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New Lincolns, Same Old Problems

Ford Motor's Lincoln division has never had the cachet of rival Cadillac. Nevertheless, there was a time when it had mojo. In the early '60s, John F. Kennedy made the Continental his Presidential limo, and everyone thought it was hip. A decade later, rock 'n' roll band Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen thought the brand was cool enough to sing about it in their 1970s' hit Hot Rod Lincoln.

Lincoln's success isn't just in the pre-import years, either. Get this: In 1990, sales of the Lincoln Town Car alone hit nearly 150,000 -- more than Mercedes and BMW sold in the U.S. combined. And in 1998, Lincoln rode the success of its Navigator SUV and LS sports sedan to win the U.S. luxury-sales crown.

But since then, Lincoln has been in a freefall, and only this year is Ford (F) trying to do anything about it. The new Zephyr sedan and Mark LT luxury pickup are Ford's attempts to transform the Lincoln from also-ran to American luxury. With 102,000 vehicles sold this year, Lincoln trails every serious luxury brand except Saab and some of the pricey niche brands, such as Jaguar.

NOTHING UNIQUE. And guess what? These new cars won't do the trick. Not even close. While the Zephyr and Mark LT are nice, they reflect more of the same wrongheaded ideas that Ford has ginned up for Lincoln for years. They're just spiffier versions of proletarian vehicles sold under the Ford label. To quote Ed Wallace, who runs an auto radio show in Dallas and whose knowledge of car history may be unmatched: "Lincoln's demise has come at the hands of Ford because they don't give it new, unique product."

In fairness, when I climbed into the Mark LT's swanky, cavernous cabin, I was impressed. Ford's designers used some gorgeous dark red wood and splashes of chrome to glamorize something as utilitarian as a pickup. On the road, it's as quiet as a country chapel and drives surprisingly smoothly.

A week later, I tested the Zephyr sedan, which is also a very nice car. Its dashboard was decked out in light-colored wood and creme leather with attractive gauges that reminded me of Lincolns from the '60s.

WON'T BE FOOLED AGAIN. But as my friend Wallace said, neither car is uniquely a Lincoln. You can get a Ford Fusion sedan that offers the same room and comfort of a Zephyr. The exterior styling isn't all that different, either. You can get an F-150 pickup with many of the amenities of the Mark, but for less money.

Wallace points out that the Zephyr is a spruced-up Fusion in the way that the '70s-era Lincoln Versailles was similar to a Ford Granada and Mercury Monarch. Many of the Continentals in the past few decades weren't much better than Ford Thunderbirds.

Consumers won't be fooled by upscale versions of Fords. Even worse, neither offers what luxury buyers really want these days. Just look at what's hot: Cadillac and Nissan's (NSANY) Infiniti brands have come back with sporty rear-drive sedans -- the kind of cars that sparked a love affair between wealthy baby boomers and their BMW's and Benzes.

FUTILE PURSUIT. Luxury buyers prefer rear-drive because the steering is more precise and the handling is better. Front-wheel drive is a nice practical purchase because it's better in snow, but it's not as much fun to drive.

While rear-drive luxury cars and crossover SUVs are hot, Ford brings us a pickup and a front-drive car. Those are good choices for the practical buyer, but that's not what luxury is about. I doubt many Lexus and BMW owners will be trading in their RX 330 SUVs or 330 sedans for a Zephyr or a pickup anytime soon. And that means

Lincoln's decline just marches on.


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