Lincoln is resurrecting the Continental name for its new flagship sedan, signaling Ford’s deep commitment to returning the brand to its former glory as a top luxury choice.
Designers were charged with creating a full-size car to replace the Lincoln MKS that rekindles the brand’s timeless elegance. The Continental has a Lincoln-logo mesh grille, chromed headlights, fine materials, disguised door handles and a rear seat fit for a king. The concept car to be unveiled at the New York auto show this week has deep-pile carpet and a silken headliner.
“They have leapfrogged to a different realm of luxury,” said Michelle Krebs, analyst with AutoTrader.com. “Lincoln to date has been premium but not necessarily luxury. This moves them to the true luxury realm.”
The new flagship blows up some fledgling Lincoln signatures, dropping the alphanumeric MKS name and showing yet another revamped Lincoln with a completely new look and presence. The car will goes on sale next year, likely as a 2017 model.
New CEO’s vision
Ford’s once-dominant luxury brand was allowed to wither on the vine. Promises have rung hollow and attempts fallen short of what is needed to elevate Lincoln from a premium brand to a top-tier luxury player. Its very viability has been questioned over the years, said CEO Mark Fields.
But the new CEO is drawing a line in the sand. The luxury segment represents 10-13 percent of the U.S. market and only 6 percent of the Chinese market, but these vehicles account for a third of the profits and their sales growth is outpacing the rest of the industry.
Fields wants a piece of the pie. “We don’t want to be a feeder brand for other luxury brands.”
He evoked the Continental name to motivate the team behind the concept. The first Continental was a one-off personal vehicle for Edsel Ford and three signature designs in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s cast a halo over the entire Ford company.
Bringing back the Continental name was not the original plan.
Lincoln designers and engineers had been working on a much-needed new flagship to punctuate Lincoln’s revival in the U.S. and herald its entry into the critical China luxury market.
“To be honest, we struggled with the specialness,” Scott Tobin, Lincoln’s director of product development, said of some of the early work that made strides but was not jaw-dropping.
“We had a couple themes. None were hitting the mark,” Tobin said. They were not going to pass the Fields ‘Wow’ test.”
Fields knew the team was struggling with a replacement for the MKS. “The first couple of design iterations, we weren’t getting that mojo,” he said.
So one day in late 2013 he and then-marketing chief Jim Farley appeared in the Lincoln showroom for a design briefing. “They said, ‘Maybe this will crystallize it for you. You’re working on the next Continental,’” Tobin recalled in a Detroit Free Press interview.
“It reset the design team,” said David Woodhouse, Lincoln’s design chief.
It evoked adrenaline and abject fear. But it also focused the designers because they had a heritage to work with. They drew from the great Continentals of the past for inspiration but not design cures. This was not going to be a retro car.
It only took about three months to nail down the new design direction, and Fields was pleased with the result.
The Continental exudes luxury. Suede rear seats with footrests extend into space created by pushing the front passenger seat up to the dashboard. Briefcases are integrated into the seat backs for storage. Push a button and a mirrored tray table with built-in tablet swivels over your lap. The champagne cup holders remain intact.
Fields said the new Continental completes the first generation of Lincoln’s rebirth that started with the MKZ in 2012 even though the new sedan bears little family resemblance to the MKZ, MKC or MKX.
The next phase will see the redo of the existing lineup and add two new nameplates by 2020. Most are expected to come from a new and highly versatile premium vehicle platform capable of producing rear-wheel-drive vehicles as well as front- and all-wheel drive.
Fields would not comment on the platform known internally as D6 that could yield a larger rear-drive sedan to compete with the Audi A8 and BMW 7-Series and a large crossover to replace the slow-selling MKT.
“For where we are at this point in our journey, (Continental) will be our flagship,” Fields said, not ruling out how far the brand could evolve.
Nor does he rule out producing rear-drive luxury vehicles like his predecessor former CEO Alan Mulally did. “We could in the future,” Fields said, while declining to provide details.
With the new platform still a few years out, the expectation is the Continental will be built on a stretched version of the global platform that underpins a number of vehicles including the MKZ and the new Ford Edge. That means front drive with all-wheel-drive capability. Further details will be revealed this fall.
The Continental will have a new 3-liter twin-turbocharged V-6 engine that is unique to the Lincoln brand.
Investors were told in September that Lincoln would spend $2.5 billion through 2019 to develop new products and retool plants to build them. That is just the capital investment amount, not counting advertising and launch costs, Fields said.
The goal: Triple the brand’s global sales to 300,000 by 2020. U.S. sales were less than 82,000 last year, a far cry from 1998 when Lincoln was the biggest luxury brand in the U.S. with sales of more than 187,000.
The China factor
Sales in China are in their infancy with 11 dealerships now and 25 planned by year’s end, but they are already selling 10 percent more than forecast, said Matt VanDyke, director of global Lincoln marketing.
Fields said the Continental name has a lot of equity in the U.S. as well as China where there is great awareness of U.S. history and the Lincoln brand.
“The Continental and new face of the brand will solidify Lincoln as a true tier-one luxury player,” said VanDyke.
It is a face that has undergone a lot of surgery. After years with the traditional waterfall grille, Lincoln introduced a split grille with horizontal lines on the 2013 MKZ and continued to tweak it on each subsequent model.
The Continental’s new grille is the design that will spread across the entire lineup, Woodhouse said.
And while some of the elaborate touches added to create a concept for the New York show aren’t realistic, the car is largely production-ready. The size, including the massive rear seat, is the one that will be sold in North America and China, Fields said.
Selling the same car in China makes the math work, said Krebs. “And it was a good idea to bring the name back. It could silence persistent rumors Ford is not committed to the Lincoln brand.”