Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – U.S. Lincoln-brand dealers face an Oct. 1 deadline to comply with new operating guidelines designed to make Ford’s luxury marque more competitive in the luxury-vehicle market.

The guidelines are intended to upgrade the customer experience, the auto maker says. Ford’s plan to begin measuring compliance April 1 is among the pillars that support an aggressive strategy to breathe new energy into the storied brand.

Another pillar is a dealer network that is smaller than the current 1,100-store organization.

“Without those two elements, everything’s lost,” Ken Czubay, vice president-sales and marketing, says here at the National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention.

The auto maker declines comment when asked how many dealers it hopes to cut nationwide.

Toyota’s Lexus brand, the U.S.-market’s luxury-segment leader for 11 years running, has fewer than 500 dealers and recorded 229,329 new-vehicle deliveries in 2010, according to Ward’s data.

Lincoln’s swollen network accounted for 179,023 sales last year, more than half of which were Mercury-brand vehicles, which Ford phased out of production last year.

But Czubay confirms a dealer-count bogey in the 320 range to cover the top 130 markets.

Lincoln has 434 dealers in those markets now, down from 500 in October when Ford first announced its plan to rejuvenate its luxury brand’s business.

The operating guidelines outlined for dealers include implementation of a certified pre-owned vehicles program and customer-service upgrades, such as providing car washes and loaners when Lincoln owners bring in their vehicles for repair.

These are “basic elements that are required to conquest customers in the luxury market,” says Jim Farley, group vice president-global marketing, sales and service.

A third pillar of Lincoln’s plan for success is new product. Farley promises seven new or refreshed products over the next three years.

The first of this group, the MKX midsize cross/utility vehicle, is launching now. The rollout also includes a C-segment vehicle, the brand’s first.

Farley also reminds dealers Lincoln now has its own dedicated design chief, former Cadillac designer Max Wolff, who bolted to the Blue Oval company in January.

Dealers largely seemed unfazed by the push to trim their numbers. “Nothing new,” says one as he exited the meeting with Farley, Czuby and other executives.

“I think Lincoln has a bright future,” says Chuck Eide, general manager of Sioux Falls Ford in Sioux Falls, SD.