Ford Motor Co. (F:US), trying to revive its Lincoln line, said its newest utility vehicle will share little in common with the similarly sized Ford Escape in a bid to lure BMW and Audi buyers.
The MKC utility debuts in mid-2014 with the brand’s first Lincoln-exclusive engine, said Lisa Drake, the model’s chief engineer. An approach-detection feature will light up the MKC’s headlamps, taillamps and door handles when owners approach with their key fob. LEDs beneath the side mirrors project Lincoln “welcome mats” on the ground alongside the doors.
Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally is betting unique designs and features can rebuild Lincoln’s cachet. The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker is responding to critics who have blamed Lincoln’s sliding sales and lackluster pricing on offerings that they say are little more than dressed-up versions of Ford cars and utility vehicles.
“This vehicle shares almost nothing” with the Escape, Max Wolff, Lincoln’s director of design, said last week in an interview. “You’ll continue to see that as we move through some of the product that comes after this as well.”
Lincoln’s U.S. sales have slipped 3 percent this year through October to 66,983. The brand’s peak was 231,660 deliveries in 1990.
With a starting price of $33,995, the MKC will be aimed at a growing set of small luxury utility vehicle buyers that has boosted sales for Daimler AG (DAI)’s Mercedes-Benz and Honda Motor Co. (7267)’s Acura, in addition to BMW and Audi.
“This is really the heart and soul of the new American luxury industry, as well as in China,” Jim Farley, Ford’s marketing chief and head of Lincoln, said today on Bloomberg Television. “This is our chance to break the idea that people have of Lincoln making very big cars, sedans and utilities.”
Ford rose 2.3 percent to $17.10 at the close in New York. The shares have climbed 32 percent this year compared with the 25 percent increase for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
MKC is the second of four new vehicles that Ford plans to roll out in as many years to reverse Lincoln’s fortunes. The first, the MKZ sedan, overcame production snafus early this year to post record sales in six of the last seven months. The new MKZ is selling at an average premium of $6,000 compared with the previous-generation model, said Matt VanDyke, global director of Lincoln.
While the MKZ boasts exclusive features such as push-button shifting and an available panoramic glass roof, the car hasn’t escaped criticism for the similarities its shares with the Ford Fusion sedan.
When Ford made optional rear seat-belt air bags available on the Fusion after initially offering them on the MKZ, Car and Driver magazine said the MKZ was being “marginalized.” The magazine also said in the Aug. 16 post that Lincoln’s market share had shrunk to less than what the Mercury brand claimed when Ford discontinued it in 2010.
Lincoln captured 0.5 percent of the U.S. light-vehicle market during this year’s first 10 months, trailing the 0.8 percent for Mercury in 2010, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
“I’ll sum up what you’ve heard about the MKZ in four words: ‘It’s a Ford Fusion,’” the auto enthusiast blog Jalopnik said last month in an MKZ review. “That is pretty much 100 percent accurate.”
An earlier post in June ranked Lincoln among the 10 most boring car companies: “MKZ? That’s a Fusion. MKS? That’s a Taurus. MKT? That’s a Flex. Slightly fancier Fords with a strange nose do not an exciting car make.”
Lincoln engineers and designers are working to end such critiques. Making a 2.3-liter EcoBoost available only to MKC was the first decision made when Drake, its engineer, joined the program to develop the vehicle in October 2010.
“It took all of one meeting to get the engine funded for Lincoln,” she said. “We had the full commitment from the management team that we had to have it. There was really never a debate, and we are extremely excited about it. It was one of the most clear-cut decisions we made on the car.”
Ford widened the platform that underpins the Escape and added unique suspension and braking systems to mimic the driving characteristics of Volkswagen AG’s Audi Q5 and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW)’s BMW X3, she said.
The 2.3-liter engine boasts 275 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque, matching the BMW X3 for the best in the segment. The power that it puts out required that Ford invest in a specially designed torque converter.
“There’s nothing in here that really is common other than the floor pan,” Drake said. “It’s very different than from how we’ve operated in the past. When we needed something, we asked for it, and we got it.” Ford didn’t specify how much it’s spending on the model.
Results from clinics with prospective customers indicate the moves Lincoln is making are beginning to pay off, VanDyke said. The company often surveys these potential buyers with brand logos concealed, and Lincoln typically does well until its badge is revealed, he said.
“Until we’ve gotten to MKZ and MKC, we have not been a leading choice by any stretch of the imagination,” VanDyke said. “Where we are now is seeing really great performance after the brand was revealed, after the specs were described, after price is known.”
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