Ford's Lagging Lincoln Luxury Line Puts New Face Forward on MKZ

Ford VP Galhotra: MKZ Very Important Product for Us
  • Slow-selling sedan gets gaping grille similar to Continental
  • `People just immediately connoted it as a premium luxury car'

Ford Motor Co. is performing emergency surgery on its slow-selling Lincoln MKZ, giving it the gaping grille that won praise on the auto-show circuit earlier this year on the luxury line’s Continental concept car.

Touted as Lincoln’s comeback car when it debuted in 2013, MKZ has struggled to connect with luxury buyers who found its eagle’s wings-inspired grille design to be “polarizing,” Matt VanDyke, global brand director, said in an interview. MKZ sales are down 13 percent this year, and it’s outsold 3-to-1 by BMW’s 3 Series in the U.S.

A Lincoln MKZ vehicle
A Lincoln MKZ vehicle
Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

At the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, Lincoln debuts the new-look MKZ, outfitted with the broad, rectangular chrome grille seen on the Continental concept. The new face convinced consumers in clinics that the MKZ was worth more, VanDyke said. That’s critical because the MKZ is up against stalwarts such as the Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4 and Lexus ES 350 in the largest, most hotly contested segment of the luxury-car market.

“It’s really competitive, and it’s where we want to have our freshest products,” VanDyke said. “With this new Lincoln signature grille, people just immediately connoted it as a premium luxury car and had a significantly higher impression of what it would cost.”

Grille Plans

Lincoln, searching for a return to relevance, had planned to introduce its new face first when it revives the Continental nameplate next fall. Instead, MKZ will arrive first in the summer of 2016, VanDyke said.

2017 Lincoln MKZ
2017 Lincoln MKZ
Source: Ford

The big, brash Continental evokes the brand’s heyday in the Mad Men era, when it was favored by President John F. Kennedy. Lincoln is counting on the car to help reverse the 59 percent sales slide the brand suffered through last year from its 1990 sales peak.

The new look may help, but won’t solve the MKZ’s problems, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst for LMC Automotive in Southfield, Michigan.

“We do expect the refresh to help stop the steep declines, but it won’t be enough for it to be a leader in the segment,” Schuster said. “The sales lift from a face lift is usually short lived.”

‘True Luxury’

The MKZ and Lincoln’s other sedans can’t fully compete with BMW, Mercedes and Audi until they are offered with rear-wheel-drive transmissions traditionally found on luxury cars, said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst based in Boston. Lincoln’s models are offered with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

“The problem is not the front six inches of the car,” Wolkonowicz said. “The problem is the MKZ is not a distinct luxury car. It does not have the proportions or the performance of a true luxury car.”

To enhance performance, Ford is adding an optional 400-horsepower, twin-turbo engine. It also reworked the MKZ’s interior to make way for a 20-speaker Revel audio system from Harman International Industries Inc.

“It looks more noble with the upright grille,” Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln’s president, said during a private preview of the car last week. “If you don’t do this, you risk the brand getting stagnant.”

CEO’s Pledge

Ford Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields has pledged that Lincoln will triple its global sales to 300,000 vehicles by 2020 from 100,000 in 2013. He is investing $2.5 billion on four new models for the brand, including the Continental and the new MKX sport utility vehicle. Ford also is introducing Lincoln in China, which Fields has said could become the unit’s largest market.

Lincoln’s U.S. sales rose 7.5 percent this year through October on the strength of its SUVs, while its sedan sales fell 13 percent. Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury line each outsell Lincoln by more than 3-to-1.

“Ford does a fabulous job of designing Fords, but when they try to go upscale, it’s not such a good strategy,” Wolkonowicz said. “It’s the same old strategy of producing a glorified Ford, and that’s not what it’s about in the luxury market.”

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