Despite the common perception that Toyota and its luxury brand, Lexus, are best in fuel economy, it is the gasoline-electric hybrid version of Lincoln's 2014 MKZ that ranks as the top luxury car in fuel mileage.
The 2014 MKZ Hybrid, which is rated by the federal government at 45 miles per gallon in both city and highway travel, also has a quiet interior, comfortable ride, an odd, push-button gear shifter and a surprising base retail price, including destination charge, of just $36,085.
The price is noteworthy because it is the lowest base retail price of any gas-electric hybrid luxury sedan sold in the United States.
It's also just $1,000 more than the $35,086 price for a non-hybrid, turbo four-cylinder-powered, 2014 MKZ whose combined city/highway mileage rating is 42 percent less, or 26 mpg.
Plus, the base MKZ Hybrid mid-size sedan, which earned five out of five stars in government crash tests, is well-equipped.
Power comes from a 141-horsepower, naturally aspirated, four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor capable of generating 88 kilowatts of electricity, so the maximum output from the hybrid system is 188 horses.
A fuel-saving, continuously variable transmission that a driver operates like an automatic is the only tranny.
The MKZ Hybrid has the usual standard features such as power windows and door locks, dual-zone, automatic climate control, push-button start, keyless entry and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity.
But some standard features aren't always found on competitors. These include Sync voice and touchscreen control for ventilation and the audio system, active noise control for the interior, leather-trimmed seats, 10-way, power-adjustable and heated front seats, power and heated outside mirrors, 18-inch wheels and light-emitting diode headlamps and taillamps.
Still, the base 2014 MKZ Hybrid does not include a rearview camera for drivers to see what is behind the car as they back up.
To get this feature, buyers must upgrade to a package that adds $1,145 to the price, for a total manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $37,230.
By comparison, the 2014 Lexus ES 300h has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $40,410 and carries a federal government fuel economy rating of 40 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the highway.
The base ES 300h has more power — a 200-horsepower gas-electric powerplant linked to a CVT. But front seats in the base model are not heated, wheels are 17 inches in diameter and seat covering is Lexus' NuLuxe faux leather.
The base ES 300h includes a standard sunroof that is not on the MKZ, but there is no rearview camera on the ES 300h unless a buyer adds a $4,177 option package.
Another competitor, the 2014 Infiniti Q50 Hybrid sedan, has a starting retail price of $45,305 and is rated at 29/36 mpg by the U.S. government. The Q50 Hybrid uses a 302-horsepower V-6 mated to an electric motor for a total horsepower of 360.
In contrast to the MKZ and ES 300h, the Q50 Hybrid sports a seven-speed, automatic transmission.
The front-wheel drive, four-door MKZ is, by far, the top-selling Lincoln. Sales this calendar year through April were up 58 percent from the year-ago period, to a total of 12,272.
Based on the Ford Fusion Hybrid which is also made by Lincoln's parent company Ford Motor Co., the MKZ Hybrid has a distinctive look that's an acquired taste to some, with its "winged" grille shape and thin, horizontal line of tail lamps.
The MKZ is unique in other ways.
It is oh-so-silent during most starts. The engine stays off but electric power that's generated onboard and stored in the lithium-ion battery pack is ready. So a car icon illuminated bright green in the instrument cluster tells the driver the MKZ is on and ready to go.
That's when the driver has to forget about using a gear shift lever. Instead, the MKZ Hybrid has a vertical line of buttons showing "P'' for park, "R'' for reverse, etc. on the side of the center stack in the dashboard. An MKZ Hybrid driver must press the brake pedal and press one of the buttons to "shift" into gear.
It takes some getting used to, but it worked fine in the test car.
This is not the first push-button shifter. Chrysler had a push-button shifter in several of its cars starting in 1956, and Ford's doomed Edsel also featured the mechanism in the late 1950s.
The MKZ Hybrid offered a stable ride and had decent power to merge into traffic and keep abreast of others in city traffic and on country roads.
On the highway, the 2-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder could get buzzy as it worked hard on long uphill climbs.
The MKZ Hybrid averaged 34.5 mpg without the driver trying to maximize fuel mileage. While this is lower than the government rating of 45, it translated into a driving range of 465 miles on a full tank of 13.5 gallons of regular gasoline costing $52.
MKZ back-seat legroom and headroom of 37 inches and 36.6 inches, respectively, felt a bit tight in the tester. Trunk space in the MKZ Hybrid is a two-level arrangement, because of the location of the battery pack, and tops out at 11.1 cubic feet.
The 2014 MKZ Hybrid had a safety recall involving 7,153 cars which might be shifted out of park without the driver depressing the brake pedal.