WASHINGTON – Remember Generation X as an angst-ridden bunch, derided as the slacker set?
Maybe they didn’t turn out so bad after all. Why else would auto companies now be pitching luxury cars to them?
Motor Co.’s Lincoln Mercury Div. is taking demographic aim at Gen Xers in marketing its all-new ’09 Lincoln MKS flagship sedan, touted for elegant design and high technology.
“In going after the Gen X customer, we want to highlight the vehicle’s technology because that group is very tech savvy,” Brett Wheatley, Lincoln’s marketing manager, says at a media preview here.
Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1982, got a bum rap for being lazy, because many of them temporarily faltered after graduating from college only to find limited career opportunities, says Sheryl Connelly, atrend tracker.
“Faced with such limitations, a lot of them became entrepreneurs and succeeded,” she says. “Gen Xers are starting to increase their accumulated wealth and are approaching their peak earning years.”
That puts many of them, in their 40s now, in a position to buy luxury cars, says Connelly, herself a member of that generation.
It’s something of a belated honor to the one-time scorned generation that Lincoln is pitching the MKS particularly to them, because it is intended as a special renaissance vehicle for a division that has seen better days.
Lincoln sold 131,487 units last year, with 0.82% of the market share, according to Ward’s data. It hasn’t surpassed 1% since 2000.
“This product is so important to Lincoln and Ford,” says Wheatley of the new addition to the division’s lineup.
MKS designers harkened back to better days for the brand, borrowing from and freshening up design details from Lincolns of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
The car’s signature design feature is a split-wing grille influenced by the ‘41 Lincoln, says Peter Horbury, Ford’s executive director-design, The Americas.
“Lincoln has this great design heritage, so why waste it?” he says. “This car represents a new design language; simple, pure and elegant. It is the start of a whole new era for Lincoln.”
Other styling features include kickups over the wheel and what Horbury calls one of the best features: a rear end “that flows down and out, almost bumper-less.” Slim taillights that stretch across the width of the back, like the Lincoln taillights of the ‘60s and ‘70s did.
Exterior technology highlights include adaptive cruise control that keeps the car a safe distance from the vehicle in front of it; adaptive high intensity discharge headlamps that pivot to increase the driver’s field of vision; and an industry-exclusive capless fuel-filler system that automatically seals shut when the nozzle is removed.
Interior technology features include sync, a voice-activated in-car communications and entertainment system developed by Ford and Microsoft Corp.
Such connectivity done with seamless integration is important, says Jim Buczkowski, Ford’s director-electronics and electronic systems. “It’s how we can use the buttons in the vehicle to make it better and safer.”
He adds: “How much is too much technology in a car? If we’re bringing it in because you can, then it’s not useful. If we’re doing it to help, then it’s a success.”
The MKS also offers a new-generation navigation system that provides real-time information, including traffic and weather conditions. Also debuting is a state-of-the-art THXII surround-sound audio system.
The sound system, the climate-control system and anything else that make noise were off when engineers tested prototypes and addressed potential noise, vibration and harshness issues, says Craig Tomai, the MKS’s vehicle integration manager.
The vehicle is billed as the quietest in its segment, thanks to such innovations as specially laminated windows to achieve acoustical quality.
Engineers also focused on an engaging ride, using a new independent suspension system to help achieve that.
“The car absolutely had to have a luxury ride, but we didn’t want it to feel like a rolling sofa,” he says.
The MKS shares the same platform as the Ford Taurus and new Ford Flex.
The 3.7L V-6 engine is a derivative of the 3.5L V-6 in two sister Lincolns, the MKX cross/utility vehicle and MKZ midsize sedan.
The 3.7L delivers 273 hp without premium fuel and about 275 hp with it, Tomai says. The transmission is a 6-speed automatic.
Base price is $39,555, including an $800 destination fee. The sticker price reaches $46,070 with various options, such as 20-in. (50.8-cm) aluminum wheels, rear-view camera and a dual-panel moon roof.
The MKS is going after two main competitors, the Cadillac STS and the Lexus GS. Lincoln touts the MKS as costing about $4,000 less than the STS.
One of the first people to acquire an MKS when it goes on sale in early summer will be Lou King, general manager of Ourisman Ford Lincoln Mercury of Alexandria, VA.
“See that CLK,” she says, pointing to a Mercedes-Benz parked outside the dealership. “I’m switching that for an MKS.”
She calls it an “awesome car and something Lincoln needed to compete in that segment.”
The MKS is significant because it takes Lincoln in a new direction while paying homage to the division’s styling past, says auto analyst Erich Merkle, a vice president at IRN Inc.
“It’s not overtly retro, and some people may miss the design cues of the past, but they are there,” he says. “The key to Ford’s and(Corp.’s) success is doing a better American vehicle, and the MKS is an example of that.”
The MKS reaches the proper balance by sharing a platform with the Taurus but featuring distinctly upscale Lincoln accoutrements that a customer can see and touch, Merkle says.
“For a long time, Lincoln was a neglected brand that offered a lot of rebadged Fords,” he says.
Concurring with that is Jim Farley, Ford vice president-marketing and communications.
“Lincoln was never abused, but it was neglected,” says Farley, whose grandfather was a Lincoln dealer in metro Detroit. “Lincoln had good cars here and there, but it just wasn’t consistent.”
MKS marketing will take various forms, Wheatley says. It will be a soft sell to Generation X.
“They don’t like to be advertised to, so we’re trying to get their attention and let them discover the product on their own,” he says. “But we’ll do mass-media marketing because that is still important in getting the brand out.”
Through July, 315 of the top Lincoln dealerships in the U.S. are holding special evening events to show the new car to invited guests.
“The day is spent with our trainers bringing the dealership sales staffs up to speed on the car, its design, craftsmanship and technology,” says MKS marketing manager Pei-Wen Hsu. “Then the customer event is held that very night.
“We do it that way to keep the sales people fresh and focused,” she says.