The cars we loved.
Quick, think of three luxury car brands. Was Lincoln one of them? It’s true the Lincoln brand has lost some of it’s significance to those who grew up with Lexus dominating the luxury car market. Even as a relatively late party crasher, Lexus has developed it’s brand.
Brand cachet means everything in today’s luxury car market. That would explain why presumably great cars are overlooked in favor of simply good ones with an established history. It’s arguable that BMWs are no longer what they once were in quality and performance, yet they outsell Cadillac sportier products equals its German rivals in most everyday use parameters.
Brand cachet has been shifting ever since Lexus ate the lunch of just about every luxury car maker in the US market. By the time the first Lexus was available on American shores, old standbys like Lincoln and Cadillac were already seeing declines in market share. Cadillac has since remade itself in an ongoing attempt to be more German than BMW. In the process it has lost some of what made them special to Baby Boomers, many of who are not even Cadillac’s target market anymore.
Despite being artificially propped up by its enormously popular Escalade SUV, the brand has been trying to overcome the (ghetto) gangster image that plagues its big sedans and domestic competitors like Chrysler’s 300. Lincoln has a similar problem, except nothing in it’s mostly SUV line up is nearly as popular Cadillac’s Escalade. To make matters worse, few younger buyers in the market for a luxury car even consider Lincoln when cross shopping Audi, BMW, Mercedes and quickly ascending Volvo.
This puts Lincoln by contrast in a more desperate situation. Image wise its days of big Mark Vs and boxy Continentals are the strongest image the brand can conjure. Its problem is that this image and the people who remember it are not the market Lincoln is chasing after. Like Cadillac, Ford sees virtues in chasing after a younger more hip demographic (the mythical young wealthy Millennial). Lincoln like Cadillac, is trying to distance itself from its legacy as a maker of big lazy float boat sedans. Cadillac got a headstart on Lincoln and is further along. To marketing execs, old Caddys and Lincoln cars are popular with the very demographic they would like to distance themselves from. Rappers, high school dropouts and lottery winners need not apply.
All luxury brands to some extent have the difficult task of carving out a niche that separates them from others. Today it’s even more difficult considering that most cars in the upper price ranges have the same level of kit and engine efficiency as a well-equipped mid-sized family sedan. Among all brands, power, efficiency and performance are becoming comparable to the point of being similar.
For Lincoln, the temptation to not chase after BMW or European performance sedans is brave and commendable. Not that it has’nt tried it before with the LS. Lincoln has instead chosen to focus on style with passive performance on tap when it’s needed (like luxury cars of the past once were). This is the approach I wish Cadillac would take more, at least with it’s largest cars. Lincoln only makes two cars at the moment: the new Ford Taurus based Continental and the recently redesigned Fusion based MKZ, so it has to get this right. The MKZ started out merely good – it’s only real point of distinction was the ugly Chester cat grille that was an unfortunate stamp of Lincoln’s brand signature.
For the 2017 model year all of that has changed for the better. The smaller and expected mainstream seller, the MKZ is now a handsome mid-sized sedan. The Continental is simply beautiful if not derivative looking. The Jaguaresque face of both cars is no doubt a leftover influence of Ford having owned Jaguar so many years ago.
It’s the MKZ which is expected to give Lincoln much of its car sales moxey back (Lincoln sells more trucks than cars these days). It’s well equipped with three power train options that range from a 2 liter Atkinson Cycle electric engine with 188 hp to a powerful 400 hp twin turbo V6. The version likely to find its way into most buyer’s cars is the twin turbo 2 liter four cylinder with its 245 hp and estimated 31 mpg. With those specs, the MKZ is closely matched with BMW’s 328. It like the other gasoline option uses a 6 speed automatic transmission (with paddle shifters on some versions).
The exterior of the MKZ is somewhat marred by the rear end, especially how the “C” pillar flows awkwardly into the rear flanks. At some angles it looks muscular and suggest performance, but by most views it just looks odd. From the side, the MKZ strikes an attractive if not graceful profile. It’s interesting to note that in the similar looking and slightly larger Continental, the “C”pillar flows more gracefully into the rear of the car. Still, the 2017 MKZ is a considerable improvement over the previous year’s frumpy lines, even if it’s not using all the styling cues from the impressive 2015 Continental show car which inspires it.
The MKZ is just as impressive inside. Its dash is elegant and the deceptively simple center stack with it’s well integrated media screen is a joy to look at. The materials are of the expected quality in a car likely to go out the door closer to the 40s than it’s $35K starting price. Other distinctive features like a giant sliding glass panoramic sunroof will insure an airy cabin. The only concession to retro in the otherwise forward looking cabin is the drive controls that are neither gear nor knob controlled. In a nod to old Chryslers and Fords of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the MKZ drive controls are push buttons on the left side of the center stack.
As nice as the MKZ is, it will have an uphill battle in forging out an image where brands like Lexus, BMW, Audi, Mercedes and even Cadillac have distinguished themselves. Features like Lincolns Black Label aims to appease customers with a level of exclusivity by combining design, service and special privileges, but it may not be enough when a Mazda 6 buyer can get similar treatment.
For the sake of Lincoln, one can only hope that it’s cars catch on. Save for the coming new Navigator, the Continental and MKZ are the best bet Ford has to make a name for it’s luxury offering in America.