Flat Rock plant to steer Lincoln Continental's return

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Lincoln's new Continental flagship sedan will be built at Ford Motor Co.'s Flat Rock Assembly Plant — good news for auto workers who learned last week that Ford was pulling production of its slow-selling Focus and C-Max from the nearby Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.

Wednesday's announcement came just days before Ford formally begins contract talks with the United Auto Workers, whose negotiators are seeking assurances that American carmakers will continue building cars, and employing workers, in the U.S. It has been widely speculated by the UAW and others that the Focus could be headed to Mexico.

The Dearborn automaker said its top-of-the-line Continental, shown as a concept car at this year's New York Auto Show, will go on sale in 2016 and will be built at the plant alongside its Mustang sports car and Fusion mid-size sedan.

Jimmy Settles, vice president of the Ford-UAW Department, said the Flat Rock announcement followed "extensive discussions" between the union and Ford.

"It goes without saying that anytime Ford, or any domestic automaker, commits to American manufacturing, it provides a win for our members, the American middle class, and communities all across this country," Settles said.

The Continental announcement could be a goodwill offering to the UAW ahead of negotiations aimed at securing a new four-year contract this fall, according to Art Schwartz, president of business management consulting firm Labor and Economics Associates.

"Ford just hit them with some bad news," Schwartz said. "Maybe this is a way of saying 'Hey, we're still partners.' Ford and the UAW have had a fairly collaborative relationship."

While the new Lincoln will be built and sold in the U.S., its primary target is China, where the full-size sedan market is expected to grow.

The Continental will enter a vigorously competitive top-luxury market whose rivals include Cadillac's new flagship sedan, the CT6. Production will begin late this year at General Motors Co.'s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

The Flat Rock plant employs more than 3,100. A Ford spokesperson said the company plans to continue producing the Mustang and Fusion in Flat Rock.

Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at IHS Automotive, said the Continental likely will be built on the same platform as the Fusion, Edge, MKX and other vehicles.

"It's a very familiar platform for Ford, which should allow them to execute a really strong program," she said. "A near-flawless launch should be possible."

IHS expects the Mustang will remain the top-volume product in Flat Rock, while it predicts Ford will produce between 25,000-30,000 Continentals annually.

The concept Continental shown in New York is extremely close to the production version planned for 2016. Ford discontinued the Continental name in 2002, and while it hasn't confirmed the production vehicle will use the name, executives have said they're very pleased with the positive reaction it's gotten.

The car shown in New York looked dramatically different from any vehicle in the Lincoln lineup and is designed to become the new face of the luxury brand. 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. Ford said the car will be powered by a 3-liter V-6.

"The Continental is dramatic," Brinley said. "It does move the design language forward quite a bit and it has the opportunity to make quite a statement."

Kelley Blue Book Senior Analyst Karl Brauer said the new Continental represents a significant change for Lincoln, which has struggled to find its footing in a crowded luxury market. "It will help validate Lincoln as a world-class luxury brand, and the plant that produces it enjoys increased prestige and visibility as a result," Brauer said.

The Continental will replace the Lincoln MKS, which is made at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant. Settles said the move will not result in any loss of jobs at the Chicago plant.

Lincoln is coming off a year in which sales rose 15.6 percent in the U.S., its best year since 2008. Lincoln sales through the first six months of 2015 are up 5.8 percent to 47,112, mostly due to its Navigator SUV and new MKC crossover.

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. Last November, the brand launched in China with a handful of dealers, and hopes to expand to 60 by the end of 2016.

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