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Future Products: Ford Motor Co. -- Lincoln hoping luxury buyers will accept front-wheel drive platforms

AMY WILSON | Automotive News

DETROIT - The crux of Lincoln's comeback lies in two premium sedans with ties to Volvo.

Lincoln will introduce an entry-level front-drive sedan this fall, but the cars that could re-energize Lincoln as a true luxury player begin to arrive in 2007.

Lincoln's success depends on execution. The new cars must offer expressive styling, modern luxury appointments, technology advancements, a refined ride, sure-footed handling and V-8 power, industry analysts say.

But there is an element of risk in Lincoln's car strategy. While most luxury brands have touted rear-wheel drive, Lincoln's cars will be developed on front-drive platforms with available all-wheel drive. They are based on by Ford's fwd D3 platform, which originated at Volvo.

"Lincoln's success is really predicated on Ford being able to introduce new vehicles that are distinctive and provide the ride and handling and performance that one would expect in a luxury vehicle," says Erich Merkle, product analyst with IRN Inc., an automotive forecasting firm in Grand Rapids, Mich. "I think their efforts thus far have been subpar."

Lincoln's 'bull's-eye'

Lincoln officials acknowledge the existence of the two new premium sedans. But that's where the talking stops.

"We can't say much about them yet beyond that they will be the significant factor in redefining what Lincoln will be in the marketplace," Lincoln Mercury President Al Giombetti said in a prepared statement. "They are the bull's-eye of the work we've been undertaking the past couple of years."

The flagship sedans for Lincoln are long overdue, analysts and dealers say.

Lincoln discontinued the Continental in 2002. The aging Town Car, which rides on a platform dating to the 1970s, underwent minimal styling changes when it was re-engineered earlier this decade. The LS, though well-regarded upon its 1999 debut, also has languished.

During that period, Lincoln sales have fallen drastically. U.S. sales dropped from a high of 231,660 in 1990 when it relied totally on car sales to just 139,016 in 2004 with a mix of cars and trucks.

The first of the premium sedans, a mid-sized car scheduled to replace the LS, debuts for the 2008 model year. It will be followed by a larger sedan. While the timetable for that sedan is not final, that car could appear for the 2009 model year, sources say. This second vehicle could revive the storied Continental nameplate.

Both cars are expected to be assembled at Ford's Atlanta plant. Annual production of the two cars could approach 90,000, a source says.

The D3 platform also is the foundation of the Ford Five Hundred, Ford Freestyle and Mercury Montego. Those vehicles went on sale last fall.

More vehicles coming

The two premium Lincoln cars will offer awd and a V-8 engine, sources say. That engine likely is a variant of the Yamaha V-8 used in the Volvo XC90 sport wagon. Ford could set up North American production of that engine at its plant in Lima, Ohio, sources say.

The Lincoln line will add two other vehicles.

Lincoln will offer what Ford executives are calling a "people mover," a minivanlike vehicle developed from the D3 platform. It also is scheduled for assembly in Atlanta. While the timetable is not final, the vehicle likely will debut for the 2009 model year.

And this fall, the first of Lincoln's new models will arrive: the entry-level, V-6-powered 2006 Zephyr. The Zephyr, Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan were developed on a modified Mazda6 platform. The Zephyr shares 72 percent of its components with the Fusion.

As for the aging Town Car, Lincoln may keep the existing model beyond the debut of the new premium sedans, sources say. Why? It's profitable and the car has a strong following with senior citizens and the livery business.
 
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