EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view


Generation X and baby-boomer consumers enamored of premium import crossovers such as the Acura MDX and Lexus RX, please take note:

You don’t have to buy an import to get a vehicle with great styling, performance and – yes – quality.

Ford Motor Co.’s upscale Lincoln brand offers the elegant and capable MKX crossover for 2007, a luxury version of a new line of car-based utility vehicles that includes the Ford Edge.

And if you have reservations about quality, especially compared with the Lexus and Acura brands, consider this:

Lincoln came in second place among all automakers in the recent 2007 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study – behind No. 1 Porsche and No. 2 Lexus. Acura wasn’t even in the Top 10. This study is a respected industry benchmark of vehicle quality.

In the midsize premium activity vehicle segment, the top three winners in the J.D. Power study were the Lexus RX, Lincoln MKX and Lexus GX 470. This is no fluke. Lincoln has been scoring quite high in the quality rankings the past several years, and the 2007 MKZ sedan – upon whose basic architecture the MKX sport utility is based – is ranked in this year’s study as the best-quality entry premium car.

Ford’s newest cars and trucks show just how committed this manufacturer is to quality.

But the MKX offers more than great quality.

It’s a well-designed, well-engineered family utility vehicle that can hold its own against anything in its class, be it domestic, European or Japanese.

The vehicle comes in two trim levels: a front-wheel-drive model that begins at $34,795 (including freight), and an all-wheel-drive version, which we tested, that starts at $36,445.

The MKX is the latest in what is becoming a crowded field of premium crossover utility vehicles. It bears some resemblance to its two biggest competitors, the RX 350 and Acura MDX, and also competes in this segment with the Cadillac SRX, Infiniti FX, BMW X5, Volvo XC90, and Mercedes ML.

This is Lincoln’s first crossover model. It replaces the truck-based, midsize Aviator sport utility that was discontinued after model year 2005.

That vehicle, which was only on the market for a couple of years, was an uplevel version of the Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer. The Mountaineer is still offered by Lincoln-Mercury dealers for consumers who want a conventional midsize SUV, and the redesigned ’07 Lincoln Navigator is available for those who want a full-size, truck-based model.

The MKX is the most carlike and refined of the Lincoln and Mercury sport utility offerings, thanks in large part to its unibody construction. The other SUVs have separate bodies mounted on steel frames, which is what gives them their trucklike ruggedness.

Like the RX 350, the MKX comes with just two rows of seats and seats just five. There is no third row for those who occasionally need to haul six or seven people around. The Acura and some of the others in this class do offer a third seat, which is a popular feature among some consumers, especially affluent families and empty nesters with grandchildren. Both groups may occasionally need a vehicle with a third row, even if that seat is suitable only for kids.

The Edge doesn’t have the third seat, either, but Ford offers the slightly larger 2007 Freestyle with three rows of seats. That vehicle, which is being upgraded and renamed the Taurus X for 2008, does not come in a Lincoln or Mercury version, however.

Lincoln officials have said that the Lexus RX, the best-selling premium midsize SUV, was the benchmark for the MKX, and because it did not have a third row, it was believed that no third row would be needed for the MKX. The Acura MDX, which is based on the chassis of the Honda Odyssey minivan, has always had a third row. But even without a third row, the MKX compares favorably with its competitors, and it’s priced quite competitively. An MKX equipped with the Ultimate package ($1,995), which adds premium features such as adaptive headlights, chrome wheels, and heated and cooled front seats, is still priced below all of its top competitors.

The vehicle’s chrome grille, flowing lines and athletic stance “communicate confidence and elegance,” Ford says. Among other exterior features are 18-inch “Euroflange” wheels, dual chrome exhaust tips, wraparound taillights and a rear spoiler.

Our test vehicle came with the Ultimate package, as well as the even more-expensive “Elite” package ($4,795), which tacked on the really cool glass panoramic sunroof, which opens over the passenger compartment with the touch of a button. This package also brings a navigation system, Sirius satellite radio, and a THX audio system with theater-style surround sound.

With all the extras, including the interesting “white chocolate” exterior paint ($495), our test vehicle’s sticker totaled $44,385, including freight.

The 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.

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.

The MKX’s interior is elegant but not ostentatious, which also fits well with this segment.

There are lots of premium amenities, including leather seats, eight-way power front bucket seats, and wood trim on the instrument panel and doors.

The front seats feature the first application of Ford’s “Active Comfort Engineering” process, with “specialized contours helping to reduce pressure points and fatigue,” the company said.

Second-row seats recline for passenger comfort, or can be folded out of the way to more than double cargo space to 69 cubic feet. The rear hatch swings up to open in one piece, and is power-operated.

A spacious center console rests between the front seats. It includes a jack 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. Three additional power outlets are provided in the cabin.

Under the hood is a new 265-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine, connected to a six-speed automatic transmission. This is the same powertrain being offered in a variety of other Ford products for 2008, including the new Taurus and the Taurus X, as well as the 2007 Lincoln MKZ sedan.

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

Even though no engine upgrade is offered for those who want more power (the SRX, for example, can be purchased with a 330-horsepower V-8), the MKX has 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 constantly hunting for gears while going up or down grades.

Fuel economy is above average for midsize SUVs. The front-drive model is rated at 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway (using the EPA 2007 formula), while our all-wheel-drive tester had ratings of 17 city/24 highway.

The MKX’s four-wheel independent suspension is “luxury tuned for responsive ride and handling,” Ford said. It gives the vehicle has a smooth ride, but handling is not as precise as it could be with a stiffer suspension. The MKX is built more for riding than driving, though.

Inside, the MKX offers a very quiet ride even at highway speeds.

The “intelligent” all-wheel-drive system is 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.

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

At a Glance: 2007 Lincoln MKX crossover

The package: Midsize, premium, five-passenger, four-door, V-6 powered, front- or all-wheel-drive, crossover utility vehicle. Highlights: New for 2007, this is the replacement for the discontinued Lincoln Aviator, and rather than being on the chassis of the truck-based Ford Explorer, as the Aviator was, the MKX is built on the architecture of the Ford Edge, a new car-based crossover that is on the platform of the Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan/Lincoln MKZ sedans. It’s a roomy and comfortable midsize sport utility with lots of premium features. Negatives: No third row of seating is offered, limiting capacity to five passengers. Engine: 3.5-liter V-6. Transmission: Six-speed automatic. Power/torque: 265 HP/240 foot-pounds. Length: 186.5 inches. Curb weight: 4,210-4,420 pounds. Cargo volume: 31.8 cubic feet (behind rear seat); 69 cubic feet (rear seat folded). Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds. Electronic stability control: Standard, with anti-roll feature. Side air bags: Seat-mounted front side; side-curtain for both rows, standard. Fuel capacity/type: 19 gallons (2WD), 20 gallons (AWD)/unleaded regular. EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/26 highway (2WD); 17 city/24 highway (AWD). Base prices: $34,795 including $665 freight (2WD); $36,445 (4WD). Price as tested: $44,385, including freight and options (AWD). On the Road rating: 8.5 (of a possible 10).

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