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Review: 2011 Lincoln MKX


When it comes to midsize crossover vehicles, shoppers are opting for General Motors' (GM) Cadillac SRX over Ford's (F) Lincoln MKX by a margin of better than two to one, and the Lincoln continues to lose ground. Personally, I find the situation hard to understand. The MKX is a tightly built vehicle with a roomy, attractive cabin, excellent fit and finish, as well as decent handling, acceleration, and fuel economy. I actually prefer it to the SRX.

However, the numbers don't lie: Cadillac SRX sales soared 31 percent to 4,236 in January, and 152.5 percent to 51,094 for all of last year. MKX sales plunged 29.7 percent to 1,574 in January, and only rose 2.3 percent to 21,932 in 2010.

Why is the MKX faltering? Price is probably the main reason. The MKX only comes in one trim line with one choice of engine, at a starting price of $40,225. Never mind that that price includes a raft of standard equipment that costs extra on the Cadillac, including a power lift gate, backup parking sensors, and heated and ventilated power adjustable front seats. The base model SRX starts at just $34,705, more than five grand less than the Lincoln. And even the Lexus RX 350, which also comes well-loaded with standard equipment, starts lower than the MKX ($39,250 with front-wheel drive).

Consumers also apparently aren't factoring in the excellence of the MKX's standard engine—a 3.7-liter, 305-horsepower V6 that has 40 more horses than the engine in the previous MKX and the base engine in the SRX, and 30 more horses than the only engine offered in the Lexus RX 350.

To get roughly equivalent power in the Cadillac SRX, you have to pay extra—a lot extra—for a turbocharged 300-hp V6. That engine comes standard with all-wheel drive, driving up the Cadillac's starting price to $50,790, nearly nine grand more than the all-wheel-drive Lincoln MKX. Little wonder that only a small percentage of SRX buyers opt for the turbocharged engine.

I also suspect the MKX's styling works against it. Aside from its distinctive Lincoln grille, the MKX still looks too much like the less expensive Ford Edge, on which it is based. I suspect a fair number of potential MKX buyers end up opting for the Edge Sport, which has the same engine as the MKX and starts at $37,335, three grand less than the Lincoln. (With a smaller, 285-hp V6 engine, the Edge starts at just $28,220.)

Fuel economy is a strong point for the MKX, which is rated at 19 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway, for an average of 21 with front-wheel drive, and 17/23/19 with all-wheel drive. That's competitive with the Lexus RX 350, which is rated at 18/25/21 with front-wheel drive and 18/24/20 with AWD. It's a tad better than the Cadillac SRX, which is rated at 18/25/20 with front-wheel drive and 15/22/18 with a turbocharged engine and AWD.

Though the Cadillac's sales are growing much faster, Toyota's (TM) Lexus RX 350 is the leader by a wide margin. Sales of the RX (which also include the hybrid RX 450h) rose 3.3 percent to 95,790 in 2010, and 3.4 percent to 5,881 in January.

Behind the Wheel

The MKX makes no pretense of being genuinely sporty. Ride and handling are improved in the 2011 model, but are still calibrated more for comfort than performance. The MKX's suspension is softer than in, say, a BMW (BAMXY) X5 or Audi Q7. There's a manual shifting function, but it's operated by a little toggle switch on the side of the shift lever, which is not a setup designed to give the driver a feeling of putting the car through its paces.

Still, the new, more powerful engine—the same one that's found in the 2011 Ford Mustang—makes the MKX surprisingly quick for a midsize SUV. Car and Driver clocked the MKX at 6.4 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60. The Cadillac SRX does zero to 60 in about 8.5 seconds with the standard V6, and about 7.5 seconds with the turbocharged V6. Automobile magazine clocked the Lexus RX 350 at 6.8 seconds.

As with the bigger, more expensive Lincoln MKT, the MKX's interior is roomy, comfortable, and has excellent fit and finish. The cabin remains quiet at highway speed and has more of an upscale feel than the previous MKX, with standard leather, and heated and ventilated power front seats. Aluminum interior trim is standard, and wood (walnut or ash) costs an extra $495.

The rear seats pop down at the push of a button, which is very handy. You have to push them back up manually, but it's quite easy to do and they lock readily into place. Luggage space behind the rear seats is a voluminous 32.3 cu. ft., rising to 68.6 cu. ft. with the rear seats down.

Consumer Reports has been critical of Ford's "MyLincoln" system, which replaces most controls with touchscreen commands on an 8-inch screen. The magazine calls the system "overly complicated and buggy." I found the system difficult to learn, but no more complicated than the control knob/screen controls on a high-end BMW or Mercedes (DAI).

However, it is buggy. The voice control system often failed to recognize simple commands. There's a "back" button (crucial to getting out of trouble when problems occur), but it isn't always visible on the touchscreen. The database in the navigation system is inadequate. At one point, I searched for nearby supermarkets and the system suggested one 55 miles away when my favorite Wegmans store was right nearby.

Even where old-fashioned controls remain, they're very techie. For instance, to speed up the heater fan or change the volume on the radio, you slide a bare finger over a slick-surfaced glide, much as you do with an iPhone. This is cool, but a dial would be more practical in winter because you can't use glide controls with gloves on. I'd recommend getting the optional heated steering wheel (part of the $2,500 Premium Package that includes heated rear seats, a backup camera, and other upgrades).

Buy It or Bag It?

The MKX sells for an average of $43,858, according to the Power Information Network, well above the Cadillac SRX ($40,489), but only slightly more than the Lexus RX 350 ($43,085).

However, the MKX is a better bargain than it appears at first glance. Both it and the Lexus come with more standard equipment than the Cadillac, and both have much peppier standard engines and slightly better fuel economy. Also, Lincoln is offering cash rebates of up to $1,500 on the MKX right now, and dealers are probably willing to haggle on price.

If you're in the market for a midsize crossover vehicle, the Lincoln merits a test-drive, especially if you're considering the Cadillac SRX. It's better than its flagging sales would indicate.

Click here to see more of the 2011 Lincoln MKX.

Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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