CHICAGO – Speaking on the eve of launching an important new model at the Chicago Auto Show here, the president of Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln-Mercury division says the upscale brand will increase its market share this year and in subsequent years.
Mercury expects upcoming version of Escape to revitalize interest of younger buyers.

Lincoln-Mercury President Darryl B. Hazel says the launch of new Mercury models – including the ’05 Mercury Montego fullsize sedan to be unveiled here this week – will boost the flagging division’s sales in 2004.

“We’ll be satisfied with a tenth of a point of (increased market) share this year,” Hazel tells Ward’s. He says the new models will help the division to grow despite a specific mandate to de-emphasize fleet sales.

“It won’t happen overnight,” says Hazel, who adds the division’s goal is to increase its market share by a tenth of a point every year for the foreseeable future.

Moreover, Lincoln-Mercury dealer profit increased last year, he says. “That only happens with volume – and volume is important.”

Although the Lincoln brand has held its own in light of the recent cascade of new luxury and near-luxury nameplates, Mercury sales have dropped steadily for half a decade to a current level of about 200,000 units annually.

Hazel says that free-fall will end with the influx of Mercury’s new models. This year, in addition to Montego – Mercury’s version of Ford’s crucial new Five Hundred sedan – Mercury will introduce the Mariner, a version of the popular Ford Escape cross/utility vehicle.

Mariner is targeted as the genuine entry-level, younger-buyer-attracting model Mercury has lacked since it dropped the Cougar coupe in 2002.

“We do aspire to a younger, more contemporary buyer with Mariner,” says Hazel.

“Mercury is a priority integral to the success of Ford,” he adds. “But it doesn’t work without Lincoln.” He says revitalization of Lincoln-Mercury is evident in the fact that the division is earmarked for 11 new models by 2007 – six for Mercury and five for Lincoln. (See related story: Lincoln, Mercury Gain Products, Steam)

Hazel says Mercury will continue to stress luxury at an affordable price. “Not everybody wants to be a part of the mass,” he says of Mercury’s place vis-a-vis the Ford brand. “But Mercury has to retain a value proposition.”

Lincoln, he says, will represent understated luxury. “Lincoln is for people who want to give themselves a reward – without being ostentatious.”

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com