DETROIT – Lincoln officials are making final preparations for the luxury brand’s launch in China in the fourth quarter.

Matt VanDyke, ‎director-Global Lincoln Marketing, Sales and Service, does not disclose what models Lincoln initially will offer in China, but says the automaker has been studying the country’s luxury-buyer preferences for years, including the desire for long-wheelbase cars.  

“Every product from MKZ and beyond that we are introducing in China or globally we began with clinics and studies in China concurrently with here,” he tells WardsAuto in a recent interview. “We have understanding of what targets we have to hit in both places, and now as we launch every new product it will be a fit for those markets.”

Should Lincoln introduce long-wheelbase vehicles in China as is expected, they won’t necessarily be modified versions of the current lineup, VanDyke says, adding that whatever the case, complexity won’t be added to Lincoln’s manufacturing operations.

With product plans in place, Lincoln officials have turned attention to developing a dealership network in China. Initially there will be five dealers in four major cities, but plans call for rapid expansion to smaller urban centers should the brand prove successful in the market.

Potential dealers are being vetted based on their experience and willingness to work with Lincoln in crafting a unique image in China’s luxury-vehicle market. The strength of the Ford brand in China has attracted potential dealers to the Lincoln brand, VanDyke says.

Dealerships will have a boutique feel to them, avoiding the typical layout of an open floor plan with multiple vehicles parked within the building, he says.  

“The dealership facilities and the experience will be really innovative,” VanDyke says. “It’s not just the brick and mortar that will feel different, but how we treat people along the way will match how innovative the actual facility is.”

To break into the crowded Chinese luxury market, 80% controlled by German makers BMW, Audi and Mercedes, Lincoln has to find the unmet needs of consumers, he says. Conquesting buyers from the Germans is not the primary objective, however.

“The size of the luxury market and the opportunity to further develop for other brands is huge,” he says. “It will be new customers coming into the market, as well as multiple-time car owners and even luxury car owners that we think will aspire to own a Lincoln.”

VanDyke declines to reveal volume expectations for Lincoln in China, but says initially all vehicles will be imported from North America and Mexico. Manufacturing in China is being considered, but there are no concrete plans, he says.

Initially each dealership will receive an allotment of vehicles and a centralized pool of inventory will be established to fill unexpected consumer demand. Lincoln officials are taking great care to ensure vehicles and replacement parts are in stock by the brand’s Q4 launch.

“All it takes is one windshield wiper to not be on a car or available as a spare part to bring down the whole car,” VanDyke says. “The infrastructure and planning around that is an enormous amount of work, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last 24 months.”

Pricing has yet to be disclosed, but it will be competitive with competing luxury brands, he says, noting although many Chinese consumers pay with cash there is a growing trend toward leasing and financing.

In the U.S. market, VanDyke says dealers are anxiously anticipating the arrival of the MKC small CUV expected later this year.

Until then, dealers have been relying on the new MKZ midsize sedan to drive volume. Despite the lack of a strong lineup right now, VanDyke says dealers are optimistic about the brand’s future having been shown plans calling for the introduction of four new vehicles over the next four years.

“The dealer body saw substantial improvement in profitability last year,” he says. “I think they are encouraged this is the beginning of growth for Lincoln.”

In addition to the impending arrival of the MKC, as well as a refreshed Navigator fullsize SUV, VanDyke says Lincoln-exclusive powertrains are in the works.

He admits Lincoln cannot thrive with models that are little more than modified Ford vehicles, but says sharing on some levels between the two brands is essential.

“We recognize that to take Lincoln to the next level we have to have powertrain and technology differentiation and unique proportions,” he says. “And we have to have different driving dynamics and the like. But Lincoln is not at a volume stage where we don’t want to smartly leverage the scale of Ford globally.”

bpope@wardsauto.com