If it weren’t for a Manhattan nightclub shooting in 1999, there’s a very good chance that it would be Cadillac, not Lincoln, that would be undertaking a costly showroom upgrade program, a brand “reboot” to shed a mushy identity and a hail-mary attempt at saving the ailing luxury division.
The shooting I’m referring to, involving Sean “P.Diddy” Combs, Jennifer Lopez and rapper/ba’al teshuva Shyne effectively ended Lincoln’s connection to the main cultural medium of the last two decades; hip-hop music. A former Ford PR exec explained that once upon a time, when shiny track suits were the height of fashion among urban musicians, Lincoln and P. Diddy were going to collaborate on a product placement/endorsement deal, that would see the car featured in rap videos, magazine photo shoots and song lyrics. It was a fairly sophisticated marketing strategy that would likely have changed Lincoln’s fortunes for the better. Unfortunately, the scandal surrounding the nightclub shooting, and the fact that Diddy’s company-car Navigator had a hidden stashbox for pistols and god knows what else, led Ford to cancel the deal. And guess who stepped in to fill the void?
Cadillac. Was the 1999 Navigator a better car than the barely disguised Denali-with-a-Caddy-crest that was the 1999 Escalade? Maybe so. It doesn’t really matter. From that point on, the Escalade was everywhere. it still is everywhere, from crappy reality shows to rap videos to car services to UN diplomat transportation. I’d go as far as to argue that it was not only a watershed moment in automotive trivia, but in our culture at large. It was the moment when the Saab 900s and Volkswagen Jettas pushed by Q-Tip and Biggie (as in, driven, not marketed) were inadequate. The Escalade was flashy, and it cost a lot of money. It was the moment when a whole generation of consumers suddenly became hopelessly aspirational, when Cadillac ceased to become a car a symbol of American luxury, but instead a symbol of vulgarity. The car of choice for Don Draper is now the car of choice for The Situation. The Escalades dominance was only cemented when Lincoln tried to challenge the Escalade EXT on its own turf with both the Blackwood and Mark LT pickups. They were about as well received as Planned Parenthood canvasser knocking on the door of the Santorum family home.
The Escalade may be today’s version of the Sixty Special, but today’s Lincoln is a shadow of its former self. When I reviewed the Navigator back in February, most of my cohort was amazed that the Navigator was still in production. When I had the Escalade a year early, I was bombarded with request for rides and pleas to chauffeur my friends to nightclubs on the weekend. Even my ex-girlfriend asked if I could take her for a drive. The fact that the Escalade is, at best, a long-in-the-tooth tarted up GM full-size SUV is irrelevant. It has more cachet with Generation Why than any Lincoln has had in decades.
The Lincoln brand itself isn’t entirely poison amongst young people. The 1963 Continental, which had a big role on shows like Entourage is frequently cited as one of the most beautiful cars that people my age can think of. The Town Car even has its own prestige among a certain crowd that is less comfortable with conspicuous consumption. Said one friend of mine “if you see a Phantom pull up, it’s usually driven by a guy wearing a scarf and sunglasses even though it’s night-time in August. If you see a Town Car idling at the curb, he’s either very important, on his way to the airport – or both.”
The problem is, there’s nothing in the lineup right now that is as remotely compelling as either of those cars. And while Generation Why may not have to money to buy a Lincoln just yet, their average consumer age is 60 years old, the highest in the industry. At 57, Cadillac isn’t far behind, but they’ve already got the brand equity built up to ensure that a Millennial will seriously consider an ATS once he’s on the partner track. But will they give Lincoln a second look?
In 24 hours, we’ll know whether Lincoln sinks or swims. All the boutique showrooms and smartphone-enabled service bays mean nothing if the new MKZ is not an absolute knockout. The car has glimmers of promise; despite the buff books oohing and aahing over the V6 option, the real “killer app” will be the hybrid. If it can match the Fusions 47/44 mpg rating, Lincoln will give consumers a compelling reason to purchase one based on green snobbery alone. The tech-laden interior and panoramic targa sunroof rumored to be coming should also provide more tangible novelty in a segment saturated with endless tech gadgets and marketing narrative fluff. These details matter more than rear-drive, direct injection or Nurburgring lap times. As much as Cadillac may tout these, the truth is that anyone buying an ATS will be doing so to impress other people, not for any sort of performance pedigree.
The MKZ’s entry-level price relative to its competitors means that Generation Why may have a real shot of affording these cars soon. But the car’s biggest obstacle won’t be the “wrong wheel drive” chassis or the lack of a European pedigree. It will be the 2013 Ford Fusion. If too many of them get wise to the fact that the MKZ is a more expensive version of the Fusion, a car that “looks like an Aston” has identical mechanical bits, a sharp interior with all the tech toys, then the 20 percent price premium for the Lincoln may no longer seen so appealing. Generation Why may be the most aspirational of all, but they’re the ones who became financially responsible for themselves during the height of the Great Recession, and they’re never above passing up good value. Lincoln may be a premium brand, but they’re not premium enough to justify the extra money. If that ends up being the case, can Lincoln even justify its own existence? Without the Town Car, or any statement of big, American luxury, their cars have turned into ill-defined, awkwardly priced pseudo-luxury vehicles that still have numerous redeeming qualities. That sounds a little too familiar.