuine experience. Crisp, clear and clean, the tone and quality of the sound emitted by the multi-channel surround setup is impressive. The best feature of the very well-balanced stereo, however, is its ability to deliver solid bass, clear treble and a minimally murky mid-range all at levels that allow for comfortable conversation amongst all passengers.
Once you’ve grown used to the voice commands, it’s easy to appreciate that they aren’t limited to the entertainment system. Everything from the climate control to the nav system can be controlled by a single button press and a series of guided voice commands. While it may take a few seconds longer to do by voice, it keeps both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road, and that ought to be worth a few seconds in anybody’s book. Interfacing with the touchscreen side of the navigation, information and climate control system is just as easy, however, thanks to a sensitive touch panel and a very high-resolution and easy-to-read screen.
Overall, the MKS is a luxurious large mid-size sedan with more style and as much sport as most offerings in the category for the past decade, American or otherwise. It has its weak spots, but so does each of its primary competitors, and at the price of the MKS, forgiveness isn’t reserved for the rich.by Nelson Ireson
Review: 2009 Lincoln MKS AWD