The midsize MKZ, Lincoln’s newest entry-level sedan, returns for 2008 with no major changes.

Last year, it received some major revisions – including a new name, a new engine, an all-wheel-drive option, and some face lifting.

The midsize car that debuted for 2006 as the Zephyr was renamed the MKZ for 2007, and instead of the 221-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 engine in the 2006 model, the newest version comes with a much better 3.5-liter V-6, rated at 263 horsepower.

Changes this drastic on a vehicle after only a year on the market are quite rare, but Ford Motor Co. officials felt that it was important to do something to differentiate the Zephyr more from its siblings, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan.

When all three of these sedans were introduced two years ago, they were quite similar, including the 3.0-liter engine.

But Lincoln buyers expected more from the Zephyr – especially under the hood – than Ford and Mercury buyers were getting in their Fusions and Milans, which cost several thousand dollars less.

To justify the nearly $30,000 starting price of the Zephyr vs. the $21,000 beginning price for the V-6 version of the Fusion and $22,000 for the Milan, Ford did dress up the Zephyr a bit.

Standard amenities included leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control and eight-spoke aluminum wheels.

But some at Ford’s Lincoln Mercury division felt that the Zephyr was too close in design and content to the Fusion and especially the Milan, particularly since both the Zephyr and Milan are sold in the same showrooms.

That explains some of the upgrades, and especially the new, more-powerful engine.

As for the name change, Ford says that was part of a new naming strategy for Lincoln products intended to make them sound more like luxury models. The company introduced a new midsize Lincoln crossover sport utility vehicle for 2007 called the MKX, which replaced the Ford Explorer-based Lincoln Aviator, and this year will roll out a replacement for the discontinued LS sedan, called the MKS.

Ford decided not to change the name of the Lincoln Navigator full-size sport utility, which, besides being redesigned for 2007, now also comes in a new extended-length version intended to compete against the Chevrolet Suburban-length Cadillac Escalade ESV.

The Navigator has been in the lineup for several years, so its name has had time to build some value for Ford.

The Zephyr name, although revived from Lincoln’s past, had little recognition among today’s consumers.

Even with the bigger engine and other improvements, the MKZ’s starting price is still around $30,000 for the front-wheel-drive model.

The all-wheel-drive version starts about $2,000 higher. It was the first all-wheel-drive car for the Lincoln brand, but a necessary move to help the car compete against other sport sedans in this class that offer all-wheel drive, including the Infiniti G35 and Lexus IS.

The car’s revised power is similar to that of some of its competitors, such as the base Cadillac CTS, Lexus ES 350 and Acura TL.

Ford has high hopes for the MKZ, which is intended to help bring new, younger customers into the Lincoln brand. Almost half of the buyers of the Zephyr were new to the Lincoln brand, the company said.

The previous model won several honors, including Ward’s Auto World magazine’s 2006 “Best Premium-Car Interior” award, and came in second in its segment in the 2006 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study.

As for the exterior changes for the MKZ, it comes with Lincoln’s traditional waterfall grille, and also features “clean lines, new 17-inch machined aluminum wheels, distinctive lighting and chrome accents” that “create a dynamic, uniquely American interpretation of luxury,” the automaker said.

It’s not quite as distinctive as some of its European competitors, but not nearly as bland as some of the Japanese entries in the crowded entry-luxury segment.

This car really does look great, and there’s nothing cheap about it, inside or out.

The engine is all-aluminum, has four valves per cylinder, and has variable valve timing, similar to some of the best new engines from Japan. This engine will be used in other Ford vehicles as well, to the point that one in five will eventually come with the engine, the company said.

In the MKZ, it’s connected to a six-speed automatic transmission, which carried over from the Zephyr.

To handle the extra power, the car’s suspension was been retuned; the changes were designed to “deliver a more athletic driving experience,” the company said.

The all-wheel drive is designed for all-weather driving, and requires no driver input – it operates fully automatically to send power to any of the four wheels as needed. This is not a feature that is useful only in snowy climates, however; even consumers in Texas will enjoy the sure-footed traction on wet or dry pavement.

Only two models are offered – front or all-wheel drive; there are no other trim levels.

Standard features of the MKZ include a wood- and leather-trimmed interior; 17-inch, painted-aluminum, eight-spoke wheels; LED taillights; dual-zone automatic climate control; heated, 10-way power-adjustable driver and front passenger seats with power lumbar and recline; memory feature for the driver’s seat and mirrors; and a new auxiliary input jack for the audio system that allows for easy connection of an iPod or other MP3 player.

Besides all-wheel drive, options include Sirius satellite radio; an uplevel THX audio system with 14 speakers and a six-disc, in-dash CD player compatible with MP3 and text-format CDs; a GPS navigation system with a 6.5-inch screen and the ability to give audible directions in English, Spanish or French; high-intensity-discharge headlights; 17-inch, eight-spoke chrome wheels; premium perforated-leather cooled front seats; a power moon roof; and satin-nickel interior trim instead of wood on the doors, center console and instrument panel.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at

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