DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. for years has strived to differentiate its upscale Lincoln brand from the lower-tiered Mercury and Blue Oval marques but has had little success.

With the new ’10 Lincoln MKT cross/utility vehicle, unveiled today at the North American International Auto Show here, Ford has accomplished its goal.

Although it is the platform mate of the ’09 Ford Flex fullsize CUV, the MKT bears virtually no resemblance to the Blue Oval offering.

“Senior management’s commitment to the Lincoln brand is total differentiation (from Ford) in the exterior and interior,” says Gordon Platto, chief designer for MKT, at a recent NAIAS preview event. “Side-by-side with (the) Flex, it would be hard to tell it’s the same platform.”

Indeed, the new MKT more closely resembles other luxury CUVs, such as the Acura MDX and Lexus RX, while the Flex boasts a quirky, boxy style.

The MKT received the green light for production shortly after it was first shown in concept form at last year’s Detroit auto show.

At the onset of the program, Ford marketing officials conducted consumer workshops to “really understand” what premium CUV buyers were looking for, says Kate Pearce, MKT marketing manager.

“Not surprisingly, durability, quietness and reliability were the most requested items,” she says, noting respondents also said they wanted a vehicle that made them “stand out.”

In designing the MKT, Platto and his team drew inspiration from the MKT concept and MKR show car that garnered much attention when it was first shown at the 2007 NAIAS.

“We took the best of those vehicles and put it into this (one),” he says.

The exterior of the MKT boasts Lincoln’s signature split waterfall grille, which has helped the brand forge a “family resemblance” in the showroom since the MK-naming strategy was implemented three years ago.

Other exterior design cues include a beveled edge that accents the MKT’s shoulder line and a silhouette that flows uninterrupted from the greenhouse to the full-width horizontal taillamps.

“The full-length taillamps will be moving forward with the Lincoln brand,” Platto says. “It is a part of our appearance strategy.”

Inside the cabin, particular attention was paid to craftsmanship. High-quality materials are used throughout, including the leather-trimmed seating surfaces, “floating” armrests, optional flow-through second-row center console and jewel-like acrylic instrument cluster.

Gauges feature white light-emitting diodes that are always lit, providing a “rich experience all the time,” Platto says, noting the design team benchmarked the interiors of top competitors.

“We compiled a significant set of data and developed strategies on how to beat them,” he says.

The MKT, which is larger than its MKX CUV stable mate, comes in either 6- or 7-seat configurations. A 60/40 split-bench seat is standard, while power “fold-and-tumble” bucket seats are optional. All bucket seats are heated, cooled and have power-assisted lumbar adjustment, while bench seats are heated only.

Second-row footrests are optional, as is a dual headrest family-entertainment system with two 7-in. (17.8-cm) video screens.

Under the hood, customers get a choice of two engines, a standard 3.7L V-6 producing 268 hp and 267 lb.-ft. (362 Nm) of torque or a 3.5L twin-turbocharged direct-injected EcoBoost V-6 generating an estimated 355 hp and 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm) of torque.

The MKT comes standard with a 6-speed automatic transmission with SelectShift and F1-style shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

All-wheel drive is optional on the base MKT, while the EcoBoost version comes standard with the feature.

Official fuel-economy ratings have yet to be released, but Ford says the normally aspirated mill should deliver 24 mpg (9.8 L/100 km) on the highway, besting both the Acura MDX and Audi Q7 CUVs by 4 mpg (1.7 km/L).

To provide the “luxurious” ride quality integral to the Lincoln brand, the MKT’s suspension is tuned to minimize front-end lift upon acceleration. A new rear suspension featuring a “one-for-one” shock absorber ratio strikes a balance between responsive handling and a smooth ride.

Great care was taken to reduce noise, vibration and harshness levels through the generous use of sound-dampening materials. Even the vanes in the defroster ducts are coated to eliminate fan noise.

In keeping with Ford’s goal of establishing itself as the industry’s technological leader, the MKT comes chocked full of high-tech features, including Active Park Assist that utilizes an ultrasonic-based sensing system to aid drivers in parallel parking.

Other technologies include adaptive cruise control, push-button start, rain-sensing wipers, a keyless entry keypad and reverse camera system.

The MKT will be built at Ford’s Oakville, ON, Canada, assembly plant and will arrive in dealerships in late summer. Pricing has yet to be announced.

bpope@wardsauto.com