First Drive: 2010 Lincoln MKT

Responding to the continuing market shift from conventional sport utility vehicles to more car-like crossovers, Lincoln has just launched its all-new 2010 MKT. While sharing a good deal of platform and powertrain technology with the Ford Flex, this luxury-oriented, full-size CUV has its own unique appearance and appointments. As we learned from a day behind the wheel, the new MKT also backs its formidable list of best-in-class attributes with an extremely engaging personality. In an attempt to stand out from a competitive set headed by vehicles like the Acura MDX and Audi Q7, Lincoln gave the seven-passenger MKT distinctive, albeit potentially polarizing, exterior styling. From its prominent Lincoln-signature "split-wing" grille and adaptive bi-xenon headlights to a rear-quarter kickup that recalls '60s-era Continentals and a wraparound rear lamp treatment, the MKT does draw immediate attention wherever it goes.

Inside, the MKT's spacious cabin is awash in supple leather and real wood complemented by a megaload of comfort and convenience touches. Some, like its well-formed 12-way power front buckets, power tilt/telescoping steering column and a 10-speaker AM/FM/DVD/MP3 audio system with SIRIUS Satellite Radio and SYNC, are expected. Others, including tri-zone automatic climate control, four 12V outlets plus a 110V power inverter, rear-seat footrests, a fixed dual-element panoramic Vista Roof and a 10GB hard drive, are not. Options are equally impressive and include goodies like the Elite Package (DVD-based navigation with audio/video/SIRIUS real-time traffic, THX 5.1 Surround Sound, Ford's Blind Spot Information System and a power panoramic roof), Adaptive Cruise Control with Collision Warning and Brake Support, heated/cooled second-row bucket seats, second-row console with built-in refrigerator/freezer, and a one-touch power fold feature for the third-row bench. Speaking of seats, passengers in both aft rows benefit from best-in-class legroom, although the MKT's standard 60/40 mid-row is far more accommodating to adults than its 50/50 innermost perch. But even when seating seven, powering up the MKT's large, magnesium-framed liftgate gives easy access to 17.9 cubic feet of stow space that expands to 39.6 cubic feet when you only need to carry five.

With the new MKT, the things you can't see are as impressive as the ones you can. It starts with the choice of two extremely efficient V6 engines. While the base 3.7-liter Duratec motivator that makes 268 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque on regular unleaded is hardly a slouch, it's the new 3.5-liter EcoBoost upgrade that really brings the MKT alive. Direct-injected, twin-turbocharged and fitted with variable intake-valve timing, the EcoBoost alternative cranks out a class-leading 355 horses on premium fuel and develops 350 lb.-ft. of critically important torque from just 1,500 rpm all the way to 5,250 revs. Both engines are matched with a smooth, six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission that includes steering-wheel mounted supplemental paddle controllers; but opting for EcoBoost also entails a switch from front-drive to a torque-sensing all-wheel drive system. Although the FWD/3.7-liter MKT nets top-rated 17/23 city/highway mpg marks, in AWD form, the more powerful EcoBoost six boasts exactly the same 16/22 mpg EPA figures. Reacting far more enthusiastically to throttle inputs, it can take a rather substantial 4,924 pounds of premium CUV from 0-60 mph in less than seven seconds and we suspect it will make MKT owners far happier when they decide to take full advantage of its 4,500-lb. trailer-towing capability. Checking the EcoBoost box also allows you to add FoMoCo's Active Park Assist as an option. Three times faster and more consistent than the equivalent system used by Lexus, it can position the vehicle four to eight inches closer to the curb. And at $595, is also cheaper than the replacement cost of just one damaged wheel.

Rounding out the MKT's dynamic mix is a remarkably well-sorted chassis that serves up equal measures of comfort and control. All versions use struts up front and a multilink rear setup, however, EcoBoost models benefit from a marginally tauter tune, swap hydraulic assist for electric boost on the power steering and step up from 235/55 all-season tires on 19-inch alloys to 245/50s on 20-inch rims. Beyond that, Lincoln recalibrated the AdvanceTrak with Roll Stability Control system which allowed us to engage in some surprisingly spirited flogging on fairly challenging backroads before the stability/traction systems stepped in. Big anti-lock disc brakes do a good job of delivering drama-free stops while Herculean noise abatement efforts -- from acoustic glass to full perimeter hood and door seals to sound-deadening baffles in its roof pillars -- ensure that the MKT's passenger cabin maintains Lexus-like levels of quiet and serene regardless of road surfaces.

Slotted between the MKX and the Navigator, the new MKT has just begun arriving in Lincoln showrooms. Pricing on the 3.7-liter MKT opens at $44,995 for a front-driver and $46,990 for the all-wheel drive version, while the EcoBoost MKT bases at $49,995.

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