Please welcome TTAC reader John Mohr (username J.Emerson) and his guest contribution to our site
In 2004, my family decided to replace our soon-to-be-off-lease Ford Focus Wagon with another Ford product, having been quite satisfied with our little five-door. This being the height of the Bush-era full-size SUV binge, we were barraged with row upon row of new Explorers, Expeditions, and Excursions when my parents suggested that we wanted a “sensible 4-door family car.” My mother couldn’t have cared less about such monstrosities, but she didn’t like the recently-redesigned Taurus either, and she wanted something larger than her old Focus. Eventually, they got a deal on a new Crown Victoria LX, a car that served us well for many years. The salesmen couldn’t wait to get rid of it; it was an ‘03, and as I said before, nobody wanted bargain-brand full-size sedans in the middle of the Bush years. Most importantly, this particular car shopping experience was my wake-up call to the artificiality of Ford’s luxury branding attempts. And thinking about it now helps me to understand why Ford is content to let the Lincoln line become nothing but a set of badge-engineered clones.
This being a full-service Ford-Lincoln-Mercury dealership, I could see line after line of Panther cars lingering in front of each division’s showroom. Not counting the police specials in the back of the lot, the Ford dealer had the fewest; but the Mercury side had dozens of Grand Marquis, and Lincoln had no shortage of Town Cars. With my parents ensconced in the finance office, I went over to inspect why we had gone with a Ford and not (to my 15 year old mind) one of the more prestigious makes in the Ford stable. It didn’t take me long to realize that the car we wound up with was more luxurious inside than most the Grand Marquis and on par with many of the Town Cars. We had leather seats and a trunk-mounted CD changer (high tech in ’04), while many of the Mercury customers made do with cloth seats and tape decks. The equivalent Grand Marquis always seemed to sticker higher than ours, a fact that my innocent mind found completely puzzling. Lincolns were better optioned and they had unique sheet metal, as well as some other toys that couldn’t be found in their more pedestrian siblings, so a bump in MSRP seemed fair. Even so, I wasn’t fooled into thinking that a Town Car was worth nearly $20,000 more than the Crown Vic.
At the time, I didn’t know who Alfred P. Sloan Jr. was. I didn’t know that he had catapulted the entire US auto industry down a path that eventually devolved into a wholly cynical game played on an increasingly disillusioned public. But I did know that you were a fool if you paid more for an obviously equivalent product, especially one that was parked on the other side of the dealers’ lot. I still see the merit in luxury cars, but only ones that offer you something more for your money. The Crown Vic, the Grand Marquis, and the Town Car were all decent automobiles in their own right, but only one of them was a value. The other two were mostly cynical marketing exercises that were rapidly losing ground as the Germans tried to scrub the last vestiges of Sloanism from the American market. Even so, Ford hasn’t given up on badge-engineering strategy, and good business sense suggests that they probably shouldn’t if they want to continue to compete in the luxury market.
Fast forward to 2013, and Mercury is dead and buried, and Lincoln is almost there too. The new MKZ, a car that many have projected to be the barometer of whether Lincoln lives or dies, failed to impress Derek. Although it’s an undeniably pretty car, it can’t seem to escape its family-car roots in a way that many of the B&B think a “real” Lincoln should. And therein lies the truth: Ford has no intention of turning Lincoln into a serious contender for Mercedes, BMW, or even Cadillac. Instead, Ford realizes that it has a much better chance of cracking open the Audi-Acura-Buick market with its limited resources. Essentially, Ford wants to take Lincoln and make it into what Mercury was supposed to become, before the Carpocalypse killed off any hope that diluted and under-marketed brands such as Saturn, Saab, and Suzuki could (or should) be rescued.
Alan Mulally simply isn’t willing to risk plowing under the kind of cash needed to make a serious go at the world luxury market. He doesn’t have the resources of a VW, GM, or Toyota, despite Ford’s recent dynamic performance in the marketplace. Building a series of attractive but ultimately mundane cars off existing Ford platforms makes the most sense from a financial standpoint, much more so than a moonshot attempt to develop something like a new RWD sedan platform that could potentially require billions of dollars. At the core of all of this is the fact that Lincoln has exactly zero global presence. GM has poured some serious blood, sweat, and tears into remaking Cadillac as a global brand, and thus far has little to show for it other than some XTS commercials with Brad Pitt and a small (but growing) share of the Chinese market. GM can afford to take such risks; indeed, they must, if their business plan for massive growth in Asia is to work. Ford has thus far punted on the Asian market and can’t commit the same kind of resources to it that GM can. Mulally is right to cautiously introduce Lincoln as a sort of novelty brand in China, and to move on from there.
As far as the American market goes, I believe that Lincoln’s strategy can succeed. But this will happen if, and only if, Ford concentrates on going after the mid-tier luxury market. It shouldn’t pretend that Lincolns are serious competitors to the flagship makers. Like Hyundai’s top tier, most of Lexus, and the revitalized Buick, the sweet spot for Lincoln is amongst the “quietly affluent” segment that Derek previously identified in his review of the Equus. Show the moderately wealthy that there are even better versions of already class-leading Ford products just across the showroom floor. It’s not as if Ford has bad material to work with in its current crop of cars (an assertion that will no doubt cause considerable consternation amongst, and the posting of multiple long essays from, the Ford Hater Brigade). Forget delusions of grandeur that a new Continental will emerge from the shadows to bring Lincoln to the top of the world. Focus on building competent, honest products, made by well-paid workers and suppliers with a careful eye for quality. That will do more for the brand than any moonshot project ever could. Mulally probably understands this better than anybody, but it remains to be seen if he can pull it off. The early reviews of the MKZ are certainly disheartening, but the public has yet to register a final verdict.