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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Driving the 2015 Lincoln MKC, the fashionably late small SUV

 @  Motoramic            

2015 Lincoln MKC

Like a certain bearded president, Lincoln has had a rough time of late in the Ford Theater.

Ford’s once-presidential luxury brand has struggled for sales and relevance. For decades, Ford has played the cold-and-withholding parent:

 It has failed to grant Lincoln its rightful inheritance, including stand-alone vehicle platforms that could help Lincoln compete against healthier luxury brands.

Now, for the umpteenth time, Ford insists it is serious about putting Lincoln on the comeback trail. Pompously recast as the Lincoln Motor Company, the brand gains a separate design operation, but remains tethered to Ford’s hip in terms of platforms, and based on the strong-selling Ford Escape, the Lincoln MKC isn’t half bad.

 This compact luxury SUV is one of the best-looking vehicles in its class, and that’s a good start. The MKC is reasonably powerful, fuel-efficient and quiet, and offers all the features you’d expect in a group that includes the Audi Q5, BMW X3, Mercedes GLK and Acura RDX. Compared with the Ford Fusion-based MKZ sedan, the MKC does a better job at hiding its common roots in the Escape.

But one obstacle to Lincoln’s comeback is that its competitors started down this trail years ago. In Santa Barbara for media drives of the 2015 MKC, Lincoln executives noted how the compact luxury SUV market has grown six-fold in recent years, but didn’t dwell on the fact that Lincoln has had no entry.

Better late than never, we tested the MKC from the Pacific shores of Santa Barbara to soaring, desolate California canyons. Our test began with the stronger of two turbocharged four-cylinder engines:

 Ford’s latest Ecoboost, a 2.3-liter, makes its debut in the MKC. All eyes are on this engine, but not for reasons Lincoln might prefer: The 2015 Ford Mustang will offer a pumped-up version of this Ecoboost with roughly 305 hp.

Available only with AWD, Lincoln’s version still gets a solid 285 horses and 305 lb.-ft. of torque, with an EPA fuel-economy rating of 18/26 mpg. Lincoln’s pushbutton automatic transmission frees up console space for storage, with a row of wafer-sized dashboard buttons replacing a conventional shift lever.

 That automatic remains a mere six-speed, versus the seven- and eight-speed units adopted by many rivals. With or without the available steering-wheel paddle shifters, the transmission’s often-vague, slow gear changes can’t match the crispness or the accelerative talents of near-magical eight-speeds in the Audi Q5 and BMW X3.

Throw in a roughly two-ton curb weight, and the result is an MKC whose acceleration feels average by class standards, despite the robust power ratings. But once the engine finds its sweet spot, the Lincoln does show appreciable gusto for freeway merging or passing.

Rolling into Tejon Ranch — the largest contiguous piece of private land in California, at 270,000 acres — we had a chance to admire the MKC. This time, Lincoln’s signature split-wing grille looks smartly proportioned, not as gaudily oversized as Maleficent’s wingspan. The trendy falling roofline and smallish glass area pay homage to the Land Rover Evoque.

The wheels, including optional 19-inch five-spoke alloy (18’s are standard) provide handsome counterpoint to the body. The MKC’s back end is especially appealing, including slender C-shaped taillamps and a silvery, contrasting lower bumper.

Lincoln has mimicked the Audi’s signature clamshell tailgate, which integrates taillamps fully within the gate for a clean and unbroken look.

 But pop that gate, via an optional feature that opens it with a waggle of a foot below the bumper, and the Audi illusion vanishes: The interior hatch area is a sea of unsightly, knock-knock plastic. Hello, Ford.

Inside, the the MKC adopts honest-to-goodness knobs and buttons for main audio and climate functions. That eliminates the goofy, unreliable capacitive “slider” controls of some previous Lincolns – among the infuriating features that have gotten Ford and Lincoln creamed in consumer satisfaction surveys. Good news continues with the much-improved version of MyLincoln Touch’s navigation and infotainment touch screen.

But while the cabin easily exceeds the Escape’s, it still struggles to fully present itself as the expensive, yuppie-pampering environment that many shoppers have come to expect. The soft-touch dashboard, a cantilevered center stack and genuine wood or aluminum trim all look the luxury part, as do the knurled-metal audio knobs. A pushbutton start, rear back-up camera and 8-inch touch screen are among a long list of standard features.

But overall fit and finish is relentlessly average, with noticeable panel gaps and some sharp edges along hidden surfaces, including the leading edge of the center stack. Front seats trail the German standard, with relatively short cushions and mushy, unsupportive bolsters.

 Oh, and that leather: Lincoln says the front-bucket hides on uplevel models are sourced from Scotland’s renowned Bridge of Weir, but you’d never know it from the vinyl-esque gloss and feel.
In class fashion, rear quarters are roomy enough for a pair of adults, with a third rider in a pinch.

 Here, the Lincoln give up an inch or two of rear legroom to the class leaders. There’s 25.2 cubic feet of space behind the second row, opening to 53.1 cubes when you fold the split 60/40 seats.

Pointed along snaking canyon roads, the Lincoln comports itself with professionalism, if not the sporty connectedness of the BMW or Audi. Wind noise is virtually nonexistent, and the MKC feels serene and well-planted. An optional driver-adjustable suspension ($650) adjusts firmness over three modes.

 But the Comfort setting makes the Lincoln wallow like a hippo in a water hole, so forget that one. Normal and Sport settings establish stronger control without sacrificing ride quality.

During a lunch break, we also tested the Lincoln’s well-designed, optional self-parking feature, which now adds a “park out” function: The MKC can swivel itself both into and out of a tight parallel parking space. All the driver has to do is shift gears and work the brake.

That self-parking feature, however, is one of many gizmos that are either part of pricey option bundles, or only offered on high-end editions that push the Lincoln toward uncomfortable pricing terrain.

 The names of those Select and Reserve models (“Premiere” is the starter version) recall special wines. And like suspiciously priced Napa Cabernets, a shopper may start asking why Lincoln’s domestic vintage can cost as much as European offerings.

Lincoln executives themselves affirmed that most buyers will likely look to keep the MKC’s price closer to $40,000 than $50,000. We couldn’t agree more:

 Optioned up to $40,000, the Lincoln costs only about $3,000 more than a loaded Escape, and that seems eminently fair. But closer to $50,000, comparisons with the Audi, BMW and Benz aren’t entirely favorable.

Sticking with the 2.0-liter model helps tamp down that price, which starts at $33,995, or $36,490 with AWD. That 2.0L version – with 240 hp and 270 lb.-ft. of torque — didn’t feel dramatically slower than the 2.3-liter.

 With front-wheel-drive, that MKC boasts class-best fuel economy of 20/29 mpg in city and highway. Though with AWD, its 19/26 mpg rating tops the 2.3-liter model by just 1 mpg in the city.

The more-powerful 2.3L AWD Premiere starts at $37,630. That rises to $40,860 for a Select or $44,565 for the Reserve — the latter’s features including voice-activated navigation, blind-spot monitor and an enormous panoramic sunroof. Stuffed to its SUV gills with 19-inch wheels and technology and climate packages, our 2.3L AWD Reserve reached $50,405.

By pussyfooting around for so long, Ford has frankly used up all of Lincoln’s nine lives. This road to redemption is particularly long, but the MKC does show Ford and Lincoln stepping in the right direction. Whether luxury shoppers are ready to step to Lincoln’s beat remains to be seen.