DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. is making a concerted effort to differentiate the design of the Ford and Lincoln brands, the auto maker’s top U.S. designer says.

“Underneath they may be the same vehicle, but whatever you see touch and feel would be different,” says Peter Horbury, executive director of design-The Americas, during the unveiling of the Lincoln MKT concept at the North American International Auto Show here.

The MKT cross/utility vehicle, a sibling to the upcoming ’09 Ford Flex CUV, reflects the versatility of the new Lincoln design DNA.

“We wanted to create something that wasn’t so prescriptive, (so) that every car looks like a copy of every other one just with a different size,” Horbury tells Ward's. “What we’re doing here is showing how the DNA can move from a sports coupe, like we did last year, into a higher (volume) car of this nature.”

While the MKT concept seats four, a production model likely would be modified to seat seven, as does the Flex, without changing the vehicle’s unique bustle-back cargo hold behind the second-row seats, Horbury says, noting, there is “space for another row of seats if we adjust the dimensions a bit.”

Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says if consumer reaction to the MKT is positive, it’s likely the vehicle will make it into production.

“It’s a concept, but not a pie-in-the-sky concept,” he says.

Certain eco-friendly elements also would be retained, including resins made from recycled waste and used in the concept’s body panels, energy absorbers, wire bundles and glazing, Fields says.

The use of such materials is as important to the environment as reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and improving fuel economy, he adds.

Meanwhile, despite dire predictions, Fields is cautiously optimistic about economic conditions this year.

“When you look at some of the metrics, yes, unemployment is up,” he says. “But by historical standards, it’s not particularly high and income is still growing,” he says.

Noting interest-rate cuts generally take six to nine months before they begin stimulating the marketplace, Fields says he is hoping, “that as we get to the second half of this year, those things will kick in and have a positive effect on the economy.”

bpope@wardsauto.com