Big makeover yields 'new face of Lincoln'

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

New York — Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln unit is unveiling its most drastic vehicle design change in more than half a century ahead of the New York Auto Show: a Continental flagship sedan that designer David Woodhouse calls "the new face of Lincoln."

Lincoln Motor Co. has struggled for years to compete with high-end luxury automakers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi, but its sales remain less than a third of the sales of the market leaders. It has reported recent sales gains with new vehicles like the MKZ sedan, MKC crossover and refreshed Navigator SUV. The Continental, its new flagship, is meant to accelerate that growth and serve as a template for future product design.

The reveal — officially a concept but extremely close to the production version planned for 2016 — comes just before General Motors Co. on Tuesday in New York will unveil its own flagship luxury sedan: the Cadillac CT6. While the U.S. market for full-size sedans has been flat or down, it is expected to grow dramatically in China and other markets.

"We want to be different, but in a relevant and vibrant way," Ford CEO Mark Fields told reporters at an event at an electronics store in midtown Manhattan on Sunday to show the concept car to reporters ahead of the official unveiling Wednesday. The flagship sedan will drive "brand favorability and that view of the brand. ... The customer wants to make a statement about themselves."

The Continental looks dramatically different from any vehicle in the current lineup. Gone is the split-wing "bow wave" front grille design that's been around since the 1930s, replaced by a sleeker, cleaner front that emphasizes the Lincoln logo.

The big car features a large rear end and a spacious interior, meant to cater to the Chinese market, a region Lincoln hopes will help triple its global sales to 300,000 vehicles by 2020. It even has an airplane-style tablet table for the right rear seat that reclines. Few other details were given, but Ford said the Continental will be powered by a 3-liter V-6 engine. Fields declined to say if it will build a convertible, hybrid or electric version of the vehicle.

Boost for the brand

Fields said revitalizing Lincoln is crucial — in part because luxury vehicles account for one-third of total auto industry profitability. He said the concept Continental "strongly hints" at what the production version going on sale next year will look like. Asked what changes will take place before Ford green-lights the concept vehicle — which has been in the works for about a year — Fields said: "We're done."

Lincoln grew about twice as fast in the United States last year over the industry. Fields said Lincoln's retail sales are up 12 percent in the first two months for its fastest start since 2008, but its sales are still less than half its all-time record set in 1990.

One analyst expects the Continental to give sales a lift.

"This will be very powerful; it's exactly what Lincoln needs," said Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book's "The car will reinvigorate interest in the brand by people who have largely ignored it or forgotten about it."

The name hearkens back to the Continental that Henry Ford's son, Edsel, first had built around 1940. The name was discontinued in 2002. Brand officials said it was important to revive the name to lure new customers who may be familiar with the vehicle's past.

Lincoln executives said the new car would compete directly against luxury cars like the Lexus GS, BMW 5 Series and Cadillac XTS.

No performance or pricing details were revealed, but the Continental features a number of new technologies, including a 30-way rear seat that conforms to passengers' sizes and shapes. The passenger-side rear seat can fully recline by moving the front passenger seat forward with the touch of a button. Lincoln applied for about 50 patents on the seats alone, executives said.

The concept doesn't have traditional mechanical door handles. Instead, an "E-Latch" door handle is tucked discreetly in the vehicle's belt line, and opens with the touch of a button positioned on the underside of the door handle wings.

The interior uses Venetian leather seat and door panels, Alcantara seat inserts and armrests, satin headliner and shearling wool carpet. It uses rose gold trim around the instrument cluster and bright chrome trim on the instrument panel.

Moving in right direction

Lincoln is coming off a year in which sales rose 15.6 percent in the United States, its best year since 2008. Most of that growth came from new vehicles like the MKC and the refreshed Navigator. This year, Lincoln's retail sales are up 12 percent through February, its best start since 2008.

Last year, Ford said it would invest $2.5 billion in Lincoln by 2020, and the brand hopes to triple its volume to 300,000 vehicles by that time.

Fields in particular has shown support for the brand. One of his first acts after becoming president and CEO in July was appointing a separate president for Lincoln, Kumar Galhotra. And he has said that most days he drives an MKC home from Ford's Dearborn headquarters.

To help hawk its new products, Lincoln signed a two-year contract with actor Matthew McConaughey to serve as a spokesman. His quirky commercials have generated much buzz for the brand and have been parodied by numerous late night shows.

Lincoln recently introduced a Black Label experience — an exclusive driver membership program that includes custom interiors and perks — and announced a decade-long partnership with Revel Audio Systems, which is Harman's premium loudspeaker brand, to put its sound system in all of its new cars, starting with the next generation MKX midsize utility.

"I think they're doing a lot of what they need to do to really separate themselves from looking like a Ford and offering more exclusive features," said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis with AutoPacific Inc. "You really need to give people a reason to pay a premium for these vehicles."

Wooing China buyers

Lincoln's biggest moves may have come overseas. In November, the brand launched in China with a handful of dealers, and hopes to expand to 60 by the end of 2016.

Already, three of Lincoln's top 10 dealers globally come from China, and that market sells only two vehicles: the MKZ and MKC.

The foreign showrooms look vastly different than those in the U.S., with elaborate tea rooms and other experiences geared specifically toward the Chinese customer.

Even with the new large sedan, analysts have said the Lincoln brand is still years away from seriously competing with other luxury automakers.

Lincoln's 94,000 sales last year were far fewer than Cadillac's 170,000, and both of those were dwarfed by Audi's 182,000 and BMW's 340,000.

Brauer said it still needs to fill product holes — there's a need for a rear-wheel-drive, small sporty car, he said — and Sullivan thinks there's room for a three-row crossover.

"It's not going to happen with just one or two vehicles. I think people need to be patient; we're talking at least 10, 15 years of continued new product and sustained growth."

Detroit News Staff Writer David Shepardson contributed.