You ever see a live Smooth Jazz concert?
Unless your idea of fun is hanging around third-tier California wineries with your fourth wife, chances are you haven’t. I’m not talking about Sonny Rollins here — this is that highly produced, studio-rehearsed instrumental pop that echoes off the tile floors of Marriott hotel restaurants.
But live, it’s a different story. Performers can’t hide behind slick production, and they’re not constrained by their record labels, so they let loose like the talented musicians most of them are. For an example, just search YouTube for “Kenny G,” “Sade” and “live.” It’s not the Sun Ra Arkestra, for sure, but you’ll get to hear (and I can’t believe I’m typing this) Kenny G unleash some serious funk.
It’s the same principle with car designers. That boring, melted-soap sedan your aunt is driving probably started life as a daring drawing of a concept with slats for windows and suicide doors.
With all concepts, though, the pressures of the real world intervene. Drivers have to see out of those slatted windows and open those massive doors. Safety rules, gas mileage requirements and focus groups all take their toll, and the whole thing has to be built at the lowest possible cost.
That’s why the Lincoln MKT is refreshing: It may very well be the first example of a car where designers were freed by new technology to pen a car that could not have otherwise existed. From a design standpoint, it’s Kenny G, live in concert.
First, some background: The six- or seven-passenger MKT debuted as a 2010 model and is currently the Stephanie Tanner of the Lincoln lineup. Its voluminous interior coddles occupants with separate climate-control zones for front and rear, an auto-folding third row, THX audio, Microsoft Sync and a twin-panel moon roof.
Our tester had optional twin captain’s chairs in the second row, with a fridge in the rear center console. That gave it ample room for four adults and two children, because the rearmost seats were unsuitable for anyone past a growth spurt.
Faced with competition from Lincoln’s own five-seater MKZ and outclassed by the Acura MDX, Audi Q7 and BMW X5, the MKT’s sales are currently on par with tickets for Gilbert Gottfried’s upcoming Japanese tour. That might not be for long, though. After production stops on the beloved, yet geriatric, Town Car later this year, the MKT will enter fleets as Ford’s luxury livery vehicle.
It’s the styling, however, that sets the MKT apart. I have to say I’m a big fan of the slab-sided exterior, whose bustle is reminiscent of the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud (and, unfortunately, the early-1980s Cadillac Seville). That Kardashian keister, however, is possible thanks to the use of lightweight magnesium and aluminum — a first in an American car — at a weight savings of 40 percent over the same design in steel.
Moving up the rear of the car, we find pillars thicker than the Parthenon’s that — from the driver’s point of view — completely obscure the already miniscule third-row windows. A sloped greenhouse makes for an attractive exterior, but from behind the wheel it’s like driving a U-Haul without towing mirrors.
That’s why the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), a technology inherited through Ford’s corporate parentage of Volvo, is essential. A small, orange circle appears in the side view mirror when there’s a vehicle hovering near the rear fender. It can be turned off, but I didn’t dare. Amazingly, BLIS is only available as part of a $4,000 “Elite Package.”
On the Volvo S80, BLIS is a safety-minded failsafe. On the MKT, even with properly adjusted mirrors, it’s a virtual second glance over the shoulder. The backup camera is also a requirement for driving this car, as the rear window Is placed so high up that it totally blocks any view of what you’re about to hit. On the plus side, you’ll never know if anyone’s tailgating you.
All that technology wasn’t just to help the MKT keep its figure. In more than 600 miles of driving, I managed 21.2 mpg thanks to a particularly parsimonious twin-turbo V-6 that Ford has christened with its EcoBoost label. Mileage in the low 20s is nothing to brag about to the Sierra Club, but it is a far cry from the mid-teens that most Navigator owners manage.
Unlike the roar of the Navigator’s V-8, the MKT’s V6 has a breathy snarl that still provides 355 horsepower on demand. Nobody’s expecting a lumbering luxo-barge to ride like a Lotus, but the MKT gets out of its own way with power and poise.
When weight-saving metals and electronic nannies like BLIS and turbocharged V-6s came into fashion a few years back, some car enthusiasts feared they would lead to a lineup of underpowered, lightweight safetymobiles — an automotive Kenny G studio album, with reverb, a drum machine and droning synth violins.
The MKT might not be as unnecessarily rugged as the Navigator, and it’s certainly not a sports car, but it’s a risky design that’s possible and practical, thanks to some creative engineering and compensatory technology. It’s not bebop or acid jazz, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s Smooth Jazz, unplugged. I’m just wondering who is listening.
Photo courtesy Ford
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