DETROIT – Lincoln unveils the MKC concept at the North American International Auto Show, a vehicle it says will play an instrumental role in the brand’s reinvention should it make it to production.

The MKC small luxury cross/utility vehicle resides in a segment that has grown over the past year and is forecast to continue to do so. According to WardsAuto data, the segment, which includes the Audi Q3, the BMW X1 and the Mercedes GLK, sales surged 57.6% in 2012 to 38,311 units.

Overall U.S. Lincoln sales in 2012 fell 4.0% compared with 85,643 in 2011.

The segment growth is driven at both ends of the demographic spectrum, says Kate Pearce-Lincoln consumer brand manager.

“We’re starting to see a lot of new consumers looking to buy luxury (cars) for their first purchase, and these are customers we can introduce to the Lincoln brand and MKC,” she tells WardsAuto. “We’re seeing a shift of consumers who have had larger vehicles and are looking to downsize.”

Pearce refers to this group of buyers shopping the segment as “progressive luxury shoppers,” noting they represent some 23% of the overall luxury automotive market and are willing to try brands that aren’t necessarily market leaders.

Lincoln is hoping the MKC will attract progressive buyers with exterior and interior design cues that “transcend typical luxury automotive standards.”

The concept boasts a wide stance with 20-in. painted wheels with polished aluminum rims that fill the wheel wells and complement the sculpted body sides.

“The MKC concept has a wonderful stance and sits beautifully on its wheels,” says Murat Gueler, lead exterior designer. “It has a sleek, sculpted body and wheel arches and elegant shoulders. The lines of the vehicle appear relatively simple on first look, but with a second view reveal a dynamic three dimensionality.”

The front fascia is adorned with Lincoln’s signature split-wing grille, but it is less prominent than on other vehicles in the lineup, such as the MKT fullsize CUV.

The rear has full-width light-emitting-diode taillamps with the Lincoln logo stretched across the rear decklid. Unlike many other vehicles, the taillamps are not interrupted by a cutline for the tailgate. Gueler says the decision to place the cutline on the body side, creating a clamshell like rear liftgate, “contributes to the athletic presence of the vehicle.”

The interior is lined with high-quality materials, including supple leather, soft-touch plastics and appliqués on the steering wheel, instrument panel and door panel that were cut from layers of recycled and reconstructed wood that are infused with a metallic flakes.

Like the MKZ midsize sedan, the MKC concept has a push-button gear shift selector, while in the rear the center console serves as both a refrigerator and warmer for hot food items.

Lincoln designers say all the features on the concept car are feasible for production. Should it be produced, the MKC likely would be underpinned by Ford’s global C-car platform, which shoulders the Focus and Escape.

Pearce says Ford is investing heavily in its Lincoln division in hopes of cashing in on the burgeoning global luxury market.

“We see significant growth in the global luxury automotive space over the next five years,” she says. “In just 2013, we expect 7.5% growth in luxury space globally and that outpaces the mass market.

“A 1% share growth in the global luxury automotive space translates to 2.5 million units over five years,” Pearce adds. “So this is a substantial opportunity for the company to grow sales, share and revenue.”

bpope@wardsauto.com