Lincoln found unexpected success last year with the entry-level mid-sized Zephyr sedan.

It accounted for 33,114 sales in 2006, its first full year in showrooms, representing about 40 percent of Lincoln's car volume.

So, did officials break out the champagne to toast these encouraging statistics? No, they instead changed the name of the car to MKZ.

Let's chew that one over. Lincoln puts an historic name — a really great name — on a new product that strikes a winning chord with younger buyers and then retires the name after one model year for a bunch of letters. The party line is that the change was necessary to get the sedan in line with the new letter naming structure at Lincoln.

We don't pretend to be knowledgeable in marketing, but this just strikes us as most unusual. Lincoln marketers surely knew last year that letters were coming when they made the stop-gap Zephyr decision.


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Our question is, why create this kind of confusion? Or did they do their market research after the fact?

That said, — the new MKZ pronounced M-K-Z, not Mark Z — we discovered that more than just a name separates the 2006 Zephyr from the 2007 MKZ. It is actually improved in several ways even though it's for the most part the same car.

The Zephyr — and now the MKZ — is built on the same platform as the popular Ford Fusion with a front-drive chassis setup. The Mercury Milan also shares the underpinnings. The '06 Zephyr — as well as the 2007 Fusion and Milan — are propelled by a 3.0-liter Duratec V-6 generating 221 horsepower mated to a six-speed automatic. It rides on a rather soft suspension, tuned more toward a Town Car than a BMW 3-Series.

While that setup resonated with a lot of people this year the MKZ should be even more successful with a new engine, a new suspension setup and available all-wheel drive.

Most noticeable to the casual observer are a new Lincoln-style grille and front fascia and updated 17-inch aluminum wheels.

But a new and more refined 3.5-liter V-6 generating 263 horsepower and 249 pound-feet of torque is the big story. That represents a gain of 42 horsepower and 44 pound-feet of torque.

Hit the accelerator and the power builds quickly, smoothly and consistently through the slick six-speed automatic. The MKZ now really feels like an entry-level luxury car highlighted with 0-to-60 performance under 7 seconds. By the way, the power infusion has resulted in the loss of only about a mile to the gallon. The new MKZ is rated at 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway with all-wheel drive and 18/25 in front-wheel drive. And unlike many of its competitors, it runs in full performance mode on 87-octane regular.

Lincoln engineers firmed up the suspension to match the extra power. We discovered this first hand driving the sedan on the infamous "Tail of the Dragon," a stretch of U.S. 129 at Deal's Gap near the Tennessee-North Carolina border that features 318 curves in 11 miles.

And late last winter we tested the car's all-wheel drive capability coming down the 88-mile stretch of West Virginia Turnpike in a mountain blizzard that left the roadway treacherous in places. The Lincoln was as sure footed as a mountain goat.

That trip included nearly 1,800 highway miles over a two-day period with three adults onboard, and we found that the Lincoln has more going for it than a good engine and confident driving dynamics.

It has comfortable seats that stayed enjoyably receptive for hours. We never found ourselves squirming for a better fit in the driver's seat.

Finding a desirable driving position was never a problem. Steering wheel cruise control is easy to operate, and audio, climate and navigation controls are intuitive and easy to use while under way.

Adding to the comfort level was a quiet interior. Lincoln officials say it's quieter than the Lexus ES 350, a serious bragging point.

Adding to the enjoyment of driving was Sirius Satellite Radio played through the optional 14-speaker 600-watt THX-II audio system. If you love your music as much as we do, it's worth the price of admission — $995 as a stand-alone option or $2,495 bundled with one of the better navigation systems on the market. We were impressed with the sound as well as the ease-of-use of the Nav system.

Adding to the sedan's road trip demeanor was 16 cubic feet of storage space in the trunk and rear-seating accommodations that proved comfortable in the area of head and leg room for an adult passenger.

The trunk swallowed up four bags and other assorted items without much configuring.

As you would expect from a premium car, standard safety and convenience equipment abounds for a base price of $29,895 in two-wheel drive format. That's only $235 more than the 2006 Zephyr. We give Lincoln credit for holding the line on the price for an obviously upgraded product. The all-wheel drive model starts at $31,765 including destination.

Standard features on the MKZ include real wood trim (if you aren't enamored of the wood accents, satin nickel aluminum trim can be substituted for $195), leather seating, 10-way power driver and passenger seats, dual-zone climate control, audio system with six-disc CD and MP3 changer and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Standard safety includes four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control and side and side-curtain airbags. Strangely, stability control is not available, but Lincoln says it is coming.

In addition to all-wheel drive, our test car came with navigation and the wonderful THX II audio system with Sirius, and heated and cooled front seats for $34,950.

The Zephyr/MKZ name change aside we have no issues with what Lincoln has done to upgrade the car, turning it into one of the premier entry-level luxury sedans in America.

The company's goal is to sell 30,000 units in 2007, about the same number sold in 2006. We think that's conservative. When shoppers discover the new Lincoln they may be more easily swayed to become owners.

Essentials

Base price, $29,895; as driven, $34,950 including destination
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6
Horsepower: 263 @ 6,250 rpm
Torque: 249 foot-pounds @ 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.4 inches
Length: 190.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,739 pounds
Turning circle: 40 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 17.5 gallons
EPA mileage: 24 highway, 17 city
0-60: 7 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Lexus ES 350, Infiniti G35, Volkswagen Passat, Cadillac CTS

The Good

Good performance from new V-6
Roomy interior with excellent luggage capacity
All-wheel drive available for under two grand

The Bad

Conservative styling may not appeal to the younger audience Lincoln seeks

The Ugly

Even with the massive increase in horsepower, the MKZ still falls short against some of its key competitors