What's better than that new car smell?
No smell at all, according to Chinese buyers.
It's long been a favorite part of the American car-buying experience, but Lincoln Motor Co. found its Chinese customers aren't too keen on the scent caused by new plastics, glue and leathers in its fresh-off-the-lot cars.
"They don't like it," says Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln's president. "We've gone through a very thorough process of understanding the materials that contribute to that smell."
Lincoln discovered that removing the smell is simple: As vehicles are prepared for shipping from the U.S. to China, a worker puts a small canister filled with absorbent carbon sheets inside the cabin — kind of like putting a box of baking soda in a refrigerator to soak up bad smells. By the time Lincolns reach the nine dealerships in China, the odor is gone.
It's just one of a number of cultural differences between selling cars in the U.S. and in China.
Walk into a Lincoln dealership in China, and you'll find a living room-like atmosphere, with elaborate tea selections, interactive LED televisions and a lounge where you can watch as your car is worked on. If you'd rather leave the dealership, you'll receive a password to access a live video stream from your smartphone, tablet or laptop to watch the work.
Lincoln allowed Chinese customers to watch their cars being worked on after learning they are unusually distrustful of dealer repairs.
Other automakers have made some tweaks to their vehicles based on Chinese customer preferences — Cadillac's ATS-L has larger backseats and the Buick Regal and Envision feature a touch pad for the driver to control the navigation system — but Lincoln's dealership differences are unique.
"We're getting input from all our Chinese customers and making sure all their needs are met," Galhotra said. "All of those little things have really resonated with the Chinese customers very, very well."
While it hasn't released sales figures for China, Galhotra said sales at the first nine dealerships have been better than anticipated. Lincoln's U.S. sales increased about 16 percent last year — its best numbers since 2008 — and the brand is actively recruiting more dealers in China.
Lincoln, which entered China's luxury market late compared to its competitors, plans to open 16 more Chinese dealerships this year, and hopes to have 60 by the end of 2016.
Mark Fields, Ford's president and CEO, said he envisions a day when Lincoln in China outsells its U.S. operations.
"If you look at the facts, today the luxury segment is the largest in China, so that gives you a good indication," Fields said recently. "The Lincoln brand is held in high regard (in China) and when you add to that a very thoughtful approach on how we're developing our distribution network ... we see growth."
Galhotra thinks the timing of Lincoln's recent China launch is "just about perfect."
"We're learning from all our competitors who have been there awhile," he said. "We've been learning from customers who have been interacting with those dealerships."
Lincoln created an experience for Chinese customers it calls "The Lincoln Way," which includes things like tea, transparency and personalized experiences.
Every Lincoln vehicle in China is equipped with communication devices that notify the dealership when the vehicle is en route there. That way, the dealers can pull up the customer's information and history, and be ready at the door.
The cars themselves are different, as well.
In addition to removing the new car smell, Fields said back seats are very important to Chinese customers, so the automaker has worked to add extra padding and contour controls to the rear seats.
"The experiences are different, expectations are different between U.S. and China," Galhotra said. "Going to a Lincoln dealership is an experience; people bring their whole family. That has to be tailored to that culture."