Driving along the spine of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains in a pearl white 2019 Lincoln MKC Black Label, gorgeous deep blue ocean to the left and endless mountains to the right, my passenger, a lifestyle writer, asked me the following question: “Why would someone buy a Lincoln MKC instead of an Audi, a BMW, or a Mercedes?”
The short answer is that most people would not, because in America most people aspire to own brands that carry prestige, convey wealth, and connote a certain station in life.
Frequently, personal insecurity drives such purchases, and the most popular luxury brands know it. That’s why they’re able to charge so much more for so much less, and why they relentlessly promote the perception of exclusivity while zealously guarding against the erosion of image.
There was a time when lots of people aspired to own a Lincoln for these very reasons. If you could afford to buy a Lincoln, you’d really made it in this world.
Today, however, the 4-pointed star carries far less cachet than it once did. And that means Lincoln must go above and beyond in order to attract customers that both truly understand the real definition of luxury and are confident enough not to care about having four rings, or a roundel, or a 3-pointed star on the grille.
The upshot? My passenger and I decided that Lincoln’s advertising tagline should be Confident Luxury rather than Quiet Luxury. After all, who doesn’t want to be seen by others as confident?
Lincoln is regaining its momentum. A new design language, a track record for winning J.D. Power awards for overall vehicle appeal, and the company’s unique ownership services and benefits have certainly helped. Lincoln is also returning names to its fleet of cars and SUVs, some of which are classics (Continental), some of which are new (Nautilus).
For now, Lincoln’s entry-level SUV retains its MKC nameplate. For 2019, the styling forward of the windshield and doors is new, and the MKC has new aluminum wheel designs along with extra chrome trim. The interior is pretty much the same as last year, with the exception of a new Rialto Green color choice with Reserve trim.
Mechanically, the MKC is unchanged. New driver assistance and collision avoidance technologies debut this year, including forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking. A Wi-Fi hotspot is also new, and Lincoln ownership services expand to include pickup and delivery service when the time comes to take the MKC in for maintenance.
It had been several years since I last drove the MKC, so I accepted an invitation to join Lincoln for a day of driving in the Malibu, California area.
My test vehicle for the day was the MKC Black Label with the Center Stage cabin theme. That meant it had a black Alcantara headliner, black leather-wrapped dashboard and door panels, and special premium black leather seats with L-shaped perforations and Alcantara inserts. Red striping added a dash of extra class, along with glossy Black Stripe appliques where wood would usually go.
Though Black Label trim decks the MKC out with lots of equipment, it’s not completely loaded at its $48,125 base price. All-wheel drive is extra, as is a more powerful turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine. Incredibly, the MKC’s safety tech is part of a Technology Package upgrade that runs $2,495. Throw on a set of larger 20-inch wheels and the test vehicle’s price tag rose to $55,480.
That’s quite a bit more than Lincoln’s stated competition for the MKC, and in the same neighborhood as a Cadillac XT4 will all of the trimmings. Only a loaded Infiniti QX50, Jaguar E-Pace, Land Rover Discovery Sport, or Land Rover Range Rover Evoque eclipses the price of my MKC Black Label.
What do you get when you drop that kind of coin on a Lincoln MKC Black Label? A sumptuous cabin, for starters.
Premium Venetian leather is wrapped around the seats, which are heated and cooled in front and heated in back. A heated steering wheel is also standard, and the Black Label treatment includes a leather-wrapped dashboard, an Alcantara suede headliner, and premium floor mats.
Black Label buyers choose from three different interior themes. My test vehicle’s Center Stage theme, which Lincoln says is “inspired by the fashion of the theater” and “captures the excitement of a curtain skirting across the main stage on opening night,” included Alcantara seat inserts with diamond L-shaped perforations, Firefox Red accents, and exotic wood trim polished to such a luster that it doesn’t look real.
Additionally, when you buy any Black Label version of a Lincoln, the salesperson comes to you. There is no need to visit the dealership.
Also, new for all 2019 MKC models, you never need to take the SUV to the dealership for service. Somebody comes to wherever you are (within 50 miles of your dealership), gives you a loaner vehicle, and takes the MKC to service for you. Maintenance is free for the first four years or 50,000 miles.
Black Label ownership benefits also include free car washes any time you want them, a year of CLEAR membership that allows you to skip the security lines at the airport, and other travel- and restaurant-related perks. A Lincoln Way smartphone app connects Black Label owners to concierge services, allows MKC owners to remotely start and heat or cool their vehicle, find and reserve parking, and more.
This collection of bespoke materials, exclusive design themes, and personal services sets Lincoln apart from other luxury brands. Lincoln, which cannot compete on brand prestige alone, has determined that real luxury is not about the brand as much as it about what the brand can do for you. Therefore, in addition to delivering higher quality Lincoln aims to make its customers’ lives easier.
I’m in total agreement with this approach. But does the Ford Escape-based MKC provide the underlying substance to deliver on the promise?
Lincoln MKC buyers choose between two turbocharged 4-cylinder engines. The standard engine is a 2.0-liter putting 245 horsepower and 275 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels through a 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. An optional all-wheel-drive system continually reacts to driving and road conditions and can send all of the engine’s output to the rear wheels when necessary.
My test vehicle had the AWD system and a more powerful turbocharged 2.3-liter 4-cylinder generating 285 hp and 305 lb.-ft. of torque. So equipped, it is expected to get no better than 20 mpg in combined driving, according to the EPA.
That’s unimpressive for such a small SUV, and during my driving in mountainous terrain with high summertime temperatures and lots of beach going traffic, the 2-ton MKC Black Label mustered no better than the high teens. Given the MKC’s 15.7-gallon fuel tank, you can easily plan to stop for gas every 300 miles. Or less.
Heading off from downtown Los Angeles, the MKC Black Label is comfortable and quiet, its standard Lincoln Drive Control adaptive suspension placed in Normal mode. I did expect more oomph from the test vehicle’s optional engine, but it’s not as though the MKC is slow. With the 2.3-liter engine, you should easily get to 60 mph in less than seven seconds.
Though a massage function might be expected in a top-shelf Lincoln like the MKC Black Label, the front seats are nevertheless supportive and ready for any kind of weather. The rear seats are cramped, sitting a little low and suffering from tight leg room. Lincoln does pad the front seatbacks for added comfort, but what passengers will really want is some extra space.
Cargo volume is stingy, too, at 25.2 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 53.1 cu.-ft. with the seatbacks folded down. A hands-free power liftgate makes it easier to access this area.
In urban areas, Lincoln Drive Control’s Normal driving mode delivers the right balance between road feel and responsiveness. In Comfort mode, the MKC gets soft and wallowy, like the tires have been replaced with marshmallows. In Sport mode, the MKC is too firm, and the powertrain adopts an irritatingly overeager acceleration characteristic preceded by momentary turbo lag.
During spirited mountain driving in Sport mode, the MKC is athletic enough for the people who are likely to buy it. Driving enthusiasts will want to look elsewhere. Since the MKC Black Label isn’t trying to be something its not, this didn’t bother me in the least. And, impressively, the braking components withstood withering heat and significant abuse, signaling some fade through the pedal but nevertheless bringing the relatively hefty SUV to a full-ABS panic stop.
A redesigned Lincoln MKC is coming, and soon. Rumor has it the replacement will be called the Corsair, and it will no doubt be a better compact luxury SUV in every way.
In the meantime, the spruced up 2019 MKC awaits your consideration. It certainly has its charms, and offers an ownership experience unmatched by any competitor.
Are you confident enough in yourself to experience Lincoln’s pampering version of luxury? If so, MKC ownership ought to prove to be a treat. Especially if you go with the Black Label version.
Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share it using the “Join the Conversation” buttons below, and thank you for visiting Daily News Autos.