When your lead-in to a first-time-ever hybrid sedan is a North American Car of the Year trophy winner, things are probably okay in your world.

That's Lincoln's world right now, where the brand is embarking on a complete renovation that will include 7 new or refreshed vehicles in the next four years. Whatever corporate agita was induced by the Ford takeovers of Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo is over now--and now Lincoln has the company's attention as it pivots back into the lead role in Ford's luxury movement.

The next step in that movement is The 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, which follows up on the very nicely redone MKZ sedan we wrote about for the 2010 model year. Only this time it carries the same hybrid system that won that NACOTY award for the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid last year. In this sedan body, it gets a much more handsome, much more luxurious treatment--and a somewhat stunning sticker price of about $36,000 that's identical to the price you'd pay for the V-6-powered MKZ.

Since we've covered the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid extensively, a little focus on the Lincoln details is what you need to decide if the step up into the $30,000 price bracket is worth the price of admission. If you're a fan of the latest Lincoln styling meme--twin-wing grilles, sedately handsome interiors with real wood and leather--you'll be in the mood for the MKZ Hybrid's balanced looks. The blander side profile of the Fusion/MKZ needs some of the drama imparted by the grille, and the nearly full-width taillamps have their own dramatic impact. You can see the obvious resemblance to the Fusion in the MKZ's proportions and glass areas, and that's an asset worth upgrading, as the Fusion's among the better-looking sedans we've driven. The cabin does a better job yet of distinguishing the mechanical twins, with Bridge of Weir leather and real wood trim on the dash, unless you choose a metallic finish instead. Then there's the spritz of LCD glamour applied to the gauges and the center stack, framed by tech-y strips of metallic trim, that sum up the sumptuousness. Yes, it's very closely related to the Fusion, along the lines of Lexus ES and Toyota Camry, but it's a synergy that works.

The running gear's virtually unchanged from the Fusion Hybrid, and that's the other big benefit of this platform-sharing approach. You can still get a V-6 MKZ, but who'd want to, now that the Fusion Hybrid's net 191 horsepower slot in the Lincoln's engine bay and tuck behind its rear seats? The combination of a 155-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder running an Atkinson cycle, electric motors and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack in back give the MKZ brisk performance to 60 mph in the 8-second range through an electronically controlled set of planetary gears--an eCVT--that blends power from the gas engine and the battery pack. It's a second off the V-6 car's performance, but battery power means great torque at city speeds, which the MKZ Hybrid has in abundance. There's also a more sporty transmission mode, if you must--but that misses the point.

The point is the MKZ Hybrid's Fusion-identical fuel economy of 41/36 mpg, which Ford says bests the Lexus HS 250h by 6 miles per gallon. The exceptional city fuel economy is in part due to the MKZ Hybrid's higher-speed EV mode--it can run on electric power alone up to 47 mph, while the Lexus is EV-only up to only 25 mph.


It doesn't take an expert to draw those lofty numbers from the MKZ Hybrid, either. Lincoln has the green vision down pat, down to the digital SmartGauge that trains drivers to get better at saving the planet. The gauges can be customized to show drivers how efficiently they're driving, through displays of battery charging and gas consumption--and through a graphic carrot-and-stick approach. On lots of other EVs and hybrids like the Honda Insight, the leaf is the symbol of eco-friendly driving, and those cars display leaves on their instruments to reward frugal driving. In the MKZ Hybrid, Lincoln says it with flowers--renderings based on apple blossoms that add petals as drivers learn to conserve more fuel. In our hands, they may as well have tossed in some Miracle-Gro to help us out. We averaged 31.7 miles per gallon in higher-speed highway driving, with not much city driving, which would have helped us reach a respectable 35 mpg or so.

Ford also saves gas with an electronic power steering system that's among the best we've felt. These systems are still embryonic, and different automakers are at different points on the learning curve for replicating the feel of good old hydraulic-effort steering. The MKZ Hybrid lightens up at low speeds, dials in a substantial feel in sporty driving, and takes a more accurate track than most, without low-rolling-resistance-tire wobble.

Elsewhere, the MKZ Hybrid sticks with what works. The driving position is comfortable even for tall drivers. The flat, wide seats themselves aren't as grippy but they're positioned for good knee room toward the center console. We've had mixed opinions of the back seat in the MKZ; at six foot tall, I'm perfectly comfortable in back, with the MKZ's good backrest angle helping the effort. Interior storage is ample, though the trunk is downsized because that's where the MKZ Hybrid's battery pack lives. The battery pack also means the elimination of the fold-down talents of the rear seats; who wants to run into a nickel-metal wall when they're loading a new flat-screen TV?



Standard features include every safety piece known to Ford, including blind-spot monitors, curtain airbags and top safety ratings from the IIHS and the NHTSA. On the luxury side, there are twin 10-way power front seats with heat and ventilation and memory settings; reverse parking sensors and a rearview camera; keyless entry from a fob or from the coded buttons on the driver-side door; and a capless fuel filler that's a small improvement that means much at Turnpike gas stops.

The MKZ Hybrid also gets standard SYNC, and over the course of two days, I warmed a little more to the system. SYNC uses Bluetooth and voice commands to assist the driver in making mobile calls, changing audio settings and focusing their attention on driving. In initial versions, it took maddening consecutive taps and many individual voice commands to make anything happen. This year, a new voice-command structure and a much bigger vocabulary give SYNC an easier way to understand more normal English--and thus to change the controls. The MKZ Hybrid doesn't yet have Ford's trick MyLincoln Touch system, which adds voice control to many more functions, but we expect it's coming when the sedan is replaced in the 2013 model year.

Which brings us to the bottom line. When the 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid goes on sale this fall, it will have an MSRP starting at $35,180, including destination and delivery. The pricing is identical to the 2011 Lincoln MKZ gas model and below the 2010 Lexus HS 250h, the MKZ Hybrid’s nearest competitor. That's a marketing win, but it also clears up any lingering ideas you might have about how expensive hybrids can be--and if they ever pay back on the investment.

More than just a rebadged Fusion Hybrid, the MKZ Hybrid's a sign of good things ahead. The Fusion's done wonders for Ford: some 82 percent of its new owners are new to the brand, and the Hybrid earns the company some of its highest customer-satisfaction ratings. With jazzy style, the luxury goods it needs and a new outlook on what luxury actually means to non-cigar-smoking, non-McMansion-dwelling urbanites, the MKZ Hybrid snaps into neatly into place in Ford's not-so-puzzling future.