The Lincoln Zephyr had just hit its stride when Ford Motor Co. brass decided to pull the plug, replacing it with a very similar yet sportier and more powerful midsize sedan.

Keeping with Lincoln's newly adopted nomenclature, the Zephyr name was dropped and the '07 Lincoln MKZ was born.

Replacing the oft-criticized 3.0L V-6 found in the Zephyr, the MKZ gets a performance upgrade courtesy of Ford's all-new Duratec 35 3.5L V-6, which produces 263 hp and 249 lbs.-ft. (338 Nm) of torque.

In the past, Ford carefully selected the roads on which media could test drive its new products, particularly Lincoln models that were not known for their road-handling attributes.

But the auto maker clearly has more confidence in the MKZ's prowess, as demonstrated by this test drive on the infamous “Tail of the Dragon,” an 11-mile (18-km) stretch of road near Asheville, NC, that contains 318 challenging turns.

As sport bikes and slammed Miatas speed through the winding mountainous roads at blazing speeds, our all-wheel-drive MKZ holds its own, hugging corners and providing road feedback usually associated with German sport sedans from BMW AG and Audi AG.

The 3.5L performed well, pulling the MKZ up steep inclines with ease. Nevertheless, more low-end torque would have been appreciated, especially when accelerating hard out of curves.

Despite its few shortcomings, the 3.5L mill is a vast improvement over the 3.0L V-6 that powered the Zephyr. The new engine is so good, it recently was named one of Ward's 10 Best Engines for 2007.

Handling is head-and-shoulders above Lincoln sedans of the past, as engineers set out to make the MKZ a true “driver's car.”

To improve handling over the Zephyr, while still maintaining the semi-cushy ride most Lincoln buyers expect, engineers tweaked the chassis by revising the steering-boost curve, increasing spring rates, upsizing anti-roll bars and increasing damping force.

Rebound springs in the front dampers also reduce harshness.

“Defining the Lincoln brand is about getting a balance of refinement and performance at the same time,” Chief Engineer Jim Baumbick says. “A lot of cars in the segment, in terms of balance, go in one direction — aggressive, sporty and what have you.”

The MKZ is the first AWD car offered by Lincoln, which expects a 50% take rate that will be heavily skewed toward snow-belt regions. The AWD option shows Ford brass is willing to shake things up in order to spur sales.

The MKZ's powertrain configuration provides decent fuel economy, with Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 19/27 mpg city/highway (12-9 L/100 km) for the front-wheel-drive version and 18/26 mpg city/highway (13-9 L/100 km) for AWD models. An added bonus is Lincoln's recommendation of regular 87-octane fuel.

True to Lincoln's stated goal to boost refinement, the MKZ is quiet. Noises from the outside world nearly are imperceptible due to extensive use of sound-dampening materials, a strategy being employed throughout the new Lincoln lineup.

Adding to the noise reduction is the steering gear, which now is mounted to the front perimeter subframe, reducing noise and vibration levels and providing greater road feedback.

Peter Horbury, Ford North American executive director-design, says the interior of the MKZ is meant to evoke the approach people take in “decorating their homes” or “designing their wardrobes.”

MKZ customers who prefer wood trim are offered a choice of a dark or light shade. Lincoln officials say they conducted a study that reveals younger buyers prefer the light hue, while older consumers gravitate to the dark shade.

Both wood accents get a satin nickel and chrome trim. The leather used in the cab is of decent quality, but interior plastics were glossy and sub-par for a luxury vehicle.

The MKZ's exterior remains “Zephyr-like,” with just minor modifications, such as badging and a tweaked front fascia.

Lincoln executives deny that exterior design changes were kept to a minimum to avoid alienating Zephyr owners, whose models are barely a year old. Rather, they say the exterior purposely was kept nearly the same due to Zephyr's sales success since its August 2005 launch.

Lincoln expanded the width of the MKZ's base architecture by 1.2 ins. (3.0 cm) and the wheelbase by 2.2 ins. (5.5 cm) to provide the sedan with an exceptional 3 ft. (0.9 m) of rear-passenger legroom and 15.8 cu.-ft. (0.45 cu.-m) of trunk space, which the auto maker says is tops in its class.

Additionally, the MKZ's rear seats feature a 60/40 split for easy access to the trunk and plenty of room for longer cargo items.

A FWD Lincoln MKZ starts at $29,890 and $31,765 for the AWD model, including destination and delivery charges. That price point puts the new model right in the sweet spot of entry-luxury vehicles, a segment that's heating up in the U.S.

Whether the MKZ is enough to put Lincoln back on the map remains to be seen, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.