SANTA BARBARA, CA – The all-new ’15 MKC CUV represents the first legitimate step towards relevancy in the U.S. luxury market for the Lincoln brand. The vehicle is stylish, has decent driving characteristics and is comfortable and quiet, all of which should make it competitive in the luxury-CUV segment.

Lincoln is chastised for offering nothing more than rebadged and gussied-up Fords, and in many cases the criticism is valid. With the MKC, engineers, product planners and designers were on a mission to separate the new model as much as possible from its Ford Escape platform-mate, and they largely succeed in that task.

Even the architecture has been modified. For the MKC, the global C1 platform, which also underpins the Focus C-car, was widened 0.8 ins. (22 mm) and the roofline lowered. The result is a more aggressive stance that sets the Lincoln apart from the Escape as well as enhances handling.

The sheetmetal shares nothing with the Escape, which should silence brand naysayers. The MKC boasts a sleek, sculpted body with clean, flowing lines. The one problem: the split-wing grille adorns the front.

Lincoln’s signature grille is toned down a bit for the MKC, but it still detracts from the CUV’s otherwise handsome looks. It’s time for that classic grille to be left in the past where it belongs.

High-intensity-discharge headlamps blend nicely, however, while full-width LED taillights adorn the rear. The lights are a perfect balance of form and function, tying together the front and rear fascia while providing superior illumination. That said, high-tech lights now are standard fare for the luxury segment and do little as a selling point.

Designers were given carte blanche in crafting the interior, and the wraparound liftgate is evidence of that freedom. Unlike traditional hatches that split the taillights, the wraparound liftgate extends all the way to the sides of the vehicle, providing a clean look and a wider opening. Lincoln designers pushed for the unique treatment despite the expensive hydroforming process used to create it.

Like the Escape’s liftgate, the MKC’s can be opened with a kicking motion under the rear bumper.

The new Lincoln comes standard with a 2.0L direct-injected turbocharged EcoBoost 4-cyl. engine making 240 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque. The base mill is adequate in most cases, but struggles a bit on steeper inclines. The better bet is the new 2.3L EcoBoost 4-cyl, which pumps out 285 hp and 305 lb.-ft. (414 Nm) of twist.

The 2.3L, shared with the upcoming ’15 Mustang pony car, offers plenty of power and stacks up well against top competitors, including the Audi Q5’s 3.0L V-6 that makes 272 hp and 295 lb.-ft. (413 Nm) of torque.

Both MKC engines are mated to a standard 6-speed automatic transmission, which is serviceable but trails the competition, now moving to more advanced, multispeed gearboxes.