Future Classic: 2009-16 Lincoln MKS – Bull In A Fine China Shop

(first posted 10/11/2017)       Everything old is new again. Lincoln’s flagship car is once again called Continental, the name once again applied to a car derived from a Ford family sedan. Although this sounds like a regression, the Continental and its stablemates are the latest stage of Lincoln’s renaissance and carry great promise. Meanwhile, its predecessor, the MKS, will be remembered – if it’s remembered at all – as a Lincoln from an interregnum where the brand was hurriedly expanding its scope and finding its voice. But it probably won’t be remembered as a convincing luxury car.

At the dawn of this century, the Lincoln lineup was much smaller. There was the Town Car, the moribund Taurus-derived Continental, the Navigator SUV, and the new LS sport sedan. The year 2000 was the best year for Lincoln sales in a decade, with around 190,000 vehicles sold. Alas, it was all downhill from there as Ford neglected the Town Car and LS and the Cadillac Escalade laid waste to the pioneering Lincoln Navigator. And if Lincoln was choking, Mercury was asphyxiating and turning blue. In the mid-1990s, Mercury’s annual sales peaked at 480,000 units. By 2003, they were less than half that. It didn’t help that Ford was starving it of product.

Whether Ford realized it at the time or not, it was time to axe Mercury and expand Lincoln’s lineup. Despite its troubles, including a stodgy reputation that was slowly killing its most promising model in years, the LS, the Lincoln brand had great profit potential. That’s not to say Mercury was unprofitable—considering how little it took to turn a Ford into a Mercury, the ROIs were probably quite decent. But why not give the Lincoln lineup some more models and try and directly tackle brands like Lexus and Acura?

Almost overnight, the lineup was fleshed out. The Zephyr/MKZ arrived in 2006, the MKX mid-size crossover the following year, and the MKT full-size crossover in 2010. The Town Car would survive a few more years but the new flagship was the 2009 MKS.

In the past, Ford and GM had been criticized for lazily rebadging cars, even for their luxury marques (see: Cimarron, Versailles). While the MKX and MKZ had unique front and rear sheetmetal and new interiors, their bodies were plainly identical to their donor Fords. Not so the MKS, which eschewed the Ford Taurus’ exterior sheetmetal entirely. The interior design was also different and built to a higher standard with nicer materials, although switchgear was largely carried over. It was a similar level of distinction from its platform donor as the hot-selling Lexus ES was from the Toyota Camry/Avalon.

Ford and GM have also been criticized in the past for depriving features from models in their lower-end brands so as to insulate their luxury brands. With Mercury on death row and Ford commanding hefty MSRPs for loaded F-Series trucks, Ford decided to change their strategy. Although the MKS had a different base engine to the Taurus, everything else – short of twin sunroofs and a couple of tech features – was available in Taurus option packages. That included bona fide luxury car features like adaptive massaging and cooled front seats and adaptive cruise control.

Ford gave the MKS a head start by launching the heavily revised Taurus a year later. Once the 2010 Taurus arrived, however, the MKS looked decidedly overpriced. Base MSRP was around $7k more than a well-specified Taurus Limited, although adding the Lincoln’s luxury goodies to the Ford narrowed that window a bit. You did get more power and torque (270 hp and 265 ft-lbs versus 263 hp and 249 ft-lbs) and a higher quality interior with famed Bridge of Weir leather, but the Lincoln logo carried a price penalty that its reputation no longer particularly deserved.

The reintroduction of the Taurus SHO also undermined the MKS’ dubious value proposition. The SHO’s rip-snorting 3.5 EcoBoost V6 pumped out 365 hp and 350 ft-lbs – ten horses more than the new 2010 MKS EcoBoost – and was priced right up against the regular 3.7 MKS, which actually drank more fuel (1 mpg combined). And there was fierce competition outside the Ford stable too, with $40k being enough to buy you a nicely-equipped Acura TL, or a Lexus ES350 and a few cases of champagne with the change.

The reviews were decidedly mediocre for the MKS. The 3.7 had sedate performance – 0-60 in 7.5 seconds for the AWD model – and the ride and handling were widely regarded as average. Edmunds.com, notably, were quite critical of the MKS, calling the ride harsh when equipped with the EcoBoost’s 20-inch wheels, while blasting the handling as soggy—the worst of both worlds.

To some, 20-inch wheels might seem like overkill. On the MKS, they were almost necessary. The Rubenesque MKS looked awkward with the standard 18-inch wheels (above), which sounds ridiculous until you realize how big this car was: 204 inches long and 61.6 inches tall, the MKS was about as long as a LWB Mercedes S-Class but taller, although its wheelbase was almost 7 inches shorter than that of a SWB S-Class.

While it had been blessed with an extensive makeover, the MKS still had to work with the hard points of the D3 platform, derived from the first-generation Volvo S80. Like the Taurus, the MKS suffered from a front overhang that was more Audi than BMW, as well as a high beltline that restricted visibility and made the car look slab-sided.

To disguise the MKS’ height, Lincoln used gray plastic trim around the base of the body, as well as some chrome accenting at the bottom of the doors. This, like the plastic trim in the fog light recesses, looked rather cheap for a supposed luxury sedan. EcoBoost models equipped with the sporty-looking EcoBoost Appearance Package (above) used color-coded trim and really didn’t look that awkward, so the gray trim was unnecessary. Horizontal chrome accenting underneath a vertical slat grille was also an example of poor detailing.

The exterior wasn’t a total write-off. The Quattroporte-esque taillights and relatively pert rear end were nice, even if trunk access was constricted, while the new chrome waterfall grille was classically handsome. Inside, the MKS design was more cohesive and reminiscent of the Jaguar XF; genuine wood trim was a nice touch, Taurus buttons and stalks were not. There was also too much gray plastic on the center stack, with a useless blank panel at the base.

While luxury cars have often introduced trick tech, it often serves a convenience need or technical demand. Cadillac’s Night Vision, for example, seemed like a gimmick but worked as a safety feature. BMW’s first-generation iDrive was jeered by critics but was the logical next step for allowing drivers centralized access to all of their car’s features. The touch capacitive switchgear introduced in the 2013 MKS, however, was a pointless addition and wasn’t even exclusive to the MKS.

Much as Brock Yates had decried years ago in The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry, Ford and GM were adding technology for the sake of technology. Nobody asked for touch capacitive controls – certainly not any of Lincoln’s older customer base – and you need look only at the latest Lincolns and Cadillacs to see both automakers have changed direction and started removing this technology.

Lost in all the hype of the 2013 MKZ and the “Lincoln Motor Company” rebranding, the 2013 MKS was an extensive revision. Beyond the aforementioned touch controls, the Lincoln now had an entirely new dashboard design, including a new semi-digital gauge cluster borrowed from the Ford lineup. Other than a few Ford carryovers, like the vents, steering wheel controls, and stalks, the 2013 interior was arguably a classier place to sit than before. Perhaps the nicest touch was the stitching on the dash.

Additionally, the MKS benefited from major mechanical tweaks. The EcoBoost now had the same 365 horses as the Taurus SHO, removing that pointless deficit. More importantly, the base 3.7 now produced 304 hp and 279 ft-lbs, while achieving better fuel economy (an additional 1-2 mpg combined).

All MKS models now came with a collection of features branded as Lincoln Drive Control, which included continuously controlled damping. Drivers could toggle between Comfort, Normal and Sport and also set D and S on their shifter to their preferred suspension settings. Though the suspension adjusted within milliseconds, it wasn’t quite as fast-reacting as Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control.

Finally, the most visible changes were to the exterior with a more upscale if less conventionally attractive design. Designer Max Wolff took Lincoln’s front end design in a new direction with a new grille, although this was changed once again for the MKZ. Furthermore, the rear end was revised to provide a larger trunk opening but the end result looked, well, fatter.

On a personal note, I still find myself looking at MKS photos to figure out if I like the design. Truthfully, it is too tall with a roof and wheelbase too short and it towers over an MKZ. The MKS needs 19- or 20-inch wheels and a flattering color to look good.

The few reviews conducted of the 2013 MKS indicated the car was now more capable dynamically and better-appointed, but by now nobody was really paying attention. Although it was a slow but steady seller for a while, sales dropped off after 2014. The MKS had been launched with an extensive advertising campaign but promotion dropped off and the revised model was scarcely advertised. Competition was tough, especially from the MKZ and the conceptually similar 2013 Cadillac XTS, itself derived from a humble family sedan platform. While not a huge seller itself, the XTS still sold better than the MKS.

By 2013, Lincoln had two crossovers, an SUV, and two sedans, with another crossover on the way. Despite this, the brand reached its nadir: just 81,694 sales, less than half it had accomplished in 2000 and only enough to secure half a percent market share overall. Lincoln simply wasn’t on most people’s radar, and even the execution of Mercury in 2011 didn’t help push people to the Lincoln side of the showroom. The MKS was little help.

There is hope for Lincoln. Average transaction prices are rising and they have a crossover-heavy lineup at an opportune time. Sales and market share are also rising, with 111,724 Lincolns sold last year and 0.64% market share (the luxury market accounts for approximately 10% of the overall market) although Lincoln still trails the other luxury brands. Crucially for Lincoln’s long-term viability, the brand has also been introduced to China, and has also introduced the Black Label sub-brand with unique interior themes and exclusive membership benefits to owners. Ford is paying attention to what luxury car buyers want and, given time, they may be able to make Lincoln a desirable luxury brand again. By exclusively using Ford platforms, they are also achieving this renaissance at a much lower cost than GM is with Cadillac. Even the Matthew McConaughey commercials are getting buzz.

The new Continental may not prove to be much more popular a product than the MKS, being a sedan in 2017, but it may end up being more memorable than the MKS. The MKS may have been an erroneous purchase new, but on the used car market it’s the deal of the century thanks to low prices and good mechanical reliability scores from JD Power. The price premium over the contemporary Taurus has shrunk dramatically and you can find a fully-loaded 2013 MKS EcoBoost with under 60,000 miles on the odometer for about a third of its MSRP new.

It’s finally a bargain.

White 2013-14 photographs courtesy of Brendan Saur. Other MKS photos taken throughout New York City. 

Related Reading:

Future Classic: 2006 Acura TL – One Of The Best Japanese Designs Ever

Curbside Classic: 1995-2002 Lincoln Continental – In Pursuit of the Pursuer

Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: Lincoln-Mercury Edition, Part I

Top 10 Obscure Special Editions and Forgotten Limited-Run Models: Lincoln-Mercury Edition, Part II