Remember Lincoln? No, not the guy whose picture is on the $5 bill, but the once-formidable nameplate that vied with Cadillac for dominance in the U.S. luxury car market. While Caddy has rebuilt its brand, with a flood of new products set to hit showrooms over the next several years, Ford Motor Co.’s upscale marque has had a far more tenuous turnaround.

While a series of ads with celeb spokesman Matthew McConaughey—and the spoofs they’ve engendered—have drawn some recent attention to Lincoln, it’s still all about the product. And even while that’s something the brand has been short on, the maker has reasons for optimism that go beyond a movie-star endorsement. With the launch of the 2015 MKC, Lincoln charges into one of the fastest-growing (and competitive) segments in the market. But this compact crossover can more than stand on its own, as we discovered during some hard driving through tony Santa Barbara and the mountainous terrain stretching into the Central Valley.

The new crossover is more than just a re-bodied Ford Escape. The new Lincoln MKC offers distinctive styling, solid performance and plenty of appealing features for an opening price of $33,100. The crossover has a low, wide stance that gives it a feeling of muscularity. It adopts the latest version of the new Lincoln “split wing” grille, much more elegant and contemporary than the old “waterfall” design. And while the interior isn’t quite as radical as an early concept version, it still boasts one of the more refined interiors in a segment where manufacturers struggle to keep costs in line, with plush “Deepsoft” leather on the 10-way heated and cooled power seats, and just the right amount of real wood.

The updated Lincoln infotainment system, meanwhile, seems to have addressed many complaints about earlier models. It is quicker, more intuitive—and has real knobs and buttons for key functions like volume and tuning. There are other nice tech touches, including a no-touch tailgate that can be opened by waggling a foot under the rear bumper, and a park assist system that will not only steer you in, but also out of, a tight spot.

Buyers will have a choice of a “base” 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine that makes 240 horsepower, but we clocked all of our driving with the new 2.3-liter Ford EcoBoost I-4 which bumps the pony count to 285. The torquey, turbocharged package is pleasantly spirited, and it is complemented by a firm suspension that keeps the crossover well-planted without being jarring. It delivers the sort of ride likely to shock those who associate Lincoln with floaty old boats like the classic Town Car.

Low expectations? Admittedly, we weren’t expecting to be much impressed, but the longer we drove, the more we came to enjoy the experience. The question is whether potential buyers will take the opportunity to check out the “new” Lincoln and, in particular, the MKC. Plenty of other, better known compact crossovers are out there, but this Detroit entry is one that shoppers shouldn’t ignore.


"4/14/15, Stick w/Ford; I just got a new Taurus---great car. I gave up a 2002 Caddy; looking back 13 years, I might have done better w/a Chevy for 1/2 the price. Today everything's a "Cad." My totally keyless-operating Taurus LTD AWD has more features & creature comforts than the Cad ever had." —April 14, 2015 20:54 PM