Lincoln sharpens image with brand redesign

Lincoln shows the first of a new range

Lincoln shows the first of a new range of products with the introduction of the all new 2013 MKZ at the New York International Auto Show. (Credit: Scripps Howard News Service)

If you've seen the movie "Lincoln," you know that the luxury carmaker of the same name is reaching back through the mists of memory to restore its relevancy to today's buyers.

At many theaters, the Lincoln ad precedes the movie, featuring a ghostly flicker of Honest Abe through what some might assume is exhaust fumes from 90 years of Lincoln limos.

Let's set aside the issue of whether the 16th president would have been honored by the introduction of a midsize luxury sedan bearing his name. The Ford Motor Co. division represents a president that might not have had much marketing appeal south of the Mason-Dixon line when founder Henry Leland named the company after his childhood hero in August 1917.

After an interruption by World War I, Ford bought the Lincoln Motor Co. in 1922, but Lincoln did not become the Lincoln Division of Ford until April 30, 1940.

Lincoln adopted the greyhound as a hood ornament in 1927, then shifted to a coat of arms with a red cross in the center and a knight's helmet at the top in the 1930s.

Today, Lincoln is shaking off the remnants of the Mercury division that was phased out in 2011. Mercury, a near-luxury brand launched by Edsel Ford in 1938, became attached to Lincoln in 1945, creating the Lincoln-Mercury Division.

The loss of Mercury leaves Lincoln to fend for itself in a world of relentless competition. During years of neglect, Lincoln and Cadillac, the icons of American luxury, allowed their reputations to weaken as European imports extended roots into their home turf. On the value and innovation front, the Japanese makers Acura, Lexus and Infiniti created the cutting edge.

With an average buyer 65 years old, Lincoln watched sales fall 63 percent from its peak of 200,000 in 1990.

Lincoln Motor Co.'s relaunch is timed to coincide with the North American International Auto Show in Detroit and leading up to the brand's first Super Bowl ad in February.

Ford chief executive Alan Mulally said Ford's decision to divest its European luxury brands Jaguar and Volvo while closing down Mercury led to the decision to let Lincoln stand on its own.

In Detroit, the new Lincoln is represented by the MKZ midsize luxury sedan, which is designed to lure buyers away from the imports.

"The time is now for Lincoln," said Jim Farley, executive vice president of global marketing, sales and service for Ford and Lincoln. "The 'Great Recession' changed people and their view of luxury. Today, luxury consumers make decisions based on what appeals most to their passions and not what they believe will impress others."

To differentiate the MKZ from its Ford Fusion cousin, Lincoln attempted a more provocative design that features a feline face and rakish profile.

The base price of $35,925 is low enough to tempt midsize sedan buyers up market in pursuit of more standard equipment and plusher accommodations.

Among the standard features on the MKZ are power-adjustable tilt and telescoping steering wheel, heated rear seats, LED headlamps, and a THX sound system.

The 189-horsepower base 4-cylinder engine can be upgraded to a 3.7-liter V6. Buyers can also opt for the hybrid-powered version for maximum fuel economy.

Attractive options include a panoramic sunroof for $2,995.

MKZ will be the first of four new Lincoln vehicles in the next four years designed to appeal to "affluent individuals whose primary concern is no longer maintaining an image for others." While that may sound like they're just trying to appeal to old people, that's not exactly right. The target buyer might be one who is more attuned to Audi than BMW.

Let's hope they get it right this time. A land without Lincoln is too sad to contemplate.

Email Richard Williamson at motorfriend(at)sbcglobal.net.

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