VICTORIA, Australia – Having sold off Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo, Ford is left with Lincoln as its sole prestige brand. But is Lincoln truly premium, given the current offerings are little more than gussied-up Fords?

Does Ford plan to take Lincoln global in an attempt to match its German rivals, or is it content to remain a bit-part player in the U.S., where sales slid to a dismal 85,643 in 2011, WardsAuto data shows, with no signs of improving?

Lincoln sales peaked at 231,660 units in 1990, and today the brand barely registers with luxury-car buyers, seen more as a rival for Buick than Cadillac in the domestic market.

Yet, Ford insists it wants to rebuild the brand’s image by launching seven new models by 2014, starting with the MKZ, a re-skin of the new Fusion. Next year, Lincoln plans to launch its first small car, the MKC, a Focus-based compact based on the design of the ’09 Lincoln Concept C.

Rumors in the buff books and on the Internet claim Lincoln also is aiming at the BMW 3-Series with a small ’15 Mustang-based, rear-wheel-drive sports sedan.

WardsAuto recently caught up with J Mays, Martin Smith and Moray Callum, who run Ford design globally, during one of their quarterly design review meetings, this time at Ford Australia’s Broadmeadows studio. The following is an edited version of an informal question-and-answer session with the three.

WardsAuto: To be a genuine luxury-car contender, does Lincoln need RWD models, such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac offer with their strong emphasis on rear-drive proportions?

Callum: “Is Audi prestige? Of course, and Audi is front- or all-wheel drive. I think we can achieve (the proportions) with front drive. We all agree that RWD proportions are preferred from a design viewpoint.

But Audi has proved you can take a FWD platform and get some pretty good proportions. We are working on that at the moment. Lincoln is an interesting subject, one of the subjects we often talk about in our (design) meetings.”

Mays (who started his career at Audi and worked hard to raise the German brand’s image): “Now that we have Ford on track and know what the next 10 years of Fords will look and feel like, we can turn our attention to doing the same thing at Lincoln. It’s getting a lot of face time with the three of us.”

WardsAuto: In 1999, Lincoln intended to go international. Initially, the idea was to launch the RWD LS in Europe. The LS, based on the DEW98 architecture developed with Jaguar and in use today on the Jag XF, never achieved the sales volumes planned. Although a second-generation model was designed, it was killed by Ford before tooling began.

But without its European brands, Lincoln is its Ford’s one shot at building a prestige brand that theoretically could do for the Blue Oval what Audi now is doing for the Volkswagen Group. So how long before Ford intends to take Lincoln global?

Callum: “We need to make Lincolns beautiful and attractive in the States first. The way I see it, we’d like to be wanted in other countries before we force Lincoln on any other countries.”

Mays: “Martin (Smith) and I were at a brand in a past lifetime that started off as a Bavarian farmers’ car. We know how many decades it took to get to global dominance.

I would argue that it takes a decade of a brand releasing product after product after product that are hits, no wobbles and no misses, to start to change customer perceptions and actually move the brand.

Should you hiccup or stumble, you can just reset the clock and get another decade. I would be hopeful that if we look at Lincoln 10 years from now we’re going to have had more hits than misses.”

Callum: “You want people (outside the U.S.) to look at the Lincolns produced in the U.S. and to say, ‘I want a Lincoln. Why don’t you sell Lincolns?’”

Smith: “Lincoln has to be right before you can take it (international). The experience of Cadillac highlights that. It is another example of an American luxury brand attempting to go global, but not having the right products to go global.

You need products to be internationally seductive and not to be seen as American-centric. Then you can be successful.”