NEW YORK – Ford Motor Co. unveils at the New York International Auto Show a midsize sedan for Lincoln that’s still in its “teaser” stage.

Lincoln’s next new car, the Zephyr, will be based on the Mazda6’s CD3 platform and will share parts and capacity at Ford’s Hermosillo, Mexico, plant with Ford- and Mercury-badged derivatives – all set to come to market in second-half 2005.

Lincoln Zephyr is due in 2005.

The auto maker plans to sell as many as 800,000 units annually in the U.S. off the CD3 platform, once the full lineup of products is in production. Ford Div. and Lincoln-Mercury will get as many as 10 vehicles from that architecture, which is targeted for production at three separate plants, including Hermosillo.

Despite criticism Ford might encounter for basing a future Lincoln on a moderately priced, high-volume platform, the auto maker is confident it is making the right move, Phil Martens, group vice president-product creation, says at a media briefing.

He says to consider the ’06 Lincoln Zephyr an exercise in restraint.

“Resisting the urge to reengineer perfectly good parts meant that we were helping the product creation process improve to work swiftly, flow better and therefore minimize quality (issues),” Martens says. “In turn, the money we would have spent on those parts is actually money that customers see, feel and appreciate.”

Sharing such things as body controllers, radio backings and engine controllers saved the company millions of dollars, at the same time it is helping to speed to market a vehicle that the 2-car Lincoln lineup needs badly if it is to compete effectively in the growing U.S. luxury market.

The Zephyr, expected to fall in the low $30,000 price range, is differentiated from its CD3 mates by the interior goodies people can see and touch, and the noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) refinement – “critical” to Lincoln buyers – that people will experience while driving, Martens says.

The Zephyr rides on a 2-in. (5.5-cm) longer wheelbase than the Mazda6 and 1-in. (3-cm) wider front track. It boasts better bending stiffness and a 20% boost in torsional stiffness.

Ford engineers had to hollow out a bit more headroom from the original design of Ford’s Mazda6-based derivatives without compromising structure in order to accommodate taller occupants, Martens says.

The Zephyr gets Ford’s moderately powered 3.0L V-6 and a 6-speed automatic transmission that currently is under development. The engine, transmission, suspension and steering will be tuned specifically for Lincoln’s “more comfortable” ride characteristics. An exclusive tire construction also will set the Lincoln apart.

Eventually the vehicle will get all-wheel drive, but it will debut only with front-wheel drive, as will the Ford and Mercury platform mates.

According to Martens, the Zephyr benchmarks Lexus’ midsize ES 330 sedan, which is based on a Toyota Camry platform and carries a drivetrain and powerplant that is widely used across the Toyota Motor Corp.’s product line. He says NVH tests prove Zephyr is better than the Lexus and that it exceeds Ford’s initial targets.

Still, the Zephyr is not exclusively going after Lexus buyers, according to Lincoln-Mercury Div. President Darryl Hazel.

“The consumer decides who the true competitor is,” he says.

The important thing is for the Zephyr to stay away from the heavy incentives that have boosted Lincoln sales in recent months and instead ride the industry-wide wave of success that Ford predicts will spawn “a resurgence in the car business,” Hazel says.

“New product should bring new customers, but if we try the same processes and techniques that we have had to use for aging products, it will not succeed (and) we will not realize the potential that the new product gives us.”

The company will rely as much on Zephyr’s design as it will rely on ride characteristics to help it compete in a class that includes the Cadillac CTS and Acura TL, according to J Mays, global group vice president-design. The Zephyr sports an ample amount of chrome and a highly stylized exterior to set it apart from its platform mates and the competition, he says.

“There’s only one thing I’m really interested in when we set out to design the vehicle and that’s really talking about the architecture and how (to get) the correct proportions of the vehicle, because proportion is everything in design,” Mays says.

“Ford still knows how to build a sedan,” he insists.

jstoll@primediabusiness.com