Five billion dollars. That’s how much Ford has committed to transforming its moribund Lincoln division into The Lincoln Motor Company. Now, I’ve never run a car company, but I’ve got a feeling that if you’re going to sink $5 billion into something, there isn’t much of a chance that you’re going to half-ass it. So the rebranding came first: the McConaughey ads, the lifestyle branding, and the gradual phasing out of the geezer-friendly models. There were the pretty concepts that pointed the way for the future. Next was the impressively restyled MKZ. And now, nearly two years after its surprise debut as a show car, Lincoln has a suitable flagship in the all-new, back-from-the-dead Continental.
I’ve always been a big American classics kind of guy, so I — and by extension, Autos Cheat Sheet — have been following Lincoln’s big comeback very closely. I stood front-row at the concept’s unveiling at the New York Auto Show in 2015, as one of my earliest assignments for this site. I outlined the Conti’s Rat Pack/Camelot-era history in one of our earliest Throwback Thursday columns. And I dissected the production model as soon as Lincoln released specs on it. Almost exactly a year ago, I predicted what I thought the new car’s existential challenge (that’s the problem with heritage models: There’s always an existential challenge) would be, and I stand by it.
Brief history lesson: In 1988, Ford replaced a fogy-friendly Granada-based Continental with a crisp, all-new Continental, designed to attract a newer, younger clientele to Lincoln. The car garnered some early successes (it even made an appearance on Car and Driver’s 1989 10Best list), but it was little more than a stretched Ford Taurus, and in the face of competition from BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Lexus, and the rest, it only worked to hasten Lincoln’s descent into badge-engineered afterthought. What Ford/Lincoln needs with this [new] car is a return to the forward-thinking ’60s-era flagship, not an ’80’s-style rebadged Ford.
I recently spent a week with a Continental, and this dilemma weighed heavily on my mind, because there’s a lot riding on this thing. The good news: The Continental feels worthy of the investment; it feels like its own animal. It has Ford DNA in it, sure, but this is a concerted effort at a special, world-class luxury car. To that end, Lincoln largely succeeds.
But it isn’t quite as simple as that. While it doesn’t feel dated, Lincoln’s brand of luxury feels jarringly old school. It would be easy if I could compare the Conti one-to-one with a Cadillac CT6, Lexus GS, Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF, or any of the rest, but it’s difficult to. Somewhere in the 1980s, the Germans hijacked the luxury market, and since then they’ve been running the show. For at least 30 years now, Stuttgart, Ingolstadt, and Munich have been calling the shots, and the rest of the world has just been following.
Edict from Germany: Every car needs to feel sporty. Every car needs to have a dialed-in suspension, heavily bolstered seats, a top speed of at least 155 miles per hour, and a focus on its zero to 60 time. Doesn’t matter if it’s a full-size sedan, seven-seat SUV, or family-friendly crossover. That’s. Just. How. It. Is. And for the most part, cars across the board have benefited from this. But Ford has taken a risk and gone another way: the old way. The way things were done before Europe was calling the shots, and before quality control started its nosedive sometime during the Johnson Era. The way it was when the Continental was king, and when “The Best in the World” meant Lincoln, Cadillac, and not much else.
So the Continental doesn’t pretend that it’s a sports car, because it isn’t. It’s a full-size luxury sedan, and a good one at that. Lincoln clearly doesn’t give a damn about silly things like Nürburgring times. It wants to build a no-compromise, total luxury car. In my opinion, the Continental is better off for it.
Picture a dim room full of people speaking German. That’s today’s luxury sedan segment. Now picture someone bursting in speaking English in an American accent. That’s the Continental.