Lincoln this week staged a flashy rebirth for its 2016 Continental, the classic American luxury car once at the center of presidential motorcades. After a 13-year hiatus, the new full-size sedan, its interior swaddled in satin, comes with a champagne chiller in the back seat.
But this gaudy showpiece wasn’t tailor-made solely for America’s ultra-rich. The Continental, Ford Motor representatives said, was largely designed for road-ready buyers in China, which years ago stole America’s torch to become the world’s largest market for luxury cars.
Luxury sales in China are expected this year to climb past 2 million cars, three times as high as they were in 2010, data from industry researcher IHS Automotive show. For luxury brands like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, soaring Chinese sales have dramatically outpaced business stateside: General Motors sold more than 900,000 Buicks in China last year, four times as many as it sold in the United States.
With that explosion in sales, automakers that made their names on American roads are finding they must design for a very different kind of audience, that of China’s ultra-rich elite, a chauffeured corps of political bigwigs and celebrities who wouldn’t set foot in the driver’s seat.
“This is not a vehicle we developed for the U.S. and then said, ‘We will see how it does in China,’” Raj Nair, Ford’s group vice president and chief technical officer for global product development, told the Los Angeles Times. “The rear seat was designed for the Chinese customer first and foremost.”
Lincoln’s Continental concept, unveiled at the New York International Auto Show this week, boasts satin walls, shearling-wool carpets, 21-inch wheels and a moonroof that can darken at the touch of a button. Its leather bucket seats can heat, cool and massage and are adjustable in 30 ways; the surfaces touching the shoulders and thighs, for example, can be moved on their own.
The concept car comes with semi-driverless features including parking assist, advanced cruise control and automatic brakes. But their target markets in Beijing and Shanghai will likely care more about the car’s plush reclining backseat, which includes power outlets, a swiveling laptop table, leather travel cases that detach from the back of the front seat and a “champagne storage compartment.”
“We want folks to get into our vehicles,” Ford chief executive Mark Fields told the Associated Press, “and — for lack of a better term — chill.”
Lincoln isn’t alone in debuting full-size premium sedans for the burgeoning Chinese market. General Motors on Tuesday unveiled its flagship Cadillac CT6, a stylish and roomy full-size sedan that will be built for Chinese buyers at a new facility in China starting early next year. Included in its backseat: plush chairs with recliners, massagers, heaters, coolers and special lumbar support, plus armrests loaded with HDMI and USB ports as well as media controls.
A Detroit plant will build a CT6 for American audiences, though analysts expect Cadillac will sell more of the luxury car in China than across the United States and Canada combined. Cadillac sold 73,000 cars in China last year, many of them its large XTS sedan.
Automakers’ investment in luxury autos with dramatically high price tags only makes economic sense: Luxury cars make up a tenth of the world’s sales but about half the industry’s profit. They’re especially profitable in China, where a growing class of moneyed buyers opts for Western luxury brands with fancy nameplates and rich history.
Sales numbers released Wednesday showed the risk of depending too heavily on American buyers: Ford’s sales dropped 3 percent and General Motors’s fell 2 percent last month in the United States over March 2014. And compared with the American car market, China’s has far more room to grow. In 2012, the United States had about 404 passenger cars for every 1,000 people — and China had 29.
China’s industrial core also makes production and delivery of the cars far simpler, too. “You can build it there, you can develop it there and you’ve got enough scale to be able to support that market without it being cost-prohibitive,” IHS Automotive analyst Stephanie Brinley said.
To better woo China’s ultra-rich, Ford has consulted with luxury fashion labels like Prada and Burberry and embarked on a dramatic expansion campaign. Lincoln opened its first store in China in November and now runs nearly a dozen retail outlets there, though it hopes to quintuple that number by the end of 2016. The country hosts three of the world’s best-selling Lincoln dealerships, which were built as dazzlingly opulent outposts flanked by artificial waterfalls.
The Continental first rolled onto the road in 1938 as a convertible for Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, during a spring vacation in Palm Beach. Over the next few decades, the sedan became a key staple in jet-setter mansion driveways and outside glittering Hollywood premieres; Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Clark Gable all owned their own keys. The car also became a presidential sedan: John F. Kennedy rode in the back of a 1961 Continental convertible just before he was killed in Dallas.
But over time, the Continental was bumped out by German and Japanese luxury automakers like Audi, BMW and Lexus. Even Lincoln’s larger Town Car and mid-size LS gained while the Continental lagged. The car held a small niche as a corporate shuttle, though its time was done. More than 60,000 Continentals sold in 1990, but sales took a sharp turn downward, and Ford Motor Co. stopped the Continental’s assembly lines in 2002.
The full-size sedan business has mostly disappointed in the United States, where buyers mostly opt for SUVs or mid-size sedans. Sales of Lincoln’s full-size MKS fell 24 percent last year in the United States. But China’s chauffeur culture has led to a rebirth of retro autos like the Continental, which will roll out a road-ready version to dealerships next year. Ford gave no price for the Continental, though some have estimated it could become Lincoln’s second most expensive vehicle behind the Navigator, which starts at around $61,000.
Some automakers have struggled to cater to China’s peculiar backseat tastes. Electric car maker Tesla’s flagship Model S, beset by worries from residents in China’s apartment-heavy cities that they would have problems charging the cars at home, was further derided by Chinese buyers because of the car’s relatively austere, bench-like backseat. Tesla has since rolled out $2,000 “executive” backseat upgrades, with leather, special heaters and smartphone media and climate controls.
But some luxury car companies have already found a solid high-end niche. At last year’s Chengdu Motor Show, British ultra-luxury brand Rolls-Royce showcased a $250,000 Ghost Series II with bamboo-themed pinstripes and pandas embroidered in the seats.
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