Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the author’s name. This version has been corrected.
GM has the new 2013 Cadillac ATS sedan waiting in the wings, and at Ford, the mission's almost the same--to snare more entry-level luxury-sedan buyers. That task begins with the 2013 Lincoln MKZ, making its debut as a concept car at the 2012 Detroit auto show.
Lincoln's mission is a little more urgent, though. Once the best-selling luxury nameplate in the U.S., Lincoln sold just more than 85,000 vehicles in the U.S. last year, about half of Cadillac's numbersand well off the more than 300,000 cars and crossovers sold by luxury-sales champ BMW.
Working in its favor, Lincoln has the current MKZ, one of the brand's strong sales stories. In its final year on the market, MKZ sales in 2011 increased 22 percent over the prior year, and its hybrid edition has attracted new looks from shoppers normally sold on Lexus.
To grow again, Lincoln will have to win over those intenders, and analysts, who see today'sLincolns as too closely patterned on Ford-brand vehicles. Design is one way Ford hopes to change minds. Based on the same mid-size platform as the new 2013 Ford Fusion, also introduced in Detroit, the next MKZ heralds a new design direction for the sagging luxury brand.
The latest theme--one of a few Ford's tried on the Lincoln lineup in the past decade--tamps down some of the brash cues on today's Lincoln MKZ and its MKX and MKT crossovers in favor of leaner, softer lines. The MKZ concept is as sleek as the fantastic-looking Fusion, but distinguished by the more delicate louvers on its new grille, and especially, by the longer arch of its roofline, and a very short trunk.
Lincoln's design chief, Max Wolff, calls the new look elegant simplicity. "It’s something warmer and more restrained, which is moving away from complex designs and traditional luxury," he said.
Inside, the concept continues a more Lexus-like interpretation of luxury, with warm colors and a touch of green. The poplar wood trim is "responsibly harvested," and is framed by aluminum trim, and surrounded by neutral leather perforated to look like champagne bubbles.
Electronics take up even more real estate in this version of the MKZ: dash buttons control the transmission, eliminating a shift lever, and big 10.1-inch and 8-inch LCD screens in front of the driver and on the center stack serve as displays for gauges, mapping and in-car apps, governed by the Bluetooth-driven MyLincoln Touch system. A panoramic glass roof brings more light into the four-seat cabin.
Compared to the current MKZ, the new version should grow, while coming in very close to the concept's overall dimensions. The concept is 194.1 inches overall, with a 112.2-inch wheelbase. Today's car measures 189.8 inches long, and rides on a 107.4-inch wheelbase.
The MKZ's new platform is said to be able to handle all-wheel drive. Powertrains and other hardware aren't detailed yet, but EcoBoost engines, an adaptive suspension and drivetrain, and a lane-keeping system are planned.
Now that it's sold off all the European luxury brands it once owned, Ford says it's committed to reviving Lincoln sales and repositioning it as a newer-age luxury leader. According to Ford's president of the Americas, Mark Fields, Ford is investing heavily in the brand so that it can "win customers in the luxury market with strong new vehicles."
It's an important piece of Ford's newly focused business plan, and potentially, a big money-maker for the company. With seven new or heavily revamped vehicles on the way in the next three years, Lincoln is getting another lease on life--and the fight to regain its spot in on the luxury leaderboard begins here.