Ford’s Lincoln Seeks Salvation in SUVs With MKX Redesign

Sport-utility vehicles are starting to look like salvation for Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln brand as the luxury line today introduces a redesign of its MKX SUV.

Lincoln had a rare good year in 2014, with U.S. sales up 15.6 percent, and that growth was driven almost entirely by SUVs -- the new compact MKC and a restyled version of the Navigator, a hip-hop favorite from when Sean Combs was Puff Daddy. Now comes the new MKX, with an always-connected interior and a lower, wider look that no longer resembles the Ford Edge, upon which it is based.

It’s too soon, though, for Ford to declare victory for a brand with sales that are down 59 percent from their 1990 peak and rank eighth among U.S. luxury-car lines. Eager to shake Lincoln’s image as an airport shuttle, Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields is investing $2.5 billion on four new models, including the MKX, over the next five years, and began exporting the brand to China late last year.

“To build a brand like this takes a very long time,” Kumar Galhotra, president of Lincoln, said at a briefing on the MKX in Detroit last month. “We’re fully committed to it, but it’s going to be a long-term journey. I don’t know how long.”

Galhotra, a former chief engineer on the Ford Escape SUV, said the automaker’s “great strength” in utility vehicles is helping Lincoln begin its turnaround. Navigator sales almost doubled last month and rose 21 percent for the year. The MKC, in four months on the market, sold 13,077 models last year, accounting for 14 percent of Lincoln’s annual sales total.

Matthew McConaughey

Lincoln also had a little luck. As U.S. gasoline prices fell to a 5 1/2-year low, industrywide luxury SUV sales surged 14 percent last year, according to researcher Autodata Corp.

The MKC’s moody introductory ad campaign starring actor Matthew McConaughey became a comedy sensation when it was parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” by Jim Carrey and spoofed by talk-show hosts Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O’Brien and animated show “South Park.”

“Ford does have strength in utilities; the trick is convincing luxury buyers the MKX is a worthy luxury entry,” said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for for automotive researcher AutoTrader.com. “They’ve done that with MKC. With MKX, they’ve got a lot of tough competition.”

Those competitors include Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus RX, which sold 107,490 models last year -- more than the entire Lincoln brand. BMW’s X5 mid-sized SUV rose 18 percent last year to 47,031 and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class jumped 13 percent to 46,726.

Seat Massage

The previous version of the MKX managed only 23,995 sales last year, a gain of 0.3 percent.

“Small and mid-size SUVs are critical areas for luxury automakers to do well in,” Krebs said. “That’s where the growth is.”

Ford said it engineered the new MKX to handle more nimbly, ride quieter and feature more power. The SUV is offered with an optional 330-horsepower, twin-turbocharged V-6 engine.

New technologies include a camera system that gives drivers a 360-degree view around the car, sensors that help park the car hands-free and brakes that engage automatically to avoid a collision. The front seats can be adjusted in 22 directions and feature a massage feature and “power thigh extender,” the automaker said.

The surround-sound stereo featuring as many as 19 speakers was engineered by Revel, a Harman International Industries Inc. unit that makes high-end home audio. Lincoln said it also offers its Black Label interior on the MKX, with leather, wood and suede themes such as “The Muse,” based on 1920s Paris, and “Triple Crown,” inspired by thoroughbred racing.

Lincoln has not revealed pricing on the next MKX, which goes on sale in the year’s second half. The 2015 MKX starts at $38,900.

Lincoln, which has seen its owners age into their retirement years, expects to attract slightly younger buyers with the next MKX, Galhotra said.

“It will be families with older kids, but kids who are still at home,” Galhotra said. “And we expect a more affluent buyer.”

Lincoln, which considers itself a “challenger brand,” faces a tall challenge to persuade loyalists of the Lexus RX or the BMW X5 to consider an MKX, said Matt VanDyke, director of the global Lincoln brand.

“If you’re someone who needs the validation of having the car with the biggest badge that everyone recognizes, then Lincoln is not high on your shopping list,” VanDyke said in an interview yesterday. “But if you’re comfortable with something unique and making a different choice, then Lincoln’s a great option.”

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