Lincoln is stepping into a new arena this month with the arrival of its much anticipated 2015 MKC compact crossover SUV. Ready to mix it up with the likes of upscale class rivals like the Acura RDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class, the MKC brings it own sense of premium style and character to what's currently the hottest segment in the auto market. Revealed last November, the 5-passenger MKC is positioned as younger-looking/younger-thinking model which will play a pivotal role in its brand renaissance. We headed up the coast to Santa Barbara for a chance to slip behind the wheel. 

Most of our formal drive was spent in a pair of fully equipped range-topping Lincoln MKC Reserve Package models, each fitted with the new 285-horsepower/2.3-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. However, we also had the opportunity to take a quick spin in a mid-level, front-drive MKC Select variant with the standard 240-horse/2.0-liter EcoBoost engine. 

A package with purpose and panache 

Even at a glance, the MKC looks the part of a serious player. As the first vehicle to emerge from the dedicated Lincoln Design Studio, its modern appearance reflects the most effective integration of the division's new styling language to date. With sleek contours and a low, flowing roofline, the MKC sports a signature split-wing grille flanked by HID headlamps and a full-width tail lamp that spans its unique "clamshell" liftgate. This new model has plenty of up-market curb appeal. 

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This new luxury design philosophy carries over to the MKC's cabin, where supple Bridge of Weir Deepsoft leather replaces Lincoln Luxury Soft Touch leatherette in all but the base Premier Package and open-pore wood supplants the standard aluminum accent trim. In addition to SYNC with the latest MyLincoln Touch setup, an 8.0-inch LED touchscreen and nicely contoured power front bucket seats, all MKC variants - Premiere, Select and Reserve -- boast a huge roster of standard equipment that include unexpected items like active noise cancellation, an acoustic laminate windshield and dash-mounted pushbutton-style controls for the 6-speed SelectShift automatic transmission assisted by steering-wheel-mounted paddles. In Reserve trim, the MKC's creature-comforts include things like a 12 sq-ft Panoramic Vista Roof, voice-activated navigation and the Blind Spot Information System, the latter two items also optional on the MKC Select.

While there's plenty to praise in this well-finished realm, the MKC does have its downsides. Virtually all of them can be found aft of the B-pillar. Rear-seat legroom is at best mid-pack relative to its would-be peers - great for kids, but not so swell for adults. The same holds true for cargo capacity. Although the MKC's large hatch, low lift-over height, flat-folding 60/40 second-row bench and available hands-free power up/down hatch activation ease loading and unloading, its merely respectable 25.2 cu ft of base space only rises to 53.1 cu-ft in full-open configuration. That's less than any of its key rivals - and over 10 cu ft less than what's offered by the class-topping Acura RDX and BMW X3. 

Moving a step - or three -- beyond the handling basics

Sharing Ford's Global C1 architecture also used on the Escape, Focus and C-MAX, the MKC benefits from a comprehensive platform revamp that gives this new compact crossover Lincoln-specific dynamic characteristics. Revised suspension geometry broadened track dimensions by an inch at each axle and the rework also includes unique chassis tuning for the electrically-assisted power steering and ABS braking systems. The MKC also benefits from computer controlled damping (CCD) that comes standard on models with Intelligent All-Wheel Drive and as an option on front-driver versions. 

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The CCD setup also brings Lincoln Drive Control that offers selectable Comfort/Normal/Sport modes that tweak the steering and shift programming. Regardless of drivetrain, all MKC models are fitted with Torque Vectoring Control that optimizes stability when cornering or on uneven road surfaces as well as AdvanceTrak with Roll Stability Control and hill start assist.  

Carving corners and ratcheting-up respect 

Encompassing nearly 200 miles of serpentine California state highways, our driving route presented a great opportunity to check out the touring side of the MKC's personality as well as to evaluate its at-the-limit responsiveness -- qualities benchmarked against the Audi Q5 and BMW X3. We came away quite impressed. Although far from a sports car, the MKC displayed a laudable combination of confidence and capability through even the twistiest bits while its active noise control and a host of other sound-attenuation tricks kept the cabin commendably quiet. 

Weighing in at nearly 4,000 pounds, the MKC with a 2.3-liter and AWD displayed roughly the same level of acceleration as the front-drive 2.0-liter variant that tips the scales closer to 3,800. While lacking the lightness and absolute agility of a base model, the top spec Reserve Package MKC we drove leveraged its superior traction by swapping the standard 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 235/50 all-season rubber for optional 19-inch rims wearing 245/45 Michelin Latitude Tour tires. Surprisingly grippy, they added a welcome dimension to the MKC's inherently stable personality that comes from its wide stance and low center of gravity. The CCD suspension also did its part to sweeten the behind-the-wheel experience, sharpening or softening response on demand using the Lincoln Drive Control and the Drive/Sport buttons on the dash. 

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In addition to polished road manners, the 2015 Lincoln MKC also has a solid value story. Opening at $33,995, a 2.0-liter front-drive MKC Premiere Package is the lowest-priced vehicle in the segment. The MKC Select starts at $37,225, while  top line MKC Reserve is $40,930. The 2.3-liter EcoBoost engine bumps the price $1,140 and all-wheel drive adds $2,495. Options ranging from a Technology Package (adaptive cruise control, active park assist, Forward Sensing System and Lane-Keeping System) and THX II Certified Audio System to a Climate Package (heated rear seats/steering wheel, rain-sensing front wipers and auto high-beam headlamps) and 20-inch wheels/tires can send the bottom line on an MKC Reserve past $50K. Late this year, an MKC Black Label variant promises to take things even further on the exclusive-luxury front. 

It's too soon to tell how the 2015 Lincoln MKC will ultimately fare here in the U.S. as well as in China where it goes on sale this fall. But we do know this much about the MKC: There is much to like and little to fault. 

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