Final Inspection

Lincoln’s Biggest Challenge May Come From Within

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Ford is attempting to revive the moribund Lincoln brand, pouring considerable resources into launching new products, including the MKZ midsize sedan and the MKC CUV.

Ford vehicles began to transform from below to at or above industry standards around the time former product chief Derrick Kuzak was promoted to his post in 2006.

Products such as the redesigned Fusion, Focus and Escape began to turn around public perception of Ford, resulting in blossoming sales and year-after-year quarterly profits. But it also led to a brand-positioning predicament.

The automaker’s focus turned nearly entirely to the Blue Oval, leading to the shuttering or sale of several brands, including Volvo, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Mercury, a marque launched by Edsel Ford in 1938.

The sole survivor of the massive restructuring was Lincoln, the long-neglected luxury brand that in more recent years has been criticized for offering nothing more than gussied-up Fords.

Today, Ford is attempting to revive the moribund Lincoln brand, pouring considerable resources into launching new products, including the MKZ midsize sedan and the MKC CUV.

Both vehicles, the first two of four new products to be introduced over the next four years, are massive improvements over previous-generation Lincolns. The interior and exterior designs are better, powertrain offerings are improved and marketing efforts have been dialed up.

But all that may not be enough, as the line between Ford and Lincoln vehicles is a thin one due to the vast improvements of Blue Oval products.

The MKZ is a nice-looking vehicle, with a comfortable, if underwhelming, interior. But a top-of-the-line Ford Fusion, on which the MKZ is based, is just as good, if not better.

Other automakers face similar problems. Volkswagens long have been lauded for their excellent interiors, which are competitive with those of the automaker’s Audi luxury brand. But Audi has a cachet that allows it to charge thousands more than VW for its products. Lincoln does not have such an advantage.

Audi, like some other luxury brands with mass-market corporate parents, has worked to establish its image, clearly differentiating itself from VW with unique powertrains, technologies and styling.

The Lincoln brand has been neglected for so long it no longer springs to mind when consumers think of luxury automobiles, yet Ford still prices Lincolns as if they are premium vehicles. Much of what signals premium-ness to consumers is found in the badge. A BMW Roundel goes a long way when it comes time for a buyer to pull the trigger.

Ford’s pricing strategy is amiss. For example, a Ford Fusion Titanium edition starts at $32,600. With all the options it tops out at nearly $42,000. In comparison, a base Lincoln MKZ starts at $37,310, but loaded up is almost $51,000.

Other than a panoramic retractable roof, there are few MKZ features the high-end Fusion lacks, meaning customers can save nearly $10,000 in opting for the Fusion Titanium over a loaded MKZ.

If Lincoln still had the prestige enjoyed by top luxury competitors, consumers might not mind paying the markup. Unfortunately it does not, and it’s unclear whether it ever will regain that status.

Ford is stuck between a rock and a hard place with its Lincoln division. One option is to continue to drive the brand toward more premium vehicles with truly unique powertrains and interiors, but that’s a pricey proposition and there is no guarantee consumers would embrace an ultra-luxury Lincoln.

Its current strategy to convince consumers Lincoln is different and worth the extra dough by offering more personalized services could work.  

But if it doesn’t and Lincoln eventually fails, blame the long neglect and phoenix-like ascension of the Blue Oval.

bpope@wardsauto.com

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Jun 25, 2014

What a disappointing article from a source such as Wards. This would have been a great article from, oh, say, a year ago. So Lincoln needs more differentiation and improved interiors? Who hasn't said that so far? Haven't Lincoln execs been quoted themselves saying the exact same thing? And haven't other reviewers already been praising just those addressed elements in the new MKC? Have you driven that yet? Wasn't such further differentiation telegraphed by the MKX concept in China? What's the point bringing that up now?

Regarding the MKZ, that $10,000 premium doesn't just include a few frills. For that price, you're also getting an exclusive V6 and adaptable suspension among several other features that the highest spec Fusion doesn't offer. I agree that I'd rather see that premium at $6-7K, but the premium is valid otherwise and it's irresponsible to suggest that it doesn't include major components like an engine and suspension.

And it seems to be working. MKZ's are selling well and just were number 1 in their premium class in AutoPacific's annual vehicle satisfaction awards. This was widely reported about a week ago. Obviously, MKZ owners love their vehicles.

I'm one of those owners. I've had an MKZ hybrid since February and love it. I average over 40 MPG since purchase and can't think of another vehicle that can do that with similar comfort and style (and, yes, I test drove the Fusion Hybrid as well). I've also owned BMW's, Saabs, Acuras, and more pedestrian Fords and Chryslers, and I'll put the plastics in my MKZ up against that of my prior 135i and 330i any day of the week. BMW does some cheepie interior stuff here and there too...

Lincoln's got work to do, no doubt. But the media (and shockingly, Wards) do it no favors with outdated, statement-of-the-obvious reporting.

on Jun 25, 2014

The point I was making is Ford has become so upscale it's making it more difficult to differentiate Lincoln. I have driven the Lincoln MKC, and it's definitely high quality and competitive. But I've also driven fully loaded Ford Escapes, and they also are extremely well equipped and offer as many features as top competitors.

on Jun 27, 2014

What consumers often go for when looking for a vehicle apart from the technical specifications, is the interiors. They need comfort as well and not just technical advancements. Extra leg room is always welcomed and huge storage space up in the trunk is a plus point as well. Today, car manufacturers are always competing against one another in order to reach a wider target audience by introducing different attraction factors that consumers look out for before making a purchase. Ford is one of the credible car manufacturers that is still sellable until today and is always coming up with new innovations to keep up with the evolving trends.

on Jun 27, 2014

Good points, CameronRoberson.

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