DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. today unveils the Lincoln C concept vehicle at the North American International Auto Show.

Based on the auto maker’s global C-segment platform, the concept vehicle is meant to demonstrate what a future Lincoln small luxury car could look like.

During a show that has been short on thrills, due to the ongoing economic crisis, introducing a concept car still is a necessity, despite the added cost such a project entails, says Mark Fields, president-The Americas.

“You need feedback (from concepts), so we don’t want to restrict that,” Fields tells Ward’s on the sidelines of the show. “We’re watching every penny. But as you see from the show, we gave a surprise with the Lincoln C concept. At the same time, we have to do it in a responsible way.”

The concept car is powered by a 1.6L direct-injected, turbocharged 4-cyl. EcoBoost engine that produces 178 hp and 177 lb.-ft. (240 Nm) of torque. Ford says it is capable of achieving 43 mpg (5.5 L/100 km) on the highway.

Fields says such an engine may have a place in future Ford vehicles but declines to reveal any specific product plans.

Introducing a C-segment luxury car with a low-displacement 4-cyl. engine would be have unheard of just a few years ago but makes sense in today’s market place, Fields says.

“Five years ago, coming out with a luxury concept with a 1.6L engine, we probably would’ve been laughed off the stage,” he says. “But hopefully, this time, we’re applauded for it.”

Peter Horbury, executive director of design-The Americas, says the C concept conveys the “presence and elegance” of a large Lincoln in a smaller, more fuel-efficient package.

“Modern luxury buyers who live and work in large urban areas want to play their part in helping the environment by moving to a smaller vehicle, but they still want to enjoy the luxuries of life,” he says.

One of the most distinctive design elements of the Lincoln is its unique silhouette and squat stance, thanks to wheels that are pushed outward at all four corners. The goal was to imbue a “go-kart” sense of stability with elegant lines and surfaces, Ford says.

With the country in a recession, the luxury segment has been particularly hard hit.

“It used to be when you went into a tough economic period, the luxury segment would hold up better than the general market,” Field says. “What we’ve seen over the last couple of months is the luxury segment has been hit even harder than the general market.”

Despite the economic malaise, luxury vehicles will always play a significant role in the auto industry, he says. “There’s a certain segment of the population that still wants luxury.”

bpope@wardsauto.com