The Lincoln MKC Is Persuading America That Lincoln Can Be Cool Again
If you’re a car, it’s difficult to stand out during the weekend of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. It’s the world’s most glamorous car event, held annually on the 18th fairway of the storied golf club.
Ferraris—dozens of them—sell there for $14 million, $15 million, $16 million. Bentleys sit street-parked overnight. Screaming 600-horsepower engines shred the famously silent midnight fog that rolls off the Pacific and percolates through the cypresses.
In spite of all this, one car kept turning heads on a lawn situated just outside the main entrance to the show: Lincoln’s Continental Concept. Sitting on a bench near it one morning, I watched a human menagerie—two Frenchmen in hats, a pair of dad-bods in short-sleeved, button-down CORVETTE shirts, Rodeo Drive princesses in stilettos and pearls—pass by, comment, photograph, and generally evaluate said machine. It looked sleek and futuristic while retaining an inherent elegance though its torso and face. It was easily the most popular model on the concept lawn.
Which really doesn’t mean anything. But it does at least indicate that Lincoln may be gaining something it has lacked for a very long time—enough of an identity to elicit a second look.
“My attitude for Lincoln is very simple: It’s about differentiation,” says Dick Lippin, chairman and chief executive officer of the Lippin Group, which advises such companies as Disney, Fox and Warner Brothers on entertainment and culture. “One, how do you differentiate from the past, and two, how do you differentiate in this world? I think that they have done a good job.”
I had asked Lippin how he would revitalize the 98-year-old American house whose average buyer is entering the sixth decade of living. (The current average age of Lincoln buyers in the United States is 58 years old, down from 67 in 2008; the industry average for luxury brands is roughly 54.)
That's exactly what Lincoln is trying to do, according to Stephane Cesareo, head of global communications, who adds that the effort began roughly three years ago. The most public of its efforts have been a renewed sponsorship of the hit show Empire, a series of nostalgic photos done by photographer Jared Chambers, and its well-done, well-spoofed Matthew McConaughey MKC ads.
Early results are positive: U.S. sales across all Lincoln models are so far up 8 percent this year over those in 2014, bolstered mainly by the MKC. Lincoln has sold 13,787 MKCs in 2015; in July alone, sales for the MKC were up 60 percent, year-over-year.
MKC is indeed key for Lincoln 2.0; it’s the first small crossover Lincoln has made. I was curious to learn what was the draw, so I drove one this week around New York. Keeping in mind the audience Lincoln has been targeting, I brought some younger guy friends who are in creative fields—first, a Brooklyn-based editor in brogues and then an Australian shoe designer with a shop on Manhattan's Bowery. The reviews were positive: Both seem to think Lincoln has a lot to offer and is relatively unencumbered by the weird branding baggage that has, until recently, clung to another old American luxury brand trying for a comeback.
The car withstands first impressions well, though it looks better from the side and rear than head-on. From the side, it looks exactly like an Audi Q3. I mean exactly, from the high, straight window line to the arched rim houses pushed out to the four corners of the car and the tiny swoop along the top of its rear hatch. Face it from the front, and you’ll have to confront that grill. The thing reminds me of those thin metal slats in an air filter. It’s not an ideal association for a brand trying to elevate its luxury status, but Lincoln makes up for it with good color options—I drove a Black Label in “Chroma Couture premium metallic (black)” and “Oasis/Island” (ivory-hued leather and matte burled wood) interior.
Functional and Forgettable
Lincoln’s $48,700 Black Label MKC has a 2.3-liter, 275hp, four-cylinder engine. It has a six-speed automatic transmission on all-wheel drive. Expect 21 miles per gallon in combined fuel efficiency. (Next year’s model will have the same setup but with updated driver software, new color options, and a window-wiper de-icer included in the climate package. It will come out this fall.)
It shares a platform and a variety of components with the Ford Escape, which means its performance feels about the same: zero-to-60 miles per hour in seven-and-a-half seconds (the BMW X3 can do it in about six seconds, just saying) and a functional but one-dimensional feel when you steer and brake. This isn’t the crossover you buy when you wish you could buy a sport coupe but concessions (spouse, children, sporting equipment) must be made.
I might say more about how it feels to drive, but the truth is that it doesn’t feel like much. If the current incarnation of the MKC has any hope of differentiating Lincoln, the feeling of specialness must come from its design and from the interior experience. It won’t come from anything approaching a memorable drive personality.
The MKC does have the trappings of luxury, even if these feel thin, compared to those of its German competitors: Alcantara-wrapped ceiling, heated/cooled front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated power mirrors with memory lamps, push-button start, ambient lighting, and a pushbutton panoramic sunroof are all standard on the Black Label trim level.
Options worth choosing are a $2,295 technology package that includes park assist and adaptive cruise control; $1,145 20-inch (painted) aluminum rims; and the $995 enhanced THX sound system.
The cumulative interior effect feels as if Ford is going through the motions—the quality is not up to par—but it’s a start. Ford has never excelled in the creature comforts department. Change takes time.
Elsewhere, I appreciated the near 360-degree visibility afforded from the driver’s seat. I kept checking the mirrors and then looking over my shoulder because I couldn’t believe they had captured everything in the lanes behind. They had. The rear seat is comfortable but compact. It’s a boon for parking because it shortens the vehicle; it’s not ideal if you were hoping to really lounge back there.
The MKC has trick doors, too. They’re by far the stickiest- and heaviest-swinging portals I’ve encountered, so much so that on several occasions, I spent considerable time pushing what I thought was the broken inside unlock button because the door wouldn’t open. Turns out I simply wasn’t pushing hard enough. Sure, it’s been a few weeks (well, months) since I’ve done my daily pushups set, but the resistance felt weird.
A Good Start
Overall, though, the new MKC deserves a favorable review. The one I drove cost $57,500, which is priced a little too high compared to such competitors as the $31,300 Mercedes-Benz GLA Class, $38,600 X3, and the $33,700 Q3. Still, Lincoln deserves praise for its attention to detail in both the design and the interior trim. And for how it is selling the MKC.
“Success comes from executing the fundamentals brilliantly,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, a research and consulting firm. “It’s not magic. It’s fundamentals coming together in such a way that they look like magic. Are they doing the right things? Yes. But the product has a few more years of evolution before we would call it highly competitive.”
The next all-new Lincoln, the bold MKX SUV, hits stores later this fall. Here’s hoping.