Every successful luxury car needs an identity for which consumers will pay a premium. Mercedes has its classic looks. Lexus epitomizes creature comforts. For BMW, performance is important.
The Lincoln division of the Ford? If nothing particular comes to mind, you are not alone. But Ford is hoping it soon will be high-tech features married with elegant designs masterminded by a 39-year-old Australian hired away last year from Cadillac.
Coming to Detroit
- The Lincoln MKZ will be revealed at the North American International Auto Show, to be held Jan. 14-22 in Detroit. Automakers from three continents are planning more than 40 worldwide reveals at the show. For details, visit naias.com.
"When do you ever get an opportunity like this?" the designer, Max Wolff, says. "Our goal is to make Lincoln look like nothing else that's out there."
A sleeker look
Wolff has been given a free hand to revamp Lincoln, starting with a new version of its midsize MKZ sedan to be revealed at the Detroit auto show this month. Viewed recently at the company's design studio, the car has a sleek, tapered silhouette, a retractable glass roof and a center console that rises like a ramp off the floor directly into the instrument panel. Even the traditional vertical lines of the grille have been turned horizontally.
"He is pushing them in a totally different direction," says Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with the research firm IHS Automotive, who got a sneak preview. "I almost fell over when I saw it."
Detroit's comeback so far has been built on shifting from big trucks and SUVs to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. But to cement the turnaround, the U.S. automakers need the profit margins and prestige that higher-priced luxury models can generate.
General Motors is investing heavily in its Cadillac division, and last month unveiled a new flagship sedan, the XTS, at the Los Angeles auto show. Chrysler is not known for upscale products, but has had some success in promoting its 300 model as a quasi-luxury car that is more affordable than European competitors.
Lincoln, however, has been stuck in the unenviable spot of catering to older, less-affluent consumers with a lineup of vehicles derived from its mainstream Ford models. The must-have value? Not so much, except possibly for die-hard fans of the roomy interiors and flashy chrome of its discontinued Town Cars and Continentals, best known for limo rides to the airport. Lincoln's glory days date back 20 years.
A high-end alternative
"They have a long way to go from a perception standpoint," Lindland says. "Ford needs Lincoln so that the Ford buyer has a luxury alternative when they want to move up."
Analysts like Lindland say remaking Lincoln is crucial to Ford's reputation and financial results in the future, but its 77,000 sales in the U.S. so far this year place it a distant eighth among luxury divisions.
Since Alan R. Mulally took over as chief executive in 2006, Ford has sold off its foreign luxury brands — Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo — and concentrated on improving the quality and appearance of its core lineup of Ford cars, SUVs and pickups.
That strategy has paid off with steadily improving profits and sales. The next step in Ford's turnaround is injecting some sizzle into Lincoln. "We need the same type of focus, commitment and capital resources we brought to the Ford brand," says Derrick Kuzak, Ford's global product chief.
As he showed off the car in the studio, Wolff homed in on its aesthetic touches: scooped-out door handles, tail lamps that extend the width of the car and unusual side mirrors set on flat pedestals. "They're meant to be like beautiful little pieces of sculpture," he says.
Kuzak said the mechanics of the new Lincolns were aimed toward the "progressive luxury customer." Fuel economy, he says, will be critical, along with better handling, braking and all-wheel-drive and hybrid options.