When I say Lincoln Motor Cars, what comes to mind?

If you’re like most people you think of Town Cars, impossibly long coupes with a faux tire bump on the trunk lid, and a ride so smooth you can facet a diamond in the back seat. Well, kiddos, if the new MKC is any indication of where Lincoln is headed, it’s time to clear your minds of that image.

This new Lincoln is everything old Lincolns were not. First of all, the MKC is small. Built on a modified Ford Escape platform, the MKC is just 179.2 inches long and has a wheelbase of 105.9 inches. It is wider and lower than its cousin, which creates a much more confident stance and sporting feel when you’re behind the wheel.

And unlike Lincolns of recent memory, the MKC is much more than a fancy Ford.

Starting with the exterior styling, it’s clear the 2015 MKC is radically different from the Escape. The lower roof height tapering toward the rear offers a much more premium look to what had been a utilitarian platform. Designer Dillon Blanski talked about the time and effort that went into every detail, including the successful incorporation of Lincoln’s signature split winged grill. “We spent a lot of time on proportion,” Blanski said “making sure that the grill expressed the Lincoln DNA in a way that was appropriate for this car.” The other nice touch is the wraparound liftgate at the rear which allows for full width tail lamps and a smoother look overall. It also employs Ford’s hands-free technology which allows you to open it just by waving your foot under the rear bumper.

Inside we found a level of fit and finish that is a significant step up for Lincoln. One of the great delights is the use of authentic materials. There are no cheesy veneers, chintzy vinyls or cheap plastics trying to impersonate wood, leather and metal. The open pore rosewood and aluminum trim adds a nice counterpoint to the rich leather surfaces. Our test car for the day was decked out with the Reserve package which added buttery soft Bridge of Weir Scottish leather and a leather-wrapped steering wheel that has a thicker diameter rim which feels great in your hands.

Overall the interior is spacious for such a small vehicle and it feels even bigger thanks to little design details that were incorporated by the Lincoln interior design team. Anthony Molinari, the interior designer on the MKC said “We pushed the vents out wide on the dash to visually mirror the car’s wider stance. Using pedestal side view mirrors also increased the glass area and lets in more light.” He also pushed to remove the upper center console which is present in the MKZ to unify the space between the driver and passenger.

But comfort and space are to be expected when you’re in a Lincoln. The real surprise comes when you push the start button and hit the open road.

Featuring Lincoln’s Active Drive Control, the MKC is poised and composed in standard drive mode thanks to continuously controlled suspension damping and active noise control. These technologies actually react to inputs from sensors changing suspension damping and canceling unwanted sounds that may come from a rough road surface.

The fun really begins though when you put the MKC in Sport mode. This tightens up the suspension, increases steering feel and improves throttle response making the MKC feel more sporting and fun to drive.

In addition to completely reworking the chassis and suspension, the MKC features an all-new motor for Ford. The car we drove was outfitted with the 2.3 L Ecoboost 4-cylinder engine mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual override and paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. The engine produces a very impressive 285 hp, which is more horsepower per liter than a Boss 302 Mustang. Thanks to the twin-scroll turbocharger, there’s plenty of torque at the low end (305 lb.-ft. @ 2,750 RPM) so getting the MKC up to speed on freeway on ramps is no problem. And while this engine is making its debut in the MKC, Ford likes its performance profile so much, it will soon be an optional engine in the 2015 Mustang.

As for the transmission, it shifted smoothly, quickly and always seemed in the right place, though a seventh and eighth gear would have helped fuel economy some. I’m also going to go on record here saying I, for one, like the push-button design on the dash. In today’s electronic world there’s no need for a manual lever taking up space between the driver and passenger, especially in this type of vehicle.

Lincoln arranged a morning tour for us that took us to several scenic points of interest in the area surrounding Santa Barbara. We stopped at the Clairmont Lavender Farm, Olive Hill Farms tasting room, a quaint bakery in the tourist town of Solvang and had lunch at the Santa Barbara Polo Club and enjoyed an exhibition of the sport of kings. While the drive and entertainment were nice, the roads didn’t really challenge the MKC’s capabilities.

So after lunch instead of taking advantage of the resort amenities like spa services or a dip in the pool at the Belmond El Encanto as did others in our party, I grabbed the fob to the MKC and went looking for some more interesting roads which my photographer and I found in the Santa Ynez mountains 4,800 feet above the city.

Climbing up the steep grades with the MKC in sport mode, the EcoBoost engine and transmission kept the RPMs right in the power band. While the paddle shifters allowed for more precise control, the 6-speed automatic is well programmed for most sporty driving. I didn’t expect the MKC to perform like a sports car, but was pleasantly surprised by the neutral handling characteristics. This was aided both the the Continuously Controlled Damping and the All-Wheel drive system which biases toward the rear wheels in sport mode. Tossing the MKC around the tight switchbacks on the ridge road where a misstep would mean a drop of a few hundred feet, I had nothing but absolute confidence in the MKC’s grip thanks to the electric power-assisted steering and the sticky 245/45 all-season performance radials mounted on the 19-inch, 5-spoke wheels.

Were there any disappointments? Very few actually. One is the aforementioned fuel economy. While the 2.3 Liter engine makes terrific power, I had hoped that its efficiency were closer to best-in-class than mid-class. At 18 city and 26 highway, our test vehicle’s EPA estimated mpg is almost identical to the Acura RDX, BMW X3 and Audi Q5 – the imports that Lincoln is targeting with the MKC.

The good news comes in the form of price. The MKC’s starting MSRP is just $33,995, thousands less than those competitors. And even when you option it up the way our test vehicles were equipped the price runs in the $45,000 range. While that’s no bargain, it’s still close to 10% less than comparably equipped competitors.

What it all boils down to is this: The MKC offers everything you can find in an Audi, BMW and Acura in this class except for the attendant badge value. If Lincoln keeps building cars this good, however, it won’t be long until their badge value is equal that of their competitors from Europe and Japan.