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How to fix Lincoln
There’s nothing wrong with the current range of Lincolns, Ford’s America-centric ‘luxury’ arm. But the problem is there’s very little right with them either. Don’t take that the wrong way. They are not badly made or unreliable. They are also not ugly or ill-proportioned.
But here’s the real issue. Lincolns currently don’t make you really feel anything at all. And in the luxury car space which is already packed with extraordinary cars from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Audi and Jaguar, that lack of emotion is a recipe for disappointment.
The current Lincoln line-up is largely comprised of models that are subtly sophisticated versions of existing Ford vehicles, as they have been for the past decade or more. The Lincoln Navigator, once the profit powerhouse of the whole Blue Oval, is still based on the ancient Ford Expedition. The MKX is lifted off the Ford Edge with some slightly tidier and more expensive clothes.
A few rays of light are starting to emerge. The MKZ, which is based upon the new Fusion - the new UK Mondeo debuting in 2015 - is way more accomplished and wieldy than its unadventurous looks would suggest. And the new Kuga-based MKC crossover, powered by the new 2.3-litre EcoBoost motor should be a fine competitor for the Audi Q5.
But it doesn’t really do anything better than the German car other than cost less. It’s not clear which cars the new Lincolns are going to beat and how they will do it on anything other than price. The knee-jerk answer is Cadillac, but that’s almost unfair. The GM luxury brand has had over ten years of concentrated time and resources to get where it is today - just about to properly join the luxury set.
Both Lincoln and Cadillac are in the business of defining and selling American lux. Cadillac bosses shook their company out of its ugly tailspin at the turn of the millennium using the time-honoured method of disruption. Lincoln needs to do the same.
The original CTS might look quite tame today, but when it first broke cover in 2002, the world put down its tea mug and took notice. Then in 2004 Cadillac went to the centre of all things European-performance-car - the Nurburgring - and posted a time that proved the CTS was the beginning of something special.
That was over a decade ago and it’s only today, with the new CTS, that the model has truly, properly come of world-class age. The V Sport CTS is everything the 5-Series BMW used to be - light, fast, accurate and, most of all, fun. What the full-house CTS-V will be like is anyone’s guess, but I’ll bet more than a few M5 owners are going to defect when it emerges.
This, to state the bleedin’ obvious, is the only route to success in the luxury market - build a better car than your competitors and sell it for the same price or less with the same or better customer service. Oh, and make your brand stand for something that anyone and everyone can understand. Cadillac’s The Standard of the World tagline is not great, but at least I can remember it and I know where they are going. I don’t even know if Lincoln has a tagline and if they do, I definitely have no idea what it is.
One breakout car
The good news is that it might not be too hard for Lincoln to get things back on track. It just needs one breakout car to shake it out of its torpor and grab the world’s - or at least the US’s - attention. And it’s not like there are no great suggestions on direction in the Lincoln design cupboard.
Take the fabulous Gatsby-esque Continental concept car from 2002 (above) - the same year the production CTS debuted - designed under the guidance of then Lincoln and Mercury (RIP) and now at Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern. It was a modern take on the all-time-best Lincoln ever made, the 1961 Continental. You look at that car and instantly see the best of American luxury. Like some vast, four-wheeled Harley Davidson, it took everything about the original car - suicide doors, sumptuous comfort, relaxing ride - and updated it for today.
With the population ageing so rapidly, and Cadillac having gone down the performance route, surely it would be the perfect time to focus on creating an old-school luxury brand.
Properly luxurious American
We don’t need another car to drive around like it’s on fire. We’ve got plenty of those already. What we haven’t got is a properly luxurious American brand, one that completely dismisses lap times and top speeds and focuses solely on making the occupants feel special and royally comfortable. Lincoln can, and I suggest should, be that brand.
The Continental concept was a hardtop, but there were also internal sketches showing how the open-topped version would look. That’s the car I think Lincoln should start with today. No other car manufacturer makes, or will make, a proper four-door convertible. So the space is wide open.
The foor-door V12 Mercedes Ocean Drive concept, with its huge canvas roof, caused a traffic jam of onlookers and rubberneckers when I drove it in Miami Beach, but MB said they couldn’t make it work for production. And, more recently, the fabulously reductive and expansive Cadillac Ciel caused billionaires to beg GM to build it, but they won’t.
Absurdly expensive project
But maybe Lincoln should. A new Continental might be an absurdly expensive project to consider and it might not ever make a profit, but it would create enough disruption to tell the world that Lincoln is really serious about winning back our hearts, minds and then wallets. Ford really needs Lincoln to work ASAP, as it’s being squeezed from all sides, especially by the once purely premium brands.
Which is why Ford got so serious about reinvigorating Lincoln a couple of years ago. To lead the charge they hired Cadillac’s head of design, Max Wolff, who has now been joined by someone who perhaps knows more than anyone what needs to be done at Lincoln, design-wise at least.
His name is David Woodhouse and he’s a Brit. He was on McGovern’s advance design team in California when all the cool Lincoln concepts were pouring out of the secret studio. He was the Chief Designer of the Continental Concept and worked on many others. Speaking with him at the Detroit show, he said he is in the throes of mapping out what Lincoln is going to look like over the next 30 years.
I asked him if he could give us any clues to his thinking, but he said it was too early for that. Looking at where the range is today relative to all the other brands, I reckon Lincoln should bet the farm on that big four-door convertible. It could be so shockingly good it would put Lincoln back on the luxury map immediately.
It’s not about pure logic, it’s about emotion. Pride, joy and envy will make Lincoln succeed. Maintaining the relatively safe, inoffensive designs and clever engineering will not.