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(Ford Motor Co. Photos)

Lincoln's makeover

Zephyr gives way to Fusion-based MKZ

Zephyr, we hardly knew ye!

The "gentle breeze" your name was meant to invoke has been blown away by three letters: MKZ. Lincoln, like many manufacturers, is replacing imaginative nomenclature with what it somehow thinks are attention-grabbing lumps of letters.

Malibu SS, Ford GT, those I got, back in the day. But what is an MDX, DTS, TSX, GTC, M35, LS 460, WRX, or xB? Even though cars are my business, I frequently have to do research when someone calls to ask about the new XLR or some other vehicle.

So in this wacky world of automotive alphabet soup, the Lincoln Zephyr yields to today's test car, the 2007 Lincoln MKZ AWD.

Fortunately for Lincoln, the new name may be strange, but this is actually a nice makeover of what was already a solid car. It's based on the excellent Ford Fusion and is also a garage mate to the Mercury Milan.

In addition to some undercarriage tweaks, the Lincoln's advantage is its engine, which is more powerful than what's available in the other two cars. The MKZ's 3.5-liter V-6 delivers 263 horsepower. The Fusion, which I think looks sportier , has only 221 for now -- not enough for some of those drawn to its aggressive, bladed-grille styling.

But the top-end Fusion costs between $25,000 and $26,000, a fine package for an all-wheel-drive sedan with a truly nice interior. So its questionable whether it's worth making a leap of as much as $10,000 from the Fusion in AWD form to the supposedly upscale AWD MKZ.

So how does the Lincoln feel and perform?

Its six-speed automatic transmission was a smooth transporter of the extra power, yet except for passing at highway speeds, its bursts did not seem remarkably greater than what the Fusion musters.

On the road, the MKZ felt stiffer than the Zephyr, though not as stiff as the last Fusion I drove. This, I suspect, is a nod toward Lincoln loyalists, who always liked their rides soft. But it is also a tilt toward the younger buyers Lincoln wants to attract -- they will shop it against the stiffer-riding competitors from Europe and Asia.

Significantly, the MKZ has standard traction control and front side air bags (which the Fusion is getting).

Inside, there are striking design differences between the MKZ and Fusion, most of them a matter of taste.

The Lincoln certainly has a more stately interior, which in its most appealing form leans toward a black cockpit with high-tech controls in a black center pod, with optional black leather seats. The MKZ features softer touches and tones, its dash bisected by faux wood, and the steering wheel wrapped in optional leather with faux wood grips. It blends that with nickel steering wheel control buttons and a nickel control pod to encase the audio and climate-control package.

The Lincoln's standard leather, 10-way power, heated front bucket seats are deep and well bolstered. Its rear seats are basically comfortable buckets with a middle hump that poses as seating for a third person.

Outside, the shapes are basically the same, though the Lincoln gets a honeycomb grille that looks more complicated than the Fusion's blades. I'm not sure what about it says "Lincoln." And those Fusions are really hot with a black outside, black leather inside, gleaming blades (or black chrome) in the grille up front.

The MKZ faces quite a challenge -- trying to regain its identity while facing serious competition from a car (the Fusion) made by the same manufacturer.

Royal Ford can be reached at ford@globe.com.

The Basics


Base price/as tested: $31,050/$35,640
Fuel economy: 21.3 miles per gallon in Globe testing/regular gasoline
Annual fuel cost: $1,324 (at $2.17 per gallon, regular, 13,000 miles per year)

The early line


Looking to go younger, Lincoln adds power, an all-wheel-drive option, a stiffened ride, and interior sharpness.

The specifics


Drivetrain: all-wheel drive/front-wheel drive
Seating: Five
Horsepower: 263
Torque: 249 lb.-ft.
Length: 190.5 inches
Wheelbase: 107.4 inches
Height: 57.2 inches
Width: 72.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,500 pounds (est.)

The skinny


Nice touch: The nickel-look finish on steering wheel control pads and console control pod.
Annoyance: The grille looks like a soup strainer and certainly doesn't have the edge of the Fusion's bladed grille.
Watch for: The younger audience choosing between Fusion and MKZ.

Shop it against:

KIA AMANTI A fleet flagship for around $28,000? Not particularly edgy on the outside, but truly stylish and elegant inside. Standard traction control, front and rear side and curtain air bags, and a 264-horsepower V-6.

BUICK LUCERNE Just like Lincoln, Buick is fighting for identity (and customers younger than 60). The finest Buick in some time, with an optional 275-horsepower V-8. Priced from $25,000 (with a V-6) to $35,000.

ACURA TL Two V-6 engine options: a base 258-horsepower unit, which should be plenty in this group, and a 286-horsepower . Six-speed manual is an option, as is a paddle-shift automatic. Priced from $35,000 to $40,000.

INFINITI G35 The only other car in this group that also offers all-wheel drive. Features 280/298 horsepower engines hinging on five-speed automatic/six-speed manual transmission choices. Priced from the mid-to-high 30s.

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