In an interesting coincidence, Ford released its impressive Q1 financial results, as well as its relatively robust April sales data, just as I'm spending some quality time in an EcoBoosted Lincoln MKS (supplied, with a nearly full tank of gas, by Lincoln). It's interesting because I'm getting a chance to again see for myself the reasons behind the vastly differing health conditions of the Ford division proper and its "luxury" counterpart, Lincoln.
The short story: While Ford was the best-selling single nameplate on the U.S. market in April, tallying 182,542 sales'”up 24.5 percent and besting Chevy by some 12,000 units'”the Lincoln brand was one of just four to see sales decline last month, along with Lexus (no doubt impacted by the situation in Japan), Infiniti (ditto), and Chrysler (which showcases the Chrysler 200 as its fuel-efficiency leader).
In terms of volume, Lincoln's 7,236 sales slipped behind Mitsubishi's performance (8,081 April sales), with brands like Mini and Volvo now trailing the Blue Oval's premium division by fewer than 1,000 units each. And Lincoln's GM counterpart, Cadillac, attracted 13,127 new customers in April.
Let's see what's going on here, shall we?
Ford Small Cars Go Big in April
The chief trend in April was the shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, and the Ford division was ready for the change. The Ford Fiesta, despite a slowish start, finally passed the Nissan Versa to become the best-selling conventional subcompact in the U.S., and it did so by a fair amount. The Fiesta garnered 9,147 new purchasers in April, while the Versa drifted back to 6,413. (Of course, the subcompact-sized Kia Soul topped both with 10,459 April sales.)
Among compacts, the all-new 2012 Ford Focus was just getting into dealerships, but still managed a 22 percent jump to come in at 17,265 sales and remain firmly in the April top 20. And while the Ford F-150 saw sales improve by "only" 11 percent, fully half of all retail buyers chose a V-6 model, including the EcoBoost version, allowing the division to position even this as an efficiency-based bit of good news.
With the Ford Escape and Ford Fusion able to bask in a bit of hybrid glory, it's no surprise those two vehicles also remained on last month's top-20 list, although their sales bumps of 10.9 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively, underperformed the industry's overall growth rate of 17.9 percent.
MKS: Out-Spec'ed by the Focus
Fuel efficiency isn't quite as important on the luxe side of the ledger, but it likely helps explain why the Lincoln MKZ'”which offers a hybrid powertrain as a no-cost option'”is literally the only model from Lincoln to see true growth so far this year. The Fusion clone is up a strong 22.5 percent through April, assisted by a 40.1 percent increase last month. The only other positive entry on the Lincoln spreadsheet is for the Lincoln MKX, up 16.5 percent in April and .4 percent for the year. Not coincidentally, the MKX also premiered the latest MyLincoln Touch gadgetry, something that still hasn't propagated throughout the rest of the Lincoln lineup'”although the Ford version is in the new Focus.
Thus, consumers are faced with a situation in which Lincoln's flagship full-size sedan'”the MKS'”is out-technologied by Ford's compact. This is a huge missed opportunity for Lincoln, because the MKS, regardless of any other faults, at least shows a well-differentiated exterior from its Ford Taurus sibling, and that's something you can't say about the MKX or MKZ.
And while we're on the topic of missed opportunities, we're likely going to see Lincoln miss another big one starting next month, when Infiniti, Lexus and Acura will face serious production challenges as a result of the tragedy in Japan. Oh, Lincoln will probably gain some ground here, but not as much as it could have with a stronger lineup.
Lincoln's Last Stand?
If Alan Mulally and Co. are smart enough to turn around the Ford division, you'd have to think they'd be smart enough to do the same with Lincoln. And with all that Ford profit, and the fact that said profit no longer has to be spent on Mercury, you'd also think the Blue Oval should have enough resources to get the job done.
Instead, the division's current products remain uncompetitive and the brand still seems to be flailing around blindly in its search for a new direction: Is it going to be a high-tech brand? Will it focus on all-wheel drive? Fuel efficiency? Smaller cars? Right now, it does a little of everything'”and, especially in terms of sales, the emphasis is definitely on the word "little."