HAVING ceded Cadillac a decade-long head start toward regaining relevance in the global luxury-car market, Ford Motor's Lincoln division has roused itself from somnolence with a reinvention plan of its own.
While the first of Cadillac's new-age sedans, the CTS, came to market in 2002, Lincoln is just now rolling out the first of four cars intended to redefine and revitalize the slumping brand over the next four years.
The kickoff car, the redesigned 2013 MKZ midsize sedan, was unveiled as a concept last January at the Detroit auto show and goes on sale this month. Lincoln is heralding the MKZ's arrival with an extravagant promotional campaign that on Monday will include an interactive display and visual presentation at Lincoln Center in New York.
Last month, during an in-depth preview at Ford's Product Development Center here, Matt VanDyke, Lincoln's global director, said the MKZ "lays the groundwork for a transformation of the brand."
This is not the first time Lincoln has tried to give itself a makeover, but any successes it achieved have been temporary at best. For years Lincoln has rolled out intriguing concept cars at auto shows only to put them back under wraps, seemingly forgotten. The parent company showed little desire to invest the billions of dollars that General Motors ultimately spent to revive Cadillac.
The necessity of a full-scale transformation illustrates the depths to which Lincoln, whose calendar-year sales plunged by 46 percent in 2001-11, has fallen. Once a luxury leader that created landmark designs like the elegant 1956 Continental Mark II, which was compared with Rolls-Royces of the time, and the clean-lined 1961 Continental with suicide doors, Lincoln in recent decades has resorted to applying its four-pointed star to gussied-up Fords and Mercurys. The dichotomy was literally on display at the Los Angeles auto show last week, where displays of notable past Lincolns were more enticing than the new models offered for sale.
The borrow-and-rebadge strategy may have worked while the parent company was accumulating a stable of premium brands known around the world: Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo. But Ford sold off those automakers as it retrenched in recent years, leaving only Lincoln to fly the corporate flag in the booming luxury segment.
Mark Fields, Ford's chief operating officer, underscored the importance of a revival at the recent opening of the Lincoln Design Studio here. "We really understand that a luxury brand is essential to us as a successful global brand," he said.
Lincoln has a lot of ground to make up, and the MKZ is only a tentative first step. While the car may prove a solid midsize sedan, it seems unlikely to elevate Lincoln on the world's stage. For one thing, the MKZ is not a clean-sheet design; it is built on the same architecture as the Ford Fusion, and it shares many bits from that less expensive car.
Lincoln will continue to borrow from its down-market cousins in the foreseeable future. In response to a question after the MKZ was previewed for journalists, Rich Kreder, vehicle integration manager for Lincoln, said the three new models to follow will also be built on platforms shared with Fords.
Ford is not the only company using the same platform for midrange and luxury brands: the Cadillac XTS sedan, for instance, borrows its underlying architecture from the Buick LaCrosse. However, the CTS and ATS are built on platforms unique to Cadillac. But luxury leaders like BMW and Mercedes-Benz build on brand-exclusive architecture, and the flagships of nearly all premium luxury nameplates are unique designs.
Like the Fusion, MKZ is driven by the front wheels, with all-wheel drive optional. Front drive has foul-weather and packaging advantages, and most consumers find it acceptable. But enthusiasts generally prefer rear drive (or all-wheel drive) for optimum performance.
Lincoln's strategy for building a luxury brand stands in contrast to that of Cadillac. While Lincoln said it would not offer high-performance versions of its vehicles, Cadillac's V-Series models are potent performers. Like German and Japanese luxury brands, Cadillac has participated in motorsports to establish its performance bona fides. Lincoln has not announced any racing intentions.
Unlike Cadillac, which is now directly challenging BMW, Lincoln does not appear to be aiming at the big boys in the luxury field. "Our goal is not to outsell our competitors," said Mr. VanDyke, the global director, "but outdeliver them in terms of experience, personal service, design and quality."
He said Lincoln's strategy was to field vehicles in the fastest-growing luxury segments. That would presumably include sedans and crossovers but would preclude an image-building six-figure sports car or a 500-horsepower coupe.
With a starting price around $37,000, the MKZ is aimed at the medium-premium category inhabited by brands like Acura and Volvo. While the car shares much with the Fusion, its body is distinctive: more formal than the Fusion, with more chrome and finer detailing. The interior is richer, with better-grade leather and genuine wood trim.
The mechanical systems of the MKZ and Fusion are nearly identical, except that the MKZ will offer an optional 300-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 not available in the Fusion. (It is very similar to the Mustang's base engine.) Both cars will also come with a 240-horsepower 2-liter EcoBoost 4-cylinder.
The MKZ will also be offered with the Fusion's hybrid powertrain. There is no current plan to offer a Lincoln version of the Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid.autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.