Payne: Luxe Lincoln MKC a must-c

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I was born and raised in the South. We southerners like to say Midwesterners are the nicest Americans without a drawl. Take the Lincoln MKC.

This is one friendly vehicle. Walk toward it and the rear LED lights glow, the mirrors open like sunflowers to the sun, the doors unlock as your fingers slip inside the handle. Is it the key in my pocket or you just happy to see me?

What's next? A hug?

That warmth is an asset in a hot compact luxury segment headlined by the ruthlessly efficient Acura RDX and the Teutonic twins BMW X3 and Audi Q3. As early entrants in the segment, the RDX and X3 set the standard for reliability and power.

But the elegant Lincoln and Audi — both new this year — aim for something higher. In fact, they typify why compact SUV is the market to watch. Like the Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5 in the mainstream compact crossover segment, they promise sexy styling and nimble handling that make sedans chew their fingernails. Utes with hot bods? Muscle beach is getting crowded.

That a Lincoln would even turn heads is newsworthy.

Ford's luxury lineup has failed to impress in the sedan and large SUV segments. The MKC is a fresh look in a fresh segment. It succeeds where its siblings have failed. Unlike the MKZ sedan, the C looks athletic. Unlike the MKX midsize SUV, it's a pretty face.

The Escape had already established Ford's Global C platform as a fit chassis. The MKC makes it alluring. Its adaption of Lincoln's winged grille-design language soars. Maybe it's the Halloween holiday, but the MKC's face reminds me of Catwoman's mask. Sexy. Mysterious. A high, nicely-sculpted belt line keeps your stare. Curvy hips — imagine Anne Hathaway's Catwoman — swell over the rear wheels before tapering into the feline superhero's — ahem, Lincoln's — signature, LED-lit tail.

Beauty with sacrifices

Like the Audi A3, the MKC's narrower greenhouse suggests sedan-like elegance. This modification is most striking compared to the BMW X3's bigger, boxier greenhouse. Dare I suggest a BMW looks homely? Only compared to the sleek Lincoln and Audi.

I've been smitten with the Audi line's lines for years, but the Lincoln gives Q3 a run in the swimsuit competition. So pretty is the MKC that it has attracted that hunky, drawling, mumbling Matthew McConaughey as a spokesman for the brand.

Beauty comes with sacrifice, however, as the higher sill line in the MKC and Q3 reduces visibility. The X3 lets the sunlight in. Its C-pillar visibility is superb compared to the Lincoln's tapered, blind rear quarter window.

The Lincoln's beauty is more than skin deep. This lass brings lots of personality.

Come inside the Lincoln's lush, intuitive interior. Detroit's automakers know intuitively that Americans live in their cars. You've heard me applaud the Chrysler 200 as the most driver-friendly midsize sedan. The MKC is the class of small lux. Its interior engineers must eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with customers because they anticipate their needs like a mirror.

Tired of shifter stalks that grow like weeds in the middle of your console? The Lincoln simplifies automatic shifting to five buttons on the dash. This not only conforms to the push-button nature of the console — touchscreen, climate controls — but also frees up the center aisle for more storage space and climbing between seats (how many times have you been hemmed in by a parking garage wall on your left and had to climb over the gear shifter to get out of the passenger side?)

Worried about distracted driving? Like an oversized game console, the MKC locates all of the car's essential functions on four, tidy quadrants of the steering wheel.

Miss the visibility of boxier SUVs? The C offers driver assist features like blind spot assist, park assist, rear camera, even a front collision alert when you approach, say, Cyrus the bull in the middle of the road in that McConaughey ad (he's weirding me out).

This customer care follows you 'round back. Arms full of suitcases? Golf bags? McConaughey DVDs? You can open the rear lift gate with a swing of your foot under the bumper. Once open, a cavernous, vertical space awaits so that you can pile it all in — and still load four pals.

The Audi matches the Lincoln in interior comfort but falls short in usability. It must be a cultural thing. Germans, after all, spend less time in their cars and more time on the throttle. Trying to navigate an address on the Q3's rotary dial-controlled, non-touch screen will drive you to the looney bin. Fortunately, the Q3 will get you there in a hurry.

Comfort over athleticism

The AWD Audi dances like a sports car. Flogging the taut crossover over Hell, Michigan's heavenly roads, I had a ball. This is German personality. Is it what ute-users are looking for? Lincoln thinks not. It extends soft luxury interior to soft exterior ride. Indeed, sister Escape is more athletic than the MKC.

Which takes us to the bottom line.

So confident is Lincoln that you'll love the MKC, it has given it a BMW-esque sticker price. I'm not so confident. Brand in this greyhound-eat-greyhound segment must be earned.

My AWD, 2.3-liter, full-loaded, ruby red, ebony premium-leather MKC came in at a pricey $49,265. Sure, the 2.3-liter Ecoboost's 285 horses will blow you away. But it won't blow away a 2.0-liter Q3's 2.0-liter turbo. Though the Q3's mill possesses just 210 hp, Top Speed.com rates their 0-60 times equal. Yet the loaded Audi stickers for about $40,000.

Lincoln should also worry about the Ford Escape in its rear-view mirror. My Escape-smitten neighbor, the lovely Mrs. Walbridge, was captured by my MKC. She fell in love with its looks. With its center console. With Matthew McConaughey. Then she read the sticker.

Her loaded, comely (if not Hollywood handsome) Titanium Escape matches its lux mate nav-system-for-nav-system, liftgate-kick-for-liftgate-kick, but it set her back just 38 grand. Is the Lincoln lawyer really worth it?

More tempting is the base 2.0-liter, 240-horse MKC which only lightens the wallet to the tune of $44,931. That might be worth that lovely face. And that Midwest-friendly welcome. And the fact that Lincoln is producing world-class luxe again.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 Lincoln MKC

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $34,890 base ($49,265 as tested)

Power plant: 2.0-liter inline-4 turbo; 2.3-liter inline-4 turbo

Power: 240 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque (2.0L); 285 horsepower, 305 pound-feet of torque (2.3L)

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph: 6.6 seconds (Car & Driver)

Weight: 3,963 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/26 highway/22 combined (2.0L AWD); EPA 18 city/26 highway/21 combined (2.3L AWD)

Report card

Highs: Looks like Catwoman; best-in-class console

Lows: Heavy; demands a heavy wallet

Overall: ★★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★