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New York — The New York International Auto Show might be the only place Lincoln Motor Co. makes a lot of noise. And that's proving successful for the American luxury badge as it continues a years-long rebranding.

Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln has introduced a new nameplate or a refreshed vehicle every year for a half-decade as leaders usher sweeping changes to the long-struggling badge still fighting to ditch its reputation as a maker of fleet vehicles. And most of those premieres happen here, the center of U.S. luxury, as the team builds and solidifies its brand around a two-word mantra: "quiet flight."

More: Lincoln debuts all-new Corsair SUV

Top executives say the phrase defines everything from design to ride quality of each new Lincoln. And some experts are beginning to say that this time, Lincoln has managed to make itself into a real player in the highly competitive luxury vehicle market.

"They know who they are and who they aren't," said Michelle Krebs, analyst with Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. "They're very focused. They're not trying to be all things to all premium luxury buyers. They're focused on their own niche, and it's a niche that really isn't occupied by anyone."

The niche at least in the U.S. is a brand of SUVs that ride smooth and feature spacious interiors accented with soft leathers, rich woods and supple suede. The most expensive models, like the $96,000 2019 Navigator Black Label, bring a new level of opulence to the American luxury market.

This year, the automaker rounds out its seven-vehicle lineup here with the introduction of the Corsair, a compact SUV roughly the size of the Ford Escape. The new Aviator midsize SUV also hits the lineup this summer.

For Ford executives, the Corsair represents an inflection point. It marks the end of the first leg of a marathon effort to distance the brand from a dusty reputation and cement Lincoln as a leading U.S. vehicle brand.

The automaker is seeing sales creep up as it launches new vehicles and teases those to come. Lincoln sales were up 11% in the first quarter of the year, driven in part by strong fleet sales. But each model that had been refreshed or remade in the last few years has had a sales boost. Lincoln SUVs were up 23 percent for the quarter.

But the success didn't come quickly.

Finding its niche

It's been two decades since David Woodhouse, Lincoln design director, was part of the team that tried to reinvent Lincoln the first time. He joined Ford in 1999 as the chief designer of Premier Automotive Group, the now-dissolved grouping of Ford's luxury nameplates. 

"We did a bunch of show cars and concepts," Woodhouse told The Detroit News. "But I'll be quite honest: we failed at the end of the day, because we didn't land programs in production."

He left that position only to come back to Lincoln in 2012 to a "very different situation." Where the team at Premier Automotive had "lofty ideas" and "big ideas," Lincoln's leadership had become more pragmatic. Ford wanted to make Lincoln relevant again — and that meant bowing out of performance-oriented vehicles in favor of larger products with plush interiors and exteriors that have a more tapered, leaned-back profile.

And they made that shift in part because there was strong support from Jim Farley, then-senior global leader of Lincoln. Farley got Ford's top officials at the time committed to the brand. Kumar Galhotra, Ford president of North America, said that allowed Lincoln teams to push to define what the brand stands for. Galhotra ran Lincoln from 2014 until he was promoted to his current position in 2018.

The Lincoln brand already had a definitive public perception, Galhotra said. He moved the automaker to embrace some of what people already thought about Lincolns: They were large. They were comfortable. They weren't German-engineered.

"We couldn't go to a place the customers wouldn't have allowed," Galhotra said. "You had to keep in mind what you stood for. What you want to stand for cannot be the opposite of what the public perception is today. If your public thinks you're a comfortable American brand, you can't say you're going to be a sport European brand. The public will never buy it. There has to be proof-points."

Those proof-points had to permeate the company. Galhotra changed Lincoln dealerships into more experiential places. The company paid for hospitality training to teach dealers how to welcome customers as though they were entering an expensive restaurant. Black Label buyers got special perks.

Ad campaigns with Matthew McConaughey and a print campaign shot by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz generated buzz. And the teams focused on the inside of the vehicle to make it truly easier to use, quieter to drive and more comfortable to sit in.

"In our small Lincoln hall of fame, that's where I think Kumar's contributions were felt the most," said Robert Parker, Lincoln director of marketing, sales and service. "Kumar was able to come in and clearly articulate that on a product front."

Corsair introduction

Now Joy Falotico, group vice president of Lincoln and Ford's chief marketing officer, is continuing what Galhotra and the Lincoln team started.

The Corsair puts a bow on Lincoln's nearly half-decade of wild debuts that featured a Navigator with massive gull-wing doors and increasingly splashy interior designs, she said.

It replaces the out-going Lincoln MKC in the compact SUV segment as Lincoln continues to update its lineup with aerospace themes that replace alphanumeric names consumers often found confusing. The Corsair enters the lineup as Lincoln sales are trending upward. The automaker is operating as a niche brand with a tight product lineup that is driving average transaction prices higher for the company.

"Yes, you want sales," Krebs said. "But you also want really strong profits. They're making a lot more money on Lincolns today than they did before."

After five years, the product cycle that aimed to reinvent the brand is complete. The products have signature honeycomb grilles. They've been renamed. They have the same design cues, and analysts say Lincoln feels like more than just a polished up Ford. Falotico and her team say they're focused on pushing for more growth. 

The next step, according to Falotico, is to make moves that play to Lincoln's strengths as U.S. consumers continue to exit sedans in favor of SUVs. She plans to grow the brand's reach in China, the world's largest auto market. The Continental and MKZ sedans are still in the lineup, if only because Chinese buyers want them, she said.

"I feel the responsibility to continue the brand momentum," Falotico said. "We have to continue to create things that are uniquely Lincoln."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

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