Ford’s luxury division is in the midst of its fourth reboot this century. No car exemplifies the constantly changing winds of Lincoln’s design and marketing direction than the 2006 Lincoln Zephyr. Although its name meant a soft, gentle breeze, the Zephyr was blown away after just a year.
To understand how the Zephyr nameplate lasted only a year, it’s best to look at Lincoln’s brand strategy since 2000. Their recent history can be sorted into four eras:
2000-06 – The Dichotomous Era: A rather muddled time where the brand consists only of the Euro-fighting LS sport sedan, the old-fashioned Town Car, and the handsome Aviator and Navigator trucks (the dated Continental departed in 2002). The Town Car slowly fades out of relevance, the LS is starved of development money and then phased out, and Lincoln’s trucks lose sales as more rivals entered the luxury SUV market. Lincoln debuts a retro Continental concept and starts experimenting with retro design themes with the dual-cowl dashboards of the Aviator and Navigator.
2006-2012 – The Diversification Era: Ford tries giving Lincoln more product, some models quite transparently Ford-based and others differentiated a bit better. Despite this, many of their features and engines are available in top-line Fords. Beyond interiors, there’s some retro design experimentation with the Zephyr’s interior and the MKX’s grille but it’s inconsistent and ultimately short-lived, but for the third-generation Navigator which goes full 1970s station wagon. Lincoln tries to match Lexus’ lineup with more crossovers and a hybrid MKZ; they’re also compensating for a moribund Mercury, soon to disappear.
2013-16 – The Split-Wing Grille Era – The launch of the Lincoln Motor Company, a lackluster attempt at rebranding a marque that had lost much of its prestige. High hopes are pinned on the second-generation MKZ which is merely good, not great. There’s an attempt at a new design language with a new, more subtle split grille plus ill-conceived touch-capacitive interior controls.
2017-present – The McConaughey Era – Another new corporate frontend design, a more cohesive marketing strategy, the new Black Label line, a more famous celebrity spokesman, and the return of names starting with the Continental.
Lincoln still isn’t out of the woods yet but the clearing was nowhere in sight way back in 2006 when the Zephyr arrived.
The Zephyr name had first been resurrected on a 2004 concept car. Although slightly lower and sleeker at the back, the Zephyr concept promised buyers almost exactly what would arrive in 2006.
Although the Zephyr replaced the LS as Lincoln’s entry-level sedan (a single, highly-specified LS V8 Sport was sold in 2006 before being discontinued), the Zephyr had little in common with its supposed predecessor. That car was rear-wheel-drive, using the same platform as the Jaguar S-Type and featuring V6 and V8 engines. The Zephyr, conversely, had a transverse-mounted V6 engine only and was front-wheel-drive, using the same Mazda6-derived CD3 platform as the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. Though these were all tidy handlers, the Zephyr didn’t aspire to be a sport sedan like the LS had with all its advertisements about 50:50 weight distribution and beating the BMW 5-Series in the slalom.
Ultimately, the production Zephyr’s styling was handsome if nondescript. It didn’t look as sporty as most luxury rivals’ entry-level sedans but that wasn’t its mission. It looked somewhat chunky and upright but suitably premium and more attractive than its key rival, the 2006 Lexus ES. That is, if you ignored the fact the Zephyr’s mid-section was identical to the cheaper Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. Those were two of the most attractive mid-size sedans on the market, mind you, but it made the Zephyr a bit of a hard sell especially when parked next to a Milan at a Lincoln-Mercury showroom.
Then there was the interior which looked like it belonged in a car with a much more flamboyant exterior. The dual-cowl design of the Navigator and Aviator, harkening back to the Continentals of the 60s, was in full effect in the Zephyr. That gave the dashboard a rather confining, imposing effect. Silver-painted plastic was used liberally for the switchgear, as was popular in the mid-2000s. Buyers had a choice between a beige interior with distinctive pale “Figured Maple” wood trim, or black or gray interiors with darker Ebony Wood trim. The beige/pale wood interior wasn’t for everyone but it wasn’t a cheap knock-off of a German interior or simply a Fusion with some wood stuck on. Ward’s Auto also gave it an award for Best Premium-Priced Car Interior in 2006. It wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea but it was different. And yes, the wood was real.
That interior also contained a few features not available in the lesser Milan and Fusion, such as cooled seats and a THX-II sound system. Otherwise, the Zephyr simply ticked all the option boxes of the Fusion and Milan, Lincoln offering it in just one highly-equipped model. It needed to be loaded considering it cost a sizeable $6000 more than the range-topping Milan Premier V6. The Zephyr did, however, lower the price of entry to the Lincoln brand, retailing for $28,995 or around $4k less than the previous year’s base LS V6.
If the strong familial resemblance and much higher MSRP made the Zephyr a hard sell next to a Milan, what was under the hood made the Zephyr even less desirable to premium sedan shoppers. The Zephyr used the same 3.0 DOHC V6 and six-speed automatic as the Milan and Fusion. That V6 – producing 221 hp at 6250 rpm and 205 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm – was competent but trailed key rivals like the 258-hp Acura TL. The Lexus ES330 matched it in power but a redesigned ES350 made its auto show debut in 2006, its 272-hp 3.5 V6 outgunning the Lincoln’s 3.0.
Against the outgoing ES330, the Zephyr had a slight edge in handling ability by most accounts although both had a comfortable, compliant ride; the Zephyr had a slightly softer suspension tune vis-à-vis the Fusion/Milan. Despite extra sound deadening material over the Fusion/Milan, however, the ES330 was generally regarded as having the edge in mechanical refinement with the Ford 3.0 sounding a bit strained when accelerating.
Although some were inclined to compare the Zephyr to the similarly-priced Cadillac CTS, the RWD Caddy could run rings around it even if its base 2.8 was weaker and its interior and features list inferior. An Acura TL was also more dynamic but cost around $3k more; for that matter, so did the Lexus ES. Ford was being shrewd when they loaded the Zephyr up and priced it lower than its rivals but this was still a Fusion with a lot of gingerbread. Honda and Toyota did a much better job concealing their premium sedans’ plebeian roots.
The Zephyr’s weakest attribute, the mediocre 3.0, proved to be short-lived. So too was the Zephyr nameplate. Although it had started arriving in showrooms in the fall of 2005, by February 2006 Ford had announced it was renaming it to MKZ. Lincoln’s first crossover was also ditching the Aviator nameplate of its concept car (and its quasi-predecessor) and being christened MKX. The whole renaming strategy seemed poorly conceived, however. First, Ford executives said the new Lincolns would be pronounced “Mark Z”, “Mark X”, etc, suggesting a call-back to Lincoln’s rich heritage of Mark models. Then, shortly thereafter, they were saying it was “em-kay-zee”. Uhh, oh-kay.
When the 2007 MKZ debuted, it looked much the same as the Zephyr but for a new grille (basically the same but with a horizontal line added). Fortunately, there were plenty of worthwhile changes. Under the hood was a new 3.5 V6 with 265 hp at 6250 rpm and 249 ft-lbs at 4500 rpm; combined fuel economy was static at 20 mpg. Fusions and Milans stuck with the old 3.0, although the 2010 Fusion Sport later received the 3.5. All-wheel-drive was now an option and all MKZs had some suspension tweaks to sharpen the handling.
Sales rose ever so slightly for 2007, from 33k to 34k units. They then fell down into the 20k range until 2011, rebounding slightly perhaps due to the introduction of a hybrid model (and a coinciding interior and exterior refresh). It took until the next generation to see a return to form. It was no coincidence that that MKZ looked vastly different from the Fusion on which it was still based. All the while, Lexus was selling anywhere between 40 and 80,000 ES sedans each year.
The Lincoln Zephyr was an underwhelming if keenly-priced alternative to premium sedans from Japan but Ford worked fast to improve it. Nevertheless, the story of the Zephyr and first-generation MKZ reveals just how haphazardly the Lincoln brand has been managed this century. It’s not often a name is resurrected from a brand’s storied past only to be dumped the very next year (and then the new name re-pronounced before it even reaches showrooms). And the Zephyr has the dubious distinction of being a replacement for the critically-acclaimed, enthusiast-oriented LS, firmly closing the door on the promise of more upscale, athletic Lincolns and instead heralding the arrival of a fleet of unexciting Ford-based models.
Lincoln may have a greater sense of direction and purpose today but we’re now two reboots later. Will the brand have another one in a few years?
Photographed in Venice, CA in September 2018.