June 12, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Premium auto choices reach the masses

MKC compact crossover (Lincoln)

Reinvigorating a faded premium automotive brand is almost as hard as starting a new one. Just ask Lincoln, Ford’s upscale nameplate, which is taking its first small steps toward putting the shine back on a once lustrous marque.

Cadillac embarked on a similar revival plan 20 years ago and is still battling hard to secure a share of the luxury market, which is dominated by the German trio BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, plus Japan’s Lexus brand.

And to complicate matters, we have the second tier premium Japanese players, Acura and Infiniti, redoubling their efforts to gain a slice of the pie, together with the aggressive newcomers from Korea, Hyundai and Kia, both of which are moving upscale fast. Then there is Buick, a powerhouse brand for General Motors in China that is making steady progress on rebuilding a presence in the U.S.

So what is an automotive consumer to make of the ever-shifting currents in the premium car market? Let’s take a closer look at two particular brands, Lincoln and Hyundai, which have both recently debuted their newest models, respectively the MKC, a compact crossover, and the Genesis, a mid-size premium sedan.

In the domestic corner, Lincoln is presenting the 2015 MKC as the model that to date most clearly illustrates the brand’s desired look and feel, in terms of design, engineering and features. Though the MKC is based on the relatively humble Ford Escape platform, Lincoln has heavily revised the design and introduced a brand new 2.3-liter turbocharged engine with 285-hp and all-wheel drive.

The combination will give the MKC a fighting chance in a market segment that is “on fire,” says Matt VanDyke, director of Global Lincoln. (VanDyke’s global title refers to the fact that Lincoln is jumping into the potentially lucrative Chinese market). Competing with the likes of Audi’s highly successful Q5 and the Acura RDX, the MKC takes Lincoln into a new sector and should appeal to “empty nesters and younger buyers,” adds VanDyke.

Inside, the MKC does a good job of keeping up with the Joneses, meaning standard-setting Audi, in terms of finely trimmed and supportive leather seats, soft-touch dashboard surfaces and well chosen wood and metal trim materials.

Overall, the interior is one of the most impressive aspects of the MKC and bodes well for the quality and materials to be found in larger Lincoln models, like a new full-size sedan, that are in the pipeline.

Nor does the MKC skimp on the latest safety and high-tech convenience features. It even claims to be the first vehicle to offer “park out” assistance. In addition to helping drivers parallel park, the MKC will take over the steering when it comes to maneuvering out of a tight spot.

Lincoln is on a long road to recovery, but the MKC, with a starting price just under $34,000, represents a solid start and a credible stake in the ground in a popular market sector.

Unlike Lincoln, Hyundai has no upscale heritage to lean on, but that is not stopping the fast-growing Korean brand from taking aim at the higher echelons of the premium segment. With the latest generation 2015 Genesis sedan, Hyundai is abandoning any pretense of modesty and going straight for Lexus, BMW and Mercedes Benz buyers.

The new Genesis boasts the largest interior in the class, bigger than BMW Five Series and Mercedes E-Class, claims Hyundai. And as is standard practice with most Hyundai vehicles, the Genesis is loaded with features and equipment. The car is also up to $20,000 less than a comparably equipped BMW or Mercedes.

“The Lehman Brothers collapse changed the definition of premium,” notes Dave Zuchowski, CEO of Hyundai Motor America. “We are now in the era of mass luxury.”

So there it is. The rules have changed and while the established luxury automotive brands will still command the field, there will be more choices for cost conscious consumers looking to move upmarket.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com

Genesis midsize sedan (Hyundai)