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By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

DEARBORN — In 1998, Lincoln was the top-selling U.S. luxury car brand.

The five years that have passed haven’t been pretty. Ford Motor Co.’s upscale American division has been pummeled by stagnant sales, multiple strategy shifts, executive turnover and financial losses.

Now, Lincoln trails not only Mercedes, Lexus and BMW, but also Cadillac, its crosstown rival that spent $4 billion on a stodgy-to-sexy makeover.

Lincoln executives say better times are ahead with the launch of 11 new products over the next four years. Today at the North American International Auto Show, Lincoln will unveil a full-size luxury pickup and two concept vehicles: a luxury roadster and a next-generation Aviator midsize sport utility vehicle.

The product push comes as Ford is counting on Lincoln, and the company’s other premium brands, which include Jaguar and Volvo, to deliver one-third of the automaker’s $7 billion pretax profit goal by mid-decade.

Nonetheless, Ford Executive Vice President Jim Padilla acknowledged that the automaker is still searching for the right formula for Lincon.

“Lincoln is a big challenge,” he said in an interview Sunday. “The customers expect a lot more and that means we have to invest a lot more. So we have to find the right business equation for Lincoln.”

Critics charge that Lincoln has forsaken the car market in recent years amid consumers’ continuing fascination with pickups and SUVs.

But Lincoln officials say the variety of vehicles to be displayed at the Detroit auto show proves the brand is not abandoning cars for light trucks — despite the success of the Aviator and its full-size cousin, the Navigator.

“To get to the level of share that we want in the United States, you have to be able to do both,” said John Fitzpatrick, general marketing manager for Ford’s Lincoln and Mercury brands.

Through mid-December 2003, Lincoln had already surpassed 2002 U.S. sales of 150,057 units — the brand’s first annual sales gain in three years. Final 2003 sales will be released today.

“We’re going to continue that uptick, and there is product in the pipeline that will ensure that,” Fitzpatrick said.

Upscale and stylish

Among the new products in Lincoln’s stable is the Mark LT luxury pickup, based on the underpinnings of Ford’s F-150 pickup. The Lincoln offering is decidedly more upscale, highlighted by a more stylish interior, which is becoming a hallmark of the brand.

A black cloud hangs over any Lincoln-badged pickup, however. More to the point: a Blackwood cloud.

Lincoln introduced the Blackwood pickup in 2001, but engineering miscues by a major supplier stalled production. A carpeted cargo bed, fixed tonneau cover and lack of four-wheel drive severely limited the truck’s functionality, forcing Lincoln to scrap the program just months after launch.

“We’ve learned,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that there remains considerable interest in a luxury pickup.

“Dealers came back to us and said, ‘Listen. You’re right. There’s opportunity there, but there’s some things that you should look at when you go to your next execution,’ ” he said. “And we are comfortable that we’ve looked at those things and are doing it right.”

Due to hit showrooms in early 2005, the Mark LT will be built at Ford’s rejuvenated Rouge assembly complex in Dearborn.

The show truck features an illuminated Lincoln star as the centerpiece of its chrome grille. Inside are metallic air vents and door handles and sheepskin flooring.

“This vehicle has a harmonious balance of materials, while providing enough contrast to be visually exciting,” said Marek Reichman, interior design strategy director.

Rick Doyle, sales manager at Bob Maxey Lincoln-Mercury in Detroit, is upbeat about the prospect of bringing another pickup into his showroom.

“It will be great,” Doyle said. “The only problem they had with the Blackwood was it only came in two-wheel drive. We sold probably 25 of them. But most people, you get into a $50,000 truck, they’re looking for four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.”

Pricing for the Mark LT has not been set.

Aviator here to stay

The next-generation Aviator concept is a car-based SUV.

The show vehicle features a full-length glass roof and a rear center console designed to accommodate laptop computers, video games or snacks. The vehicle also boasts a polished egg-crate grille that recalls Lincoln Continentals of decades past.

Despite media reports to the contrary last year, “Aviator is here to stay and is evolving to meet customer demand,” said Phil Martens, Ford group vice president of North American product creation.

Lincoln’s concept roadster, dubbed Mark X, also takes some cues from Continentals of old.

Built on the same underpinnings as the Lincoln LS and Ford Thunderbird, the Mark X show car features a retractable hard top.

Lincoln spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said there are no firm plans to produce the car-based Aviator or the Mark X, which Lincoln pronounces as “Mark 10.”

If the vehicles eventually go into production, however, customers will receive them well, said Chris Conley, general manager of SESI Lincoln-Mercury and Volvo in Ann Arbor.

“Cadillac has the XLR, and Lexus has the SC 430,” Conley said. “It would be nice to have a halo car.”

Automakers use “halo cars” to burnish a brand’s image and draw showroom traffic. Some successful halo cars have been the Dodge Viper and Ford Mustang Cobra.

Conley and Doyle are not worried about the apparent dearth of new Lincoln vehicles planned for 2004.

“Just by having something at the auto show, hopefully people will wait and give us time to get it to market,” Conley said.

Jim Sanfilippo, executive vice president for new business development at AMCI, an automotive marketing consulting firm in Warren, is equally impressed with Lincoln’s prospective lineup. But not with its timing.

“Lincoln is a wonderful brand,” he said. “But if there ever was an experiment to see how long you can go without replenishing, they’re trying to push the limit.”

The Aviator “makes abundant sense,“ Sanfilippo said. “But they’ve got to hurry.”

The Mark LT is a shoo-in success, and the Mark X’s engineering roots are solid, he added. “The LS platform is so completely underrated.”

Fitzpatrick said products such as the Navigator — which rode a 26 percent sales hike into December — have “legs” and will remain popular throughout 2004.

Lincoln is more concerned with execution than timing.

“We just need to make sure we continue to execute around what the customers want,” Fitzpatrick said. “When you can execute the vehicle right, the customer will obviously follow.”

Lincoln's concept roadster, the Mark X, has roots in the Continentals of old and features a retractable hard top.

Ford is counting on the next-generation Lincoln Aviator sport utility and other premium models to deliver one-third of its $7 billion pretax profit goal by mid-decade.

The Mark LT luxury pickup is one of the new breeds in Lincoln's stable. It's a decidedly upscale version of the Ford F-150.
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