March 30 (Bloomberg) -- Ford Motor Co., determined to lift the lid on Lincoln sales, is popping the top on the newest model in its luxury line: The MKZ sedan arriving later this year will feature a retractable glass roof.
Lincoln will demonstrate its heavenly view at the New York auto show April 4. At the push of a button, the 15-square-foot glass roof will recede over the MKZ’s rear window, said C.J. O’Donnell, the brand’s marketing manager. The two-foot by two-and-a-half foot void that’s created is the biggest opening of any glass roof in the car business, he said, and part of a trend of moon roofs being replaced by so-called panoramic roofs.
“People are in a place today where they want to bring the outside in,” O’Donnell said in an interview. “There’s a trend in architecture and design of increasing natural light in offices, homes, restaurants, hotels. Now that’s being translated into the vehicle.”
Ford figures a glass ceiling will finally help Lincoln break through. The lagging luxury line, whose buyers average 65 years old, has seen sales slide 63 percent since peaking in 1990. As Lincoln attempts to attract younger, wealthier buyers with seven new models by 2015, retractable glass roofs will become “a signature design element,” O’Donnell said.
Maybach to Fiat
The humble sunroof has been morphing over the past decade into a vast, glassy expanse. Panoramic roofs can be found on vehicles from Daimler AG’s $423,500 Maybach 62 to a $15,500 Fiat 500 to Nissan Motor Co.’s new taxi. Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford says more than 80 percent of buyers of the Lincoln MKS sedan choose a dual-panel moon roof with glass over both the front and back seats.
Driving the desire for greater transparency overhead are modern car designs that, for aesthetics and safety, have pulled door lines higher, creating a “tank-like feeling,” said Dave Sullivan, product analyst at AutoPacific Inc. in Troy, Michigan.
“Panoramic roofs have really opened up the cabin and take away that feeling of claustrophobia,” Sullivan said. “People love the open-air feeling.”
As soon as Lincoln unveiled a concept of its glass-roofed MKZ at the Detroit auto show in January, John Thomas’s phone began ringing. The Detroit-based vice president of business development at auto supplier Webasto AG was deluged with calls from other automakers interested in the roof the Stockdorf, Germany-based company had developed for Lincoln.
“There was a big buzz around town after the Detroit motor show,” Thomas said in an interview. “They all wanted the scuttlebutt on that roof. Business has been phenomenal.”
Convertibles always have offered the ultimate open-air experience. Yet when the top is up, the sun no longer shines inside the cabin. Plus, convertibles are a $5,000 to $6,000 option, while panoramic roofs run $1,500 to $2,500, Thomas said. Traditional sunroofs cost $700 to $1,100 and have declined in popularity as demand for panoramic roofs soared, Thomas said.
“Panoramic roofs are taking off with almost every” automaker, Thomas said. “They’re looking for ways to bring more light and openness into the vehicle.”
It’s also a high-margin option for automakers, driving up transaction prices and profits, said Joe Langley, an analyst with auto researcher LMC Automotive in Troy, Michigan.
“If you offer a panoramic roof as an option, you can get quite a premium,” said Langley, who added that “glass and technology” are the most common options automakers are offering now to boost margins.
Lincoln will offer its retractable glass roof as an option on the MKZ so that it can still have a lower-priced model to advertise, O’Donnell said. (The 2012 MKZ starts at $34,755.) He declined to give the option price for the glass roof, though he expects most MKZ buyers will choose it.
“We think there will be good demand for this feature,” he said. “This is a good business opportunity for us.”
Ford said today on its website it’s investing $1.3 billion and hiring 1,000 workers at the factory in Hermosillo, Mexico, that will produce the new MKZ alongside the Ford Fusion sedan.
Glass roofs got their start in Europe, on models such as the Peugeot 5008 and Opel Astra. There is a key cultural difference: Europeans prefer their roofs sealed shut, while Americans expect them to open, Thomas said.
“Fixed glass roofs have not been successful here like they have in France,” Thomas said. “We expect them to open when it’s nice out. To Americans, it’s like a fishbowl effect: People feel trapped if they can’t open their roof.”
To make sure the MKZ roof was water-tight, Lincoln deluged test models with thousands of gallons of water, while an engineer inside used a pen light to look for leaks, O’Donnell said.
“We tested that roof for over 14 months under the worst monsoon conditions,” O’Donnell said. “The roof also has an SPF factor of 100, so there’s no reason to worry about getting sunburned.”
To reduce noise, an air dam deploys when the roof opens to deflect the wind. When the car reaches 40 miles (64 km) per hour, 8 inches of the roof slides forward to mitigate the noise.
The roof also is designed to withstand a rollover, with a high-strength aluminum and boron steel frame that is built into the structure of the car, O’Donnell said. The roof is made of tempered safety glass that is 5 millimeters thick to cut noise.
The “Achilles’ heel” of glass roofs is that they add weight, which reduces gas mileage, said AutoPacific’s Sullivan. Some automakers are working with polycarbonate glazing instead of glass, which can cut weight by 50 percent. Toyota’s Prius V wagon has an optional two-panel moon roof made of polycarbonate plastic.
“The next big thing is to go to polycarbonate materials for the roof,” Sullivan said.
Small cars, such as Volkswagen AG’s redesigned Beetle, are going glassy to try to attract buyers turned off by cramped spaces, LMC’s Langley said. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s Mini subcompact has offered a panoramic roof since its 2002 debut.
“The best way to get people who don’t want to be in small cars is to introduce more light,” Langley said. “You can get into a Mini with a panoramic roof and it feels more open than a larger car like a Dodge Challenger or a Chevy Camaro.”
The latest converts to glass are car designers, who have traditionally taken more pride in how they bend the metal.
“We’re doing a lot of interesting things with glass now,” said John Cafaro, exterior designer of the 2013 Chevy Impala debuting at the New York show next week. “It’s definitely a trend: glass as a sculptural tool.”
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