More stories related to 2005 NAIAS DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. takes a stab at the slumping U.S. entry-level luxury car market for the first time, introducing a front-wheel-drive sedan into its predominantly rear-wheel-drive lineup.

“More and more people are viewing themselves as luxury customers,” and Lincoln’s first entry-level Zephyr sedan is aimed at attracting the upwardly mobile masses, Greg Smith, president-Americas, says during a North American International Auto Show press conference here to introduce the car.

Lincoln’s latest ride joins a cast of RWD sedans and trucks, including the LS, Town Car, Navigator SUV and the new Mark LT pickup, which goes into production this month at Ford’s Dearborn (MI) Truck Plant.

Lincoln Zephyr is slated to hit dealers this fall.

The ’06 sedan should fuel Lincoln’s drive to catapult sedan sales over the 100,000-unit mark (the brand sold 79,000 cars in 2005). Lincoln’s march to gain market share gets a major boost in ’07 when a midsize cross/utility vehicle (CUV) hits the lineup based on the company’s CD3 architecture. CD3 is a longer, wider and stiffer version of the Mazda6 chassis.

The domestic luxury car market slumped 10.4% in 2004 vs. 2003, while the domestic luxury middle CUV market rose 46.6%. Similarly sized luxury CUVs provide needed sales momentum for many luxury brands in the U.S. market, where sedan sales are down.

The Zephyr’s launch timing may be more a product of Ford’s North American middle car development program, kicked off in 2002, than it is a study in trends.

It is one of three vehicles Ford starts building later this year in Hermosillo, Mexico, off the CD3 platform. The Ford Fusion, unveiled Jan.9, and the Mercury Milan, slated for a Chicago Auto Show debut, round out the Hermosillo trio. (See related story: Fusion Headlines Ford’s 2005 Product Push)

Phil Martens, group vice president-product creation, tells Ward’s the Zephyr was made possible thanks to a manufacturing-led product development program that is being implemented globally.

The car evolved in 18 months, funded by cash saved by implementing virtual manufacturing and product-development collaboration as part of the Fusion and Milan programs.

Slated to hit dealers this fall, the Zephyr could arrive with a base price of around $30,000. Martens says the $29,000-$35,000 price range encompasses the entry-level segment.

The Zephyr nameplate harkens back to a 1930s premium car launched at a low price point for people wanting luxury cache for less money.

Although not ready to commit to a definite volume projection, Hermosillo could churn out as many as 50,000 units in its first year, says Paul Masceranas, vice president-vehicle programs, North American product development. The range likely will fall between 30,000 and 50,000 units.

Ford plans to sustain Lincoln demand in coming years by adding various features. While the vehicle debuts with FWD and a 3L V-6 capable of 210 hp, all-wheel drive will be introduced in the near-term future, as well as a 3.5L V-6.

The Zephyr signals a Lincoln future where most of its sedans will feature FWD and AWD, including a bigger sedan planned for later in the decade off Ford’s D3 large-car platform that currently underpins the Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle CUV.

The Zephyr offers Ford’s latest-generation touch-screen navigation system and the industry’s first THX II-certified audio system, which a spokesman says is equivalent to the best in the industry.

jstoll@primediabusiness.com