Update pushes 2011 Lincoln MKX to the top

The crossover gets atypical mid-cycle changes, including an all-new 3.7-liter V-6 and a redesigned front and rear. It now splits the difference between the sporty BMW X3 and luxurious Lexus RX 350.
With all due respect to your bald neighbor in the sports car, the 2011 Lincoln MKX knows how to deal with a midlife crisis.

Carmakers regularly update a model midway through its life cycle with minor tweaks to the interior, exterior or the engine’s output. Quick fixes like these keep the car relevant while the automaker goes through the considerable cost and time of completely redesigning the model.

Except no one told that to Ford Motor Co. when it went to update the MKX, which is largely based on the more pedestrian Ford Edge. The company first introduced this luxury crossover in 2007, so the 2011 model was due for an update. Instead of the traditional mid-cycle nip and tuck, Lincoln gave the MKX a heart transplant, a life coach and a massive face-lift.
The update vaults the MKX from mediocre also-ran to the top of the segment. Starting at $39,995 and available in front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive for $1,850 more, this Lincoln now splits the difference between sporty competitors such as the BMW X3 and luxurious competitors like the Lexus RX 350.

The Lincoln’s new heart comes in the form of an all-new 3.7-liter V-6. This high-tech ditty puts out 305 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, a bump of 40 horsepower and 30 pound-feet over the outgoing 3.5-liter version. The MKX now moves from zero to 60 mph in 7.2 seconds.

The engine is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual mode, though it lacks the paddle shifts seen on Lincoln’s full-size crossover, the MKT.

On the road, the engine, and in fact the vehicle as a whole, exhibits refined road manners. Although the power plant gets a little coarse for a luxury crossover when pushed to higher rpm, most drivers won’t push the MKX that hard. Those who do will relish the engine’s sound. Steering falls on the stiff side, but the handling is composed and the ride quality is excellent.

Using arcane technology I won’t bore you with here, Lincoln was able to wring out one mile per gallon in both the city and on the highway over the previous engine. The EPA rates it at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway for the FWD model. In 250 miles of testing, I averaged 17.8 mpg.

Although the new engine is noteworthy, it’s the redesigned front and rear that’s the real attention hog. Lincoln has spent at least a decade fumbling around in the dark for a visual identity, and the one it’s decided upon looks better on this MKX than on the other three models that have been using it for the last several years.

The brand’s “waterfall grille” gives this crossover a slight avian look, as if you’re staring at a metal and plastic embodiment of a bald eagle. The wide body and bold grille work with the short front and rear overhangs and the optional 20-inch chrome wheels to give the MKX a confident and handsome stance.

Lincoln added the appropriate amount of chrome to dress up the exterior and wisely resisted the urge to throw on tacky embellishments such as faux-engine vents or awkward character lines. This makes the MKX possibly the most stylish and upscale-looking vehicle in the segment.

This style continues on the inside, which underwent as thorough a revision as the exterior. Miles of stitched leather cover the dash, and genuine wood trim adorns the steering wheel and elsewhere. With the exception of the odd interior panel that seems poorly held in place, the cabin is well-made and feels very much up to snuff for the segment.

All MKXs come standard with amenities including a backup camera, wonderful leather seats that are heated and cooled in the front, Ford’s Sync phone and music integration system, and a power lift gate. Front, side and canopy airbags and stability control are also standard.

The loaded FWD model I drove (yours for $50,680) added creature comforts such as a navigation system, panoramic sunroof, THX II-certified audio system and heated rear seats. It also featured a full basket of safety features including adaptive cruise control with collision warning and blind-spot monitoring.

Standard on all MKXs is a system called MyLincoln Touch. A pair of 4-inch screens flanks the speedometer and work in concert with an 8-inch touch screen at the top of the dash. Through the touch screen or via steering wheel-mounted buttons for the small screens, drivers can control all interior functions of the vehicle: climate, phone, audio system and navigation.

But don’t let the touch screen fool you. A navigation system isn’t standard on the $39,995 base model; to get it you have to add the $7,500 package my tester had. Regardless, the MyLincoln Touch worked well and deserves high marks for being easy to learn and for its straightforward setup.

Yet whatever goodwill the system builds through its intuitiveness, the MKX obliterates with a fundamentally flawed setup below the touch screen.

Instead of using traditional knobs or dials for the fan speed and volume, Lincoln uses a horizontal, touch-sensitive bar for each. This patently nonsensical setup is impossible to use while keeping your eyes on the road, and there’s no feedback to give any indication that you’re touching the correct part of the bar.

It’s also a chore to make minor adjustments; changing the volume or fan speed one degree requires you stare at the bar like some sort of sleep-deprived troglodyte and decipher where exactly you should tap it. Thankfully, you can use the buttons on the steering wheel to avoid such ulcer-inducing drama.

Otherwise, the 2011 Lincoln MKX is the front-row student that completely throws the grading curve for vehicles’ midlife updates. Technically it’s not all-new, but at this rate, the next time Lincoln refreshes the MKX, it will fly and run on grass clippings.

I just hope volume knobs are retro-cool by then.

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