Lincoln rolls out plan to shift out of reverse
Four vehicles will be introduced to challenge Cadillac and foreign competitors like BMW and Lexus.
Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News
2007 Lincoln MKZ Ford Motor Co.
2007 Lincoln Navigator Ford Motor Co.
When Ford Motor Co. was redesigning the Lincoln Navigator for 2007, the automaker knew the sport utility vehicle had to offer unparalleled comfort. But Chief Vehicle Engineer John Viera had a problem. His team just could not capture the balance between comfort and support he was looking for in the seats.
Viera called his colleagues at Volvo and asked them to send some of their best seat specialists from Sweden to Dearborn. They did and Viera says he got the best seats in any full-size SUV on the market.
Such are the lengths Ford is willing to go to give Lincoln an edge in the hotly contested luxury market, where it once battled almost exclusively with General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac. The two American brands have been fighting for footing since upscale foreign marques, including Lexus and BMW, burst onto the scene in the 1980s.
After languishing for years, Cadillac started roaring back in 2003 with aggressively-styled vehicles that exude American attitude. Now, Ford wants to do the same with Lincoln.
"We need to disrupt perceptions of our brand," Mike Richards, general marketing manager for Lincoln said in an interview this week. And Lincoln has the products and the marketing strategy to do it, he said.
The need for change was clear after Lincoln sales started tumbling from their 1990 peak of 231,000 vehicles, coming in at just over 123,000 last year.
The brand's makeover began with last fall's launch of the Zephyr, a midsize sedan designed to attract a new Lincoln customer with understated luxury. Ford says Zephyr sales have exceeded expectations, validating the new direction.
Encouraged by Zephyr's success, Lincoln is embarking on its biggest product rollout in decades, with four new vehicles due out by the end of this year.
Critics not swayed
But Lincoln's critics remain unconvinced. They say Ford's plan lacks the breadth of GM's Cadillac strategy and wonder if Lincoln's new products will make consumers take another look.
"They've got new product, but it remains to be seen how good it is," said auto industry analyst Erich Merkle of IRN Inc. in Grand Rapids. "I see them making a lot of the same mistakes they were making three or four years ago."
Lincoln is replacing the Zephyr with the MKZ, which boasts a bigger engine, more agile handling and optional all-wheel drive. It also is launching a longer version of the Navigator, dubbed the Navigator L, and entering the crossover market with the MKX -- a refined version of the Ford Edge.
Analyst Jim Hall of AutoPacific Inc. in Troy said the MKZ is an impressive improvement over the Zephyr. And the Navigator remains a worthy rival to Cadillac's Escalade, although he acknowledged that Lincoln had fallen so far behind, it still has a long way to go to catch up.
"What they've really got with these vehicles is the first phase of what they need to turn Lincoln around," Hall said. "It's not too late."
There were no such positive comments from analysts when Peter Horbury was tapped to lead the redesign of Lincoln in 2004.
"People were all but writing the obituary of Lincoln when I got here," recalled the British designer who was called to Dearborn after leading the successful transformation of Volvo, one of Ford's premium European brands. "All it needed was great product."
Marketing must produce
Al Giombetti, president of the Ford, Mercury and Lincoln brands, said Horbury's designers and engineers like Viera have delivered the right vehicles. Now, it's up to Lincoln's sales and marketing team.
"The great product that we've been talking about for the past couple of years has finally arrived," Giombetti said. "Now, we've got to perform. The biggest challenge is launching (it). It's probably the greatest opportunity we've had in a long time."
To make sure that opportunity is not wasted, Ford will spend more on Lincoln marketing in the next 12 months than ever before in the history of the brand.
The focus is less on the vehicles themselves and more on how they are uniquely suited to fit potential customers' lifestyles, which are more about self-made success than in-your-face affluence.
IRN's Merkle says the emphasis on understated luxury misses the point. "That's what luxury cars are all about," he said.
But Giombetti says the Zephyr's success shows that Ford has found the right niche for Lincoln.
When the midsize sedan was launched last year, Ford hoped to sell about 30,000 units a year. Through October, actual sales are just over 26,000 vehicles.
Zephyr hits a younger market
More importantly, Giombetti said 45 percent of Zephyr buyers are conquests from other automakers. Most are moving up from non-luxury products -- and not just from domestic brands but also from Toyota and Honda. They also are younger than traditional Lincoln customers and 36 percent more likely to be women.
But Merkle says the Zephyr is far from a breakout success. According to IRN, Ford probably makes a little more on each Zephyr sold than GM does with its comparable CTS, but Cadillac is moving about 57,000 of the sedans a year.
Merkle has not driven the new Lincolns, but says he still sees too many compromises. The interiors feature expensive wood trim, but too much plastic for his taste. And Cadillac offers bigger engines.
Ford insiders say there are still battles between finance executives and designers over Lincoln. The rich wood Horbury chose to accent the interior of the MKX, for instance, was approved only after cheaper materials were selected for the center console.
AutoPacific's Hall, who has driven the new Lincolns, says Ford is learning from its mistakes -- and its customers. Consumers who bought the Zephyr wanted nimbler handling, so Ford retuned the suspension of the MKZ for the second generation of the vehicle.
Still, he also thinks Ford lacks a comprehensive plan for the brand. GM revived Cadillac with better vehicles and better powertrains that became an essential part of the brand's marketing message.
Ford is trying to do the same thing with Lincoln. Though the MKZ is built on the same platform as the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, neither of those vehicles will get the new 3.5-liter Duratech V-6 engine that powers the MKZ -- at least until a new, Lincoln-specific 3.7-liter V-6 replaces it a couple of years from now. In addition, the MKZ features thicker window glass and more sound insulation, as well as different shocks, springs, stabilizer bars and steering gear for a smoother ride.
Horbury said future Lincolns will feature even more distinctive styling. He said the brand's transformation will be complete when its new flagship, the MKS, goes into production in 2009.
Dealers are optimistic
Horbury hinted that other new designs may be unveiled soon. While it will be up to the engineers to deliver on these promises, Horbury says Lincoln is now further along than any of Ford's domestic brands in identifying and embracing a new identity. "If I walked out of the studio tomorrow," he said, "everybody would know what to do with Lincoln."
Dealers like John Crissman of Crissman Lincoln Mercury in Rochester Hills are optimistic again about Lincoln's future. Crissman said the Zephyr is already a strong seller and new MKZs are flying off the lot, along with the few new Navigators he has been able to get. And he already has a long list of people waiting for the MKX. "The new models," Crissman said, "are going to make a huge difference."