November 23, 2015 - 12:01 am ET
LOS ANGELES -- In 2016, Lincoln will have a new face, its most powerful car ever, a revived Continental and a chance to top 100,000 U.S. sales for the first time since 2008. In China, it will add a dealership every 10 days.
What it apparently won't have, at least anytime soon, is a rear-wheel-drive sports car that many fans of the brand have been hoping for.
"We've said we need to cover the core segments first," Matt VanDyke, director of global Lincoln, told Automotive News
at a private event here to show the freshened MKZ sedan. "Luxury coupes and sports cars are not the first place we need to go."
In the near term, Lincoln is more concerned with updating its look. After years of tinkering with the split-wing grille drawn from the brand's early years, Lincoln is dropping the polarizing design when the 2017 MKZ arrives next summer. In its place will be the more rectangular shape, filled with a repeating Lincoln star pattern, first seen in March on the Continental Concept.
The decision to put the new face on the MKZ, Lincoln's top-selling nameplate, even before the Continental arrives shows that Ford Motor Co. is trying to use the brand's burgeoning momentum and avoid letting another revival effort fizzle.
Lincoln is two months from achieving its first two-year streak of sales increases since 1998, when it was the country's biggest luxury brand. U.S. sales are up 7.5 percent this year, after rising 16 percent in 2014. At the same time, Lincoln says the average age of its buyers has dropped from 67 a few years ago to 58 today, much closer to the luxury market's average of 54.
"It's a very firm commitment from the company to invest in the brand," Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra said in explaining why he's confident this time will turn out better for Lincoln. Ford demonstrated its increased dedication to Lincoln in 2014, when newly minted CEO Mark Fields appointed Galhotra as the brand's first president in years and making the job report directly to him.
While early returns on Lincoln's journey back to relevance are positive, Galhotra and other executives admit the road ahead is still long. Lincoln's U.S. sales rank eighth among luxury brands in 2015.
"The products are there," said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific. "But I don't think they're hitting the targets they need to hit in the competitive world. I don't think anyone was expecting that yet, though. It's a 10- to 15-year plan."
Lincoln is making a greater effort to separate itself from the Ford brand. The MKZ will offer a 3.0-liter, turbocharged V-6 engine rated at up to 400 hp that won't be shared with any vehicles in the Ford brand. Beginning with the MKZ, Ford no longer will use the EcoBoost name for direct-injection turbos in Lincolns. The rear of the MKZ features a "3.0T" badge instead.
2 new nameplates
When updating vehicles such as the MKZ, which shares a platform with the Ford Fusion, Galhotra said Lincoln seeks opportunities to stand out more distinctly.
"If it is critical to the customer experience, we would change it," Galhotra said, adding that the brands can continue to share less-important components.
Lincoln executives have said the brand will add two nameplates -- not counting the Continental, which replaces the MKS -- by 2020. They won't name those vehicles, and Galhotra said last week that nothing has been set in stone.
He said both additions are planned for closer to 2020 than to next year.
Sources have said one of the new Lincolns is expected to be a large crossover, likely called the Aviator, to fit between the midsize MKX and the big, body-on-frame Navigator. Lincoln also doesn't have a small car to compete with the Cadillac ATS and BMW 3 series.
If it goes that route, VanDyke said Lincoln won't be following the Mercedes-Benz CLA or Audi A3 to the $30,000 threshold.
Lincoln's least-expensive vehicle, the MKC compact crossover introduced in 2014, starts at $34,185, including shipping, though the MKZ is advertised on the Lincoln website for just less than $32,000 after incentives.
The MKC and MKZ "really cover the entry territory pretty solidly for us," he said. "We don't need to go below $30,000 to try to chase that volume."
Ed Witt, owner of Witt Lincoln in San Diego and a member of Lincoln's dealer council, said he's excited about the future product plans he has seen.
"This brand is without question moving rapidly and progressively toward where it needs to be," Witt said. "It's finally getting to be fun to be a Lincoln dealer again."