The parade of “X” vehicles continues. Lincoln this month rolls into showrooms its all-new, 2007 MKX, the latest in what is becoming a crowded field of premium crossover utility vehicles – most of them with an “X” in their names.

Ford’s luxury brand probably made the boldest move with its new model, making it look almost identical to two of its biggest competitors, the Lexus RX 350 and Acura MDX, not to mention giving it a name that also is quite similar to that of the Acura.

Among others in this growing segment are the Cadillac SRX, Infiniti FX, BMW X5, Volvo XC90, and one that broke from the “X” mold, the Mercedes ML.

For Lincoln, the MKX is the brand’s first crossover model, and it replaces the truck-based midsize Aviator sport utility that was discontinued last year. That vehicle, which was only on the market for a couple of years, was just a fancy version of the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer.

Lincoln Mercury dealers still have the Mountaineer for consumers who want a midsize, truck-style SUV, and the redesigned ’07 Lincoln Navigator for those who want a full-size, truck-based sport utility. It even comes in a new extended-length version for 2007, designed to compete against the Cadillac Escalade ESV.

The new MKX fits right in among the rest of the crop of premium midsize sport utilities, but for one deficiency – there is no third row of seating for consumers who occasionally need to haul six or seven people around. The MKX seats just five.

While the RX 350 and ML models still hold just five as well, the redesigned 2007 MDX comes with a third row, as do the SRX, X5, and XC90. The third seat has almost become the price of admission to this segment. Most of these vehicles are bought either by affluent young couples with children, or empty nesters. Both groups may occasionally need a vehicle with a third row, even if that rearmost seat is suitable only for kids.

During a recent media introduction of the MKX at the famous Biltmore Estate in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, a Lincoln Mercury official said privately that for Lincoln to have the exterior design it wanted for the MKX, the third row seat would not have fit.

But he also said that because the Lexus RX was the benchmark for the MKX, and it did not have a third row, Lincoln Mercury felt that no third row would be needed for the target MKX customers – those who would also be considering the RX 350. The Acura MDX, which is based on the chassis of the Honda Odyssey minivan, has always had a third row of seats.

Ford doesn’t offer a third row in its all-new 2007 Edge, either. That vehicle is a less-expensive version of the MKX, and as such doesn’t have room for a third seat. That could be a mistake, as well, because the Edge’s target vehicles, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, both offer third-row seats.

Still, even without a third row, the MKX measures up well against its competition. With prices beginning at $34,795 (including freight) for front-wheel drive and $36,445 for all-wheel drive, it’s priced quite competitively in the segment.

Ford says that even when equipped with the Ultimate package, with luxury features such as adaptive headlights, chrome wheels, and heated and cooled front seats, the MKX “is still priced below the base sticker of all of its top competitors.”

“The new Lincoln MKX delivers the features luxury customers want at the best value in its class,” said Al Giombetti, president of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury. “It will enter one of the hottest segments in the market and show customers that American luxury can be both desirable and attainable.”

The company said that the vehicle’s “distinctive chrome grille, clean, flowing lines and broad-shouldered athletic stance communicate confidence and elegance.”

Among exterior features are 18-inch “Euroflange: wheels, dual chrome exhaust tips, wraparound taillights and a rear spoiler.

One cool feature is the optional glass panoramic sunroof, which opens over the passenger compartment with the touch of a button.

The optional adaptive headlights are a nice safety feature. They turn slightly in the direction the vehicle is turning to help illuminate areas that would remain dark with conventional headlights, revealing objects and even animals or people that might be in the vehicle’s path. This feature was useful in some dark, curving tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville.

Inside, there are lots of premium amenities, including leather seats that are heated or cooled – your choice – both front and rear. Ford says the front seats feature the company’s first application of its “patent-pending Active Comfort Engineering process, with specialized contours helping to reduce pressure points and fatigue.”

The front seats have an eight-way power-adjust feature.

In the second row, the seats can recline for passenger comfort, or can be folded out of the way quickly to increase cargo space. The rear hatch swings up to open in one piece, and is power-operated.

There is a spacious center console between the front seats that also has a jack inside for connection of an iPod or other audio device to the vehicle’s stereo system. There is a 12-volt power outlet in the console to accommodate the auxiliary audio source as well. There are three additional power outlets in the cabin.

Under the hood is a new 265-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine, connected to a six-speed automatic transmission. Ford says it’s a “class-exclusive” six-speed, but it’s not – Cadillac offers a six-speed automatic in the SRX with the optional Northstar V-8 engine; no V-8 is offered in the MKX.

The MKX engine’s horsepower is close to that of the V-6 SRX (255) and the RX 350 (270), but considerably below that of the new MDX (300). And that SRX V-8 engine brings 330 horsepower.

Even on the hilly roads around Asheville and in the Great Smoky Mountains, though, the MKX had adequate power for a family hauler such as this. The transmission has a hill mode that cuts out the sixth gear and changes the shift points so the transmission isn’t shifting when it shouldn’t be while going up or down grades.

Ford says the car’s four-wheel independent suspension is “luxury tuned for responsive ride and handling.” That means the vehicle has a nice, smooth ride, but the trade-off is that the handling is not as precise as it could be with a stiffer suspension.

The MKX is built more for riding than driving, though, and it’s very quiet inside the cabin even at interstate highway speeds. The only wind noise came from the “A” pillars, the supports that hold up the windshield on each side. And even then, that noise was not excessive at all. Ford says the MKX is “the quietest Lincoln ever.”

Optional is the “intelligent” all-wheel-drive system, designed for foul-weather driving, not for off-road use. There is no transfer case for low-range operation, so this vehicle is not intended to be taken four-wheeling.

Other options include a DVD rear-seat entertainment system; a GPS-based navigation system, which can give its information in English, Spanish or French; a THX audio system; and Sirius satellite radio.

Standard safety features include vehicle stability and traction control, antilock brakes, a safety canopy air bag system with rollover sensor, front seat side-impact air bags, adjustable head restraints, child-restraint attachments, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

EPA fuel-economy ratings are 18 miles per gallon city/25 highway with front-wheel drive, and 17 city/24 highway with all-wheel drive.

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