n the auto industry, it’s almost an axiom that when you introduce a new line, the platform remains pretty much unchanged – with only cosmetic changes – for about six years. It’s at this point that the marketing mavens get together and, looking at the numbers, decide whether to keep the vehicle, upgrade it or consign it to history.
For example, Ford changed its own history with the Tempo and Topaz of the 1980s. Introduced about 1982, they were Ford’s first American move into a more rounded, cab-forward front-drive design that allowed the automaker to shrink the outside but keep the interior quite room. These two subcompacts propelled Ford to a solid number two in this market and helped to cement its fortunes and they lasted pretty much unchanged until about 1990 when they quietly disappeared from the lineup (you could still order a 1991 but it was a special request).
Tempo/Topaz Twins Set Tone
The Tempo/Topaz twins (Ford/Lincoln-Mercury) weren’t just idle gestures, though, because they served as the testbed and basis for one of the most successful lines in Ford’s history, the Taurus/Sable. The same front-drive chassis – very much stretched – also served as the basis for the Windstar minivan, believe it or not.
The Taurus was introduced in the mid-1980s (about 1985 as a 1986) and pretty true to form, Ford kept the basic design – with improvements – for the next five to six years. The 1991 Taurus marked a large change in the popular line.
If an automaker does release major changes in the lines or styling of an already successful series early, you can be certain that it: a. thinks the series is a major success and needs freshening to keep its sales leadership or b. believes that it is about to become the market leader and wants a strong model.
That has been the case with the the radically restyled Ford Fusion, introduced only three years ago, and it should also be the case with the Mercury MKZ, which was introduced at the same time.
The MKZ, which had been available in at least four trim levels through the 2009 model year, is now available in just two, the front-wheel-drive MKZ and the all-wheel-drive (AWD) MKZ Sport. By cleaning up the lineup, the folks at the Blue Oval have actually saved money that may have also been reinvested in the remaining product.
MKZ Changes Leave Questions
And, having driven several MKZs, it leaves one wondering why they would make the radical changes they did halfway through their normal product cycle. Engine refinements are quite normal, as are slight changes to the headlights and taillights. But, Mercury has jumped in with both feet on this redesign and they have essentially turned out a new vehicle.
The key differences between the two 2010 models is that where the MKZ lie in the engine and suspension. The standard MKZ is offered with a four-cylinder engine that is mated to a six-speed automatic. It achieves good highway mileage (27-plus) and 18 mpg around town.
The MKZ Sport takes the front-wheel-drive sedan and turns it into an all-wheel-drive vehicle, powered by a 3.5-liter, 24-valve, V-6 and, wonder of wonders — in a move that should keep people who want a real sports model happy — the automaker has stiffened up the suspension, recalibrating the struts and shocks and using larger anti-sway bars. The powerplant cranks out 263-horsepower. It has also relocated the lower rear link for better handling.
Cosmetically, the differences between the 2009 and 2010 are dramatic. Where the 2009 had a semi-family-looking grille – it was vertical, but lacked the “waterfall” used on the popular MKS lineup – the 2010 MKZ now sports the real thing. The grille is almost a clone of the MKS grille. It includes the family “waterfall (it looks like an L tilted 90 degrees).
2010 MKZ Has Dramatic Headlight Treatment
The headlights have been restyled more fully into the front end and sweep dramatically from the front end into each fender. The MKZ has also been given “adaptive” high-intensity headlights that illuminate where you “steer” by “steering” with you. The rear decklid is shorter than the 2009 and the taillights have been extensively reworked, using high-intensity red LEDs, rather than a bright multifaceted chromed reflector lens.
Mercury differentiates the MKZ and Sport by using chrome highlights on the door handles and elsewhere. The standard wheel/tire combo is a nine-spoke, painted 17-inch by 7.5-inch P225/50VR17 all-season radial. On the Sport, you have the choice of the standard 17-inch wheel, a chromed model or an 18-inch, 10-spoke brushed aluminum wheel.
One of the more interesting happenings at the Blue Oval is the way the automaker has taken to improving software for engine or transmission control. For example, four years ago Ford introduced the Roll Stability Control system in the Explorer, which, had had a reputation for being a tad top heavy. A top-heavy vehicle (high roll center) tends to be unstable in some handling conditions, so Ford’s engineering department went to work and developed the RSC system where sensors watch for signs of too much yaw (roll) and if certain key angles are met, then the Explorer activates the ABS system to keep the roll from happening.
A company with that type of software expertise can be expected to use it to advantage and it has done so in the MKZ Sport. Let’s face it, the Sport is AWD and AWD is not a full-time system.
Instead, the MKZ Sport is basically a front-drive vehicle that uses a front transaxle linked to a viscous coupling universal that drives the rear wheels, when needed. Sensors at the wheels and on the transmission measure the traction available at each wheel and if extra traction is needed, the rear wheels come into play as the computer system shunts power around for stability and handling.
MKZ Faces Stiff Competition
All told, Lincoln-Mercury knows the base market for the MKZ, but it is out to beat what it considers the competition with the Sport. It considers the Sport’s competition the ES350 and Acura TL. In that vein, MSN reviewers and an independent review found that the MKZ has a quieter engine thanks to improved noise insulation.
It has also improved handling and has added some interesting Mercury-only touches, such as the available 12-channel THX sound system, as well as the Sync system that allows you to synchronize up to 11 Bluetooth devices to the vehicle so that you can use any of your Bluetooth-enabled devices such as cellphones or laptops with the built-in electronics system. This system, by the way, is offered on both MKZs.