To understand the presence of the Zephyr, it's essential to see it in person. I'll admit that when I first saw pictures of the car, its styling left me underwhelmed. But all that changes when you're sizing up the real thing — the grille appears bolder, a furrowed brow materializes above the headlights, and the hood bulges are more compelling. It's the difference between watching college football highlights on your computer and having seats at the 50-yard line. (Subtle styling changes are in store for the 2007 model, when the Zephyr is renamed MKZ, but the general look of the car will remain the same.)
Built on Ford Motor Company's midsize platform, which is also used for the Ford Fusion, Mazda6 and Mercury Milan, the Zephyr is more conventional in appearance aft of the windshield, but all in all it's a well-proportioned sedan. Marring the exterior finish somewhat were unusually large panel gaps around my test car's trunk and front doors. The Zephyr's beltline is accented in chrome, as are the side mirrors, which, regrettably, lack the ability to fold.
Fortunately, this car doesn't have to get by on looks alone. The Zephyr's suspension skillfully damps pavement bumps and holes before they can disturb the cabin. What is even more impressive is that the Zephyr manages to deliver this level of ride quality while wearing 50-series all-season tires on standard 17-inch aluminum wheels. Though tuned for a comfortable ride that leads to some occasional bobbing motions, body roll is well-checked.
The sole engine offered in the front-wheel-drive Zephyr is a 3.0-liter V-6 that develops 221 horsepower at 6,250 rpm and 205 pounds-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Despite the fact that the engine makes peak torque high in the rev range, the engine manages to be powerful enough because it's paired with a standard six-speed-automatic transmission that keeps the engine spinning in its power band and delivers quick, smooth shifts, especially during high-speed passing situations. The first upshift from a standing stop typically happens soon after launch, however, which creates a slight hesitation in forward progress.
Surprisingly, the transmission doesn't have a clutchless-manual mode for the driver to control upshifts and downshifts. Not that I'm advocating for one, mind you, as I usually find them about as stimulating as balancing my checkbook; it's just that they've proliferated throughout the luxury car segment.
In the stopping and steering departments, the Zephyr fails to distinguish itself. Its problem is an inability to express its feelings, specifically the kind usually generated by the brake pedal and steering wheel. The brakes are strong and easy to modulate, but they feel disconnected. The same goes for the steering; it's precise, but it provides little feedback about the road.
The Zephyr's standard interior appointments include leather upholstery, real wood trim, heated front seats with power adjustment and driver-side two-position memory, automatic dual-zone climate control, and a six-CD changer. The long front-seat cushions provide good thigh support for taller drivers, and the symmetrical, dual-pod dashboard design is unique and gives the Zephyr a level of class that belies its starting list price.
There are some ergonomic blunders, though, and they're primarily in the center control panel. The stack has numerous buttons that are too small and too much alike to identify at a glance, and this problem is exacerbated while driving on overcast days with the headlights on, as the white interior backlighting and silver hue of the buttons combine to make the button text almost illegible. The ventilation system's fan speed and mode controls — and the controls for the front-seat heaters and optional seat-cooling system — are located very low in the center panel, which makes them difficult to operate. To use the terminology of a colleague who evaluates website design: It's a usability nightmare.
In contrast, the Zephyr has clear, white-on-black gauges with chrome surrounds — though it must be said that from certain angles the chrome reflects sunlight back into the driver's eyes. The manual tilt/telescoping multifunction steering wheel has cruise, audio and ventilation controls. Adjustable sun visors can be extended to cover the full width of the front side windows, which is more than many cars can manage.
Storage provisions include a deep bin underneath the front center armrest and a Lilliputian glove box and front door pockets. Opening the glove box also revealed unsightly trim finishing; the plastic looked like it might have been cut by a table saw.
Other signs of cost cutting can be found. When open, the hood uses a prop rod for support rather than gas struts. While this setup is fine for a four-cylinder Ford Fusion, it doesn't cut it on a car that starts at just under $30,000. The trunk lid also lacks an interior handle for closing the lid without having to touch the exterior.
The Zephyr's 15.8-cubic-foot trunk is larger than the Acura TL's, Lexus ES 330's and Volvo S60's. It features gas struts that don't intrude on the cargo area but do allow the trunk to wobble slightly when closing it if you don't have your hand in the center of the trunk lid. The trunk's opening is sizable enough to accommodate bulky items, and the low liftover height should aid loading and unloading.
For those times when the trunk's capacity just won't suffice, the Zephyr features a nifty fold-flat mechanism for the 60/40-split rear bench seat. The trunk has two levers — one for each backrest — that release the seatbacks, allowing them to spring forward and create an almost-flat load floor. It's an eminently more sensible design than the one employed by many manufacturers because it doesn't require you to enter the cabin to release the backrest prior to loading the trunk. The Zephyr's setup does have one glaring problem, though, and that's the fact that the center shoulder belt is connected to the rear shelf rather than the backrest. This means that as the backrest folds forward, the belt remains in place and could get in the way when loading large items. An easy fix would be to incorporate the belt into the backrest. Folding both backrests down reveals a wide opening to the trunk that's about 18 inches tall.
Speaking of the rear seat, the outer positions provide accommodating space for adults, even when sitting behind a taller driver. It's still a somewhat knees-up seating position for adults, and foot room under the front seats is modest, but the backrest is angled far enough back for comfort. Though the center seat is small, its backrest is far more comfy than some cars'. The outer positions have acceptable headroom, but when I slid my 6-foot-1-inch frame into the middle seat, my head hit the headliner. Upper and lower LATCH child-safety seat attachment points are provided for the outboard rear seating positions, while the center seat, which is arguably the safest place to put a child, only includes an upper point for a top tether.
Time will tell if the Zephyr manages to have anywhere near the success that Chrysler's 300 has had in the market, but beginning with the 2007 model year we'll have to follow it under its new name: MKZ. Besides the new name, the 2007 MKZ will receive a larger, more powerful V-6 engine, available all-wheel drive and modest styling revisions. To see if the MKZ is worth waiting until fall 2006, see the cars.com model report.
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