BEIJING – Ford officially launches its Lincoln luxury brand in China Thursday, promising to introduce five new vehicles by 2016, all of which will be imported from North America.

Starting this fall, the automaker will introduce the MKZ midsize sedan and the MKC, a small premium CUV. They will be followed by a midsize CUV, an all-new fullsize sedan and the Navigator large SUV.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally tells reporters here there are no current plans to manufacture Lincoln vehicles locally in China or to produce long-wheelbase versions for the Chinese market, although he does not rule out the possibility of either in the future.

Lincoln officials say longer-wheelbase models – considered almost a requirement in the Chinese luxury marketplace – are not crucial because the Lincoln vehicles already are larger than their segment competitors.

However, Mulally says, “It would be easy” to produce long-wheelbase models down the road if necessary. Much of his confidence stems from Ford’s recent spectacular gains in the Chinese market.
Once considered an also-ran that took too long to establish itself in what now is the world’s largest vehicle market, Ford is jumping over powerful competitors such as Toyota with its top-selling Focus compact and red-hot Kuga and Edge CUVs.

Ford has the right products at the right time for China, but it also is benefiting from domestic buyers shunning Japanese brands because a continuing territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing has stirred up old nationalistic hostilities.     

Ford sales jumped 50% last year and show continued momentum in 2014 as the small CUV segment continues to gain popularity in China. 

Lincoln will start with an independent network of eight dedicated dealerships in seven cities but will ramp up quickly to 60 stores in 50 cities by 2016, Robert Parker, president-Lincoln China, tells WardsAuto.

The carefully selected retailers will be located in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xi’an, Buangzhou, Hangzhou and Chengdu. Even though Lincoln vehicles, as imports, will be subject to tariffs, they will be priced competitively with other vehicles in their segment, even those that are built locally in China, Parker says.

China’s economy has been slowing, but Ford and Lincoln officials say new-vehicle sales still are expected to grow 7.5% to 8% this year, and China’s luxury market is expected to become the world’s largest by the end of the decade, if not sooner.

Much of Lincoln’s strategy is based on the premise the luxury landscape is changing in China, and that younger consumers are looking for an alternative to established, mostly European luxury brands.

Pei-Wen Hsu, deputy general manager of Lincoln China, calls it “brand fatigue.” German luxury sedans are commonplace in upscale urban areas and are losing their aura of exclusivity. At the same time, wealthy consumers are becoming distrustful of both the pricing and the service departments of established brands.

This has led Lincoln to develop a dealership model with unprecedented features, from offering potential buyers an elaborate tea service while they shop to videotaping mechanics while they are working on a customer’s car and then emailing the video to their phone so they can watch exactly how the work was done.

Another feature of every dealership will be a personalization studio that will allow customers to view a life-size image of their vehicle inside and out and then configure it with family and friends before ordering.   

“We are ahead of our schedule for dealer recruitment, with three more dealers opening this autumn than originally planned,” says Parker. “We have a terrific dealer network plan for Lincoln China, timed with our product introduction cadence.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com