Rolling out the red carpet for Lincoln’s Continental

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — With anticipation surrounding the introduction of its dramatic, flagship Continental sedan at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show in January, Lincoln has promised a brand reinvention centered around “quiet luxury” — a premium experience that’s less about performance numbers and more about a personally-tailored, customer experience.

But when the Lincoln finally, stealthily, rolled off the Flat Rock assembly line in late August to little fanfare, the “quiet luxury” mantra took on a different meaning.

But now quiet luxury is about to get a lot noisier.

The stunning Continental debuted to reporters from across the globe here this week at the posh Bel Air Hotel. The resulting stream of reviews, pictures and video comes as print ads shot by renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz are popping up in high-end publications. That will be followed by a year-end TV campaign featuring Lincoln’s mumbling, finger-rubbing spokesman Matthew McConaughey. Saturday Night Live parodies are sure to follow.

“The McConaughey ad is shot and in the can,” smiled a Lincoln spokesman.

Lincoln says the unusually hushed introduction of a brand flagship is part coordination of product shipping to some 30 markets around the globe, and partly to avoid the election campaign.

“We want to have critical mass at the dealerships so, when we gain messaging, people can go to the dealerships and experience it,” said Continental chief program engineer Mike Celantino, 57. “There’s a big political season going on. Getting the message out in the middle of that is hard.”

The Continental is the latest headliner in a resurgence of American large luxury sedans. At the top of the polls is the expensive, battery-powered Tesla Model S, which leads the class in sales, eclipsing even the mighty Mercedes S-class and BMW 7-series. Built in Silicon Valley, the Tesla is the pride of California, where it’s as common as Cadillacs in Michigan. For its part, Cadillac has launched the acclaimed CT-6 sedan. Benchmarked to BMW, the lightweight, powerful Caddy uses state-of-the-art bonding technology to create perhaps the best-handling big sedan made today.

Lincoln’s quiet luxury aims for a third way.

Though Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. is as outspoken about weening autos from the internal combustion engine as Tesla’s Elon Musk, the luxury brand at Ford’s company has eschewed the high-cost, high-risk strategy pursued by Musk’s electric startup. Rather than Tesla’s macro-ambitions to save the planet, Lincoln is micro-focused on delivering “great brand value and service” to each individual customer, says Celentino.

That includes services such as having dealers like dealer pick-up of Lincolns for all maintenance needs — and providing a Lincoln loaner. That commitment has already been put to the test when 1,900 Continentals were recalled this month for a minor LED headlight fault.

“It’s what you would expect from a boutique hotel, which is where we’re taking a page for the service aspect,” Celentino said.

The Continental, with three available V-6 engines, features state-of-the-art electronics, an industry-leading 30-way seat, and the same high-performance, torque-vectoring, all-wheel-drive system as the rally-racing star Ford Focus RS. But Lincoln has intentionally avoided a costly, ground-up, rear-wheel-drive platform revolution in order to compete against German sedans.

“We’re very different from Cadillac,” says Celentino. “The engineering is more about how does the car go through a corner more effortlessly, and less about how quickly can I get around a course like the Nurburgring” — a reference to the legendary German race track where many sports sedans are tested.

Instead, says Continental marketing chief Eric Turner, the Lincoln (based on a stretched version of Ford’s front-wheel-drive Fusion) challenges the Mercedes E-Class and BMW 5-series in the meat of the mid-sized luxury market ($55,0000-$65,000) — but with full-size sedan interior room, stylish design and comparable amenities. Starting at $44,560, the Continental is $9,000 cheaper than Cadillac’s CT-6.

The Continental’s Jaguar-like grille and headlights are the “new face of Lincoln,” said Celentino. Those features will be adopted by every Lincoln from the 2017 MKZ sedan to future versions of Lincoln’s elegant MKX and MKC crossover vehicles.

The Continental marks the rebirth — not just of Lincoln’s image — but of the Continental as the brand’s flagship. The Continental name was retired in 2002. This week’s media rollout featured more Chinese journalists than American, because Lincoln is launching a major expansion in China, where the business culture covets the big back seats of lux sedans. Lincoln plans to have 65 dealerships in China by the end of this year and has already more than doubled sales from 2015 to more than 20,000 cars.

“I have never seen the amount of support at the highest level for the Lincoln Continental,” says Ford/Lincoln veteran Celentino. “Everyone is fully invested in us.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.

Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.