Not long ago, when Americans indulged in luxuries, they toted themselves around in massive vehicles. But with time comes change, and with these uncertain times comes a change to smaller, more practical choices. Enter the 2010 Lincoln MKT: Lincoln's newest seven-person luxury hauler crossover aimed at buyers stepping away from big SUVs like the Navigator.

In Dearborn, it's viewed as one of Lincoln's saving graces - along with the MKS and MKZ sedans - that the automaker hopes will turn the struggling luxury brand around.

It's "just" a rebadged Flex though, right?

Rebadges, the easy way out, are usually frowned upon by consumers, but even if the MKT was simply a rebadged Ford Flex, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. The Ford Flex has received warm reviews from Leftlane before, so the Lincoln team started with a bar set rather high.

Lincoln MKT's chief engineer, Ron Heiser, made it very clear prior to our evaluation that the MKT was a fresh and unique vehicle, sharing not a single interior or exterior panel with the Flex. The Lincoln even has a larger, 3.7-liter V6 boasting 268 horsepower, and 268 lb-ft. as its base engine, compared to a standard 3.5-liter, less powerful and less torquey V6 for the Flex. For those seeking a little more kick-in-the-pants fun the Lincoln MKT also offers the Flex's optional EcoBoost 3.5-liter twin-turbo charged, direct injected V6 pushing 355 horsepower and 350 lb-ft. of torque (and a torque curve so flat you could use it for a yard stick), complete with all-wheel drive.

Making an MKT an MKT

While the Flex is undoubtedly one of the most polarizing production designs offered on the market today, the MKT takes this controversy to another level.

At first glance, the Lincoln features the unmistakable split-wing grille that adorns the face of several new Lincoln vehicles, but offers its own unique twist that flows into the HID headlamps. The side profile of the MKT certainly features more curves, with a higher, more sophisticated belt line than the Flex, and it wraps around to a very unique and yet again polarizing rear-end. Unlike the Flex, which features an essentially purely vertical lift gate, the MKT features a strongly sloped, tall lift gate with a large rear reflector that spans the entire width of the vehicle, much like the MKZ. The modern and retro-inspired Lincoln design cues are endless, though the overall look isn't quite as cohesive as its MKS and MKZ stablemates.

Once inside, we encountered a level of detail, a choice of materials, and a class-standout silence and refinement that was not found in Lincolns until recently.

Materials were generally top quality across the board with a stylish and sophisticated but restrained look overall. The center stack had a stylish void beneath the dash and features accessible and attractive controls. Our only complaint was with the larger-than-expected gap between the door panel and dashboard that belies the overall upscale ambiance.

Passenger space was commodious in the first two rows, not unlike the Flex, but buyers stepping out of tall-roof SUVs will find the MKT's third row a little lacking. The combination of stadium-style seating and a sharply slanting roofline diminished third row room to the point where any buyer who regularly transports a gaggle of full-sized adults should shop elsewhere.

The MKT also offers a slew of standard and optional features that in some cases could prove to be quite strong selling points.

Like the Flex, the MKT's Acitve Park Assist system utilizes the ultrasonic radar to search out and identify suitable parallel parking spots. After the driver agrees to a spot, the system takes over and wheels the MKT into the slot in rapid, Lexus-beating speed between four and eight inches away from the curb.

Utilizing the same technology used for the Active Park Assist, the MKT also features adaptive cruise control, a boon for the San Francisco rush hour traffic we navigated. We didn't sample the collision warning with brake assist, which pre-charges the brakes for added stopping power in the event of a late reaction to an impending "oops." Maybe we'll sample that one next time, ok?

We did experience one false alarm with the system - we swear it can't be chalked up to our driving - but overall it proved to be an encouraging technology.

Looking past the looks

Once you acknowledge, accept, or possibly even appreciate the exterior design of the Lincoln and step inside you'll be rewarded with a refined driving experience befitting a brand with Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW in its sights.

The plush, yet supportive heated and cooled (optional second row) leather seats provided an incredibly comfortable and non-fatiguing ride and drive over several consecutive hours in the MKT.

We had the opportunity sample the MKT on some curvy and demanding roads somewhere between San Francisco and San Jose surrounded by redwood trees, followed up by plenty of open road, to put the MKT to the test. These roads were the type best enjoyed with a sports car, but the MKT made for a slower and more luxurious, but no less entertaining, ride.

We managed to find the near limits of the MKT's suspension and tires on a few turns that ended up being a bit sharper than anticipated upon entry, but at no point did the vehicle come close to feeling out of control. The seats did an absolutely fantastic job of holding us in place without feeling restrictive like some heavily bolstered seats can.

While enjoying these seemingly endless twists and turns we thought it would be a perfect time to test out the vehicles paddle shifters in sport mode. Lincoln explained that they modified the paddle shifter system from the MKS to allow for more driver control, with fewer restrictions on the driver.

We tested Lincoln's assertion by attempting to use the manual shifters to do heavy clutch braking going into the twists and turns, and aside from an isolated awkward downshift, we were pleasantly surprised. Like the system in the Ford Taurus SHO and the MKS, the paddle shifters offer a surprisingly quick response that provides for a potentially enjoyable and practical experience. That said, we still overall prefer simply driving the vehicle in the automatic mode as it was difficult to track gears without a typical manual gear shifter, and only a small number indicating the current gear located on the dash.

Ford's heavily marketed EcoBoost powertrain makes the MKT drivable and civilized, though it won't enthrall boy racers. Pull out at a gentlemanly speed and then crank it and you'll be rewarded by a hefty, nearly 5,000 lb. vehicle that gets up and scoots when the pedal is smashed. An almost too-good-to-be-true torque curve helps the MKT shine in open road passing situations or when accelerating out of turns once the boost is up. From a stop, it's a little sloth-like to awaken this big beast from a total slumber, but once underway the torque comes out to play in a big way.

Leftlane's bottom line

The new 2010 Lincoln MKT is a massive step forward for Lincoln, and for many buyers, it will offer a great alternative to more pricey luxury brands and larger SUVs alike.

It's a well-packaged vehicle with a solid, safe and luxurious driving experience that is sufficiently more premium than the Ford Flex to make sense to many more discerning buyers.

But at the end of the day, many buyers will undoubtedly be unable to accept the, er, unique exterior style, and who will find themselves back at the Ford dealer to buy a Flex - or in the showroom of a German or Japanese rival.

2010 Lincoln MKT base price, $44,200.

Words and photos by Mark Kleis.