Lincoln: How Ford Can Revitalize Its Luxury Brand
I have an X-Files-style “I Want To Believe” poster on my office wall, but instead of a grainy snapshot of a UFO, it’s a photo of the 2015 Lincoln Continental concept. Now, if that isn’t entirely true, it’s only because I haven’t got around to making it in Photoshop yet. Some gearheads have an irrational love that transcends things like speed, style, prestige, practicality, sanity, etc., and mine happens to be big, American luxury cars. Ze Germans may have written the modern luxury playbook, but there’s nothing I’d love more than to see someone like Cadillac beat them at their own game. Even better, I want to see Lincoln escape the ash bin it’s been in since polyester suits were socially acceptable and return to the vanguard of the auto industry. And for the past 16 months or so, Ford has given people like me hope with the all-new Lincoln Continental.
I wasn’t at Detroit, so I haven’t seen the production version in person yet. But I was front and center at the concept reveal in New York last year, and I absolutely loved it. I saw it again in Los Angeles alongside the Conti-inspired MKZ, which did a great job at bringing the bigger car’s style to the masses. I can’t speak with authority on whether or not the Lincoln we’re getting can compete with the likes of the Mercedes S-Class, or even the Lexus LS460, but I struggled with the official images. I wanted to like it more. I want to believe; I just feel like I’ve seen this before. From my first take in January:
Brief history lesson: In 1988, Ford replaced a fogey-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 car is a return to the forward-thinking ’60s-era flagship, not an ’80s-style rebadged Ford.
The New Continental carries over the diamond-shaped headlights, crisp, high beltline, and soft-touch door pulls from the concept. The interior will be plush and built around Ford’s industry-leading 30-way power seats. But it’s built on a stretched MKZ platform and comes standard with front-wheel drive. Its exclusive 3.0 liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6 will be good for 400 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque, but it’ll be competing in a segment where V8s and V12s are still commonplace. The concept was an upper-deck home run. I’m afraid the production car could end up at best a ground-rule double.
So what does Ford do with “The Lincoln Motor Company?” It may still be in the doldrums, but Ford’s premium brand is already better than it was just a few years years ago. Still, there’s one nagging problem: It isn’t a top-tier luxury brand. Right now, it’s largely filling the void left by Mercury was it shuttered in 2011. And I think Ford needs to aim higher for Lincoln to survive.
Mercury wasn’t always a vessel for rebadged Ford Escorts and Escapes. Introduced for 1939, the brand offered longer wheelbases, better-appointed interiors, and hotter engines than Ford models. Designed to bridge the gap between affordable Fords and upscale Lincolns, a Mercury was something to aspire to. But it was always overshadowed by Lincoln, and created a healthy barrier between humble Blue Oval-badged cars and flagship models. The dividing lines between the three started to blur in the 1970s, when the Thunderbird, Mercury Cougar, and Lincoln Continental Mark III/IV/V began to overlap, and they had largely disappeared by the time the Taurus/Sable/Continental had rolled around. By then the Germans had better premium cars anyway, so no one under 65 seemed to notice Lincoln was on the outs.
In the 1960s, Mercury was for people who wanted to trade up from their Fords but couldn’t quite afford a Lincoln (the $6,270 Continental was the only model offered for most of the decade). If you wanted a compact with a little more pizazz than a Falcon, you could go for the Comet, with its baby Lincoln styling. Like the Galaxie 500 but want something even more upscale? Go for the Monterey, which looked could easily be mistaken for a Conti if you were coming down the street doing more than 30. But for every Mercury, there was a Ford not too far away; the Cougar was a Mustang, a Cyclone was a Torino, and the Park Lane was an LTD. They had their own unique styling, but you could still tell it was a Ford. Much like Lincoln models today.
But classic-era Lincolns were different. President John Kennedy drove and was driven in Continentals. So was Pope Paul VI, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Brown. Despite decades of disappointing cars associated with the name, Continental, astonishingly, still has a ring of exclusivity to it. Ford was right to revive it for a revitalized Lincoln, but if it really wants to really bring the brand back I think it needs to go even further; namely, gut it.
On paper, Lincoln may occupy the spot Mercury held in the Ford hierarchy, but in sprit, that brand’s ethos lives on in Ford’s Titanium-packaged models. A Fusion Titanium is too similar to a MKZ in price and execution, ditto the Edge Titanium to the very good MKX. Lincoln currently has six models: The MXZ and MKS sedans, MKC, MKX, and MKT crossovers, and Navigator SUV. It doesn’t need most of them; Ford can easily fill the void with its own luxury models. Admittedly, the automotive world is entirely different than it was half a century ago, and it would be foolish to sink everything into the Continental, but the brand needs to be aggressively pared down and refocused. BMW can get away with offering 20-something different models in the U.S. market; Lincoln can’t successfully field six.
So if it were up to me, a future Lincoln lineup would look like this: MKX, Navigator, Continental. The MKX has gotten consistently good reviews, and while it’s still pretty close to the Edge (no pun intended), the Lexus RX, Mercedes GLC-Class, and upcoming Cadillac XT5 prove that compact luxury crossover segment is one of the hottest segments in the industry. Regardless of how you feel about the Matthew McConaughey commercials, Lincoln has fielded a well-designed contender here. Kick it a little higher upmarket (think Jaguar F-Pace/Land Rover Discovery territory) tighten up the details (lose the Ford instrument panel and switchgear, customers can tell) and the MKX becomes Lincoln’s gateway drug.
With gas cheap and the economy on an upswing, people are partying like it’s 1999 and buying so many Cadillac Escalades that it’s becoming an image problem for GM’s premium brand. Cadillac no longer wants to be known as a builder of lumbering dinosaurs, and while the Escalade no longer fits with its world-class image, it’s also the brand’s sole bona-fide sales hit. Despite the full-size SUV enjoying a renaissance, customers prefer the Cadillac two to one over the Lincoln. Cadillac does an okay job covering up the Escalade’s Chevy Suburban bones; Lincoln needs to a better job making the Navigator virtually unrecognizable from its Ford Expedition roots (yeah, Ford still makes that), and compete with the likes of Range Rover and Mercedes, not just its cross-town rival. A certain type of luxury clientele will always go for a full-size luxury SUV. Lincoln needs a world-class Navigator.
That leaves us with the Continental. The good-looking model on the way is a good start, but a second generation car should return to the concept’s longer, luxurious lines and unapologetically luxurious interior. It shouldn’t share any recognizable part with a Ford model, except for an available Coyote or Voodoo V8 under the hood. All-wheel drive – hopefully the Torque-Vectoring all-wheel drive system from the Focus RS – should come standard, with rear-wheel drive version available for the bigger motors. Ideally, it would be priced in the low $80s; in line with the top end of the Cadillac CT6, but just undercutting the BMW 7 Series, Audi A8 and Mercedes S-Class. It shouldn’t be easily attainable – Fords are attainable – it should be exclusive, something to aspire to, like its German rivals.
I’m not the first autos scribe to play armchair quarterback for Lincoln, and I probably won’t be the last either. An argument for a world-class Continental has been around for most of the 21st century, and frankly, I liked the pre-recession call to build one on the Aston Martin Rapide platform best. But the upcoming model has a tremendous amount of potential, and as a fan of the classic-era Continentals, I think it deserves to live up to its fullest potential.
In recent years, premium automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, and Lexus have been in a race to the bottom, offering models that start in the low-mid $30k range. The difference between those marques and Lincoln is that there’s a massive demand for them; that entry-level car buyers are willing to pay a premium over a Ford or a Buick to own that badge.
Lincoln doesn’t have that, and it never will if it keeps the bulk of its confusing lineup down there. Ford shouldn’t be worried about big sales with Lincoln, it should be worried about prestige. With over 90% of its profits coming from truck sales anyway, it might as well concern itself with being a top-shelf world leader, not a compromised volume-seller. No-compromise Prestige luxury cars can hover in this rarefied air; mass-market ones are consigned to purgatory in rental lots. For “The Lincoln Motor Company” to be great again, Ford can’t afford to half-ass these revitalization efforts. I hope it knows this. I want to believe.
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS