I'm far from alone in thinking the 2011 Lincoln MKZ is an above-average sedan, perhaps even nudging its way up into the "good" category. But I'm also far from alone in thinking it will never quite be able to escape its roots in the more pedestrian Ford Fusion, at least not in its current guise. Even its huge new Lincoln-family grille isn't quite garish enough to take your mind off the two cars' similar sheet metal and proportions. But the Lincoln MKZ has a lot going for it, and the car will have an important role to play for Lincoln in the near-term future.
Built Ford Tough
Future Lincolns will continue to be built on Ford platforms, but that's not inherently a negative. Those vehicular underpinnings happen to be very impressive, as witnessed by the success of cars like the Fusion and the driving dynamics of the new Ford Fiesta. Platform-sharing also helps save money, too, and remember that it's one of the keys to the whole "One Ford" business: As just a single example, the Blue Oval has said something like 8-10 different vehicles will be built off the new Ford Focus platform.
Of course, some fine-tuning is obviously necessary, but early reviews on the MKZ indicate that Ford has that part of the equation well in hand. Acceleration, braking, and ride and handling on the sedan have gotten consistent kudos, with the different feel between the MKZ and the Fusion being quite noticeable. Similarly, the interior of the MKZ offers a marked improvement over the Fusion's already high-quality setup.
And the same is true of the Lincoln MKS, which is built on the same platform as the Ford Taurus, and the Lincoln MKX, which shares its underpinnings (and a bit more) with the Ford Edge. In both these cases, Lincoln has taken very successful Fords and effectively upgraded them throughout to create a true near-lux experience. But what it hasn't been able to do is turn these products into sales.
The Perception Problem
Lincoln sales so far in 2010 have been downright ugly. Through the first eight months of the year, the only vehicle in the division's lineup to post a calendar-year-to-date sales improvement has been the Lincoln Navigator, which has ridden the wave of surging SUV sales to a robust 32.9 percent increase. The three vehicles I consider the Lincoln core'”the MKZ, MKX and MKS'”are down 4 percent, 9.6 percent and 11.8 percent, respectively. For comparison's sake, the Ford versions, the Fusion, Edge and Taurus, have seen sales rise 17.7 percent, 23.9 percent and a whopping 106.5 percent, again respectively.
The story so far is that while Ford proper continues to live the dream as everyone's favorite U.S. auto brand, Lincoln continues to drift off ye olde radar screen. Not only are sales down for the division on a percentage basis, it's worth pointing out that volume had slipped to 6,428 units in August, some 1,500 fewer than sold by the Edge alone last month. And this despite the fact that, from an objective-ish viewpoint, modern Lincolns have become competitive players in the near-lux segments based on their impressive underpinnings, Ford's strategic deployment of new customer-oriented technologies and a knack for offering unique comfort/convenience touches. (Just to be clear, by "competitive" I mean in terms of things like quality, content and performance.)
Given this situation, it seems clear that people's different perceptions of the two brands must go a long way toward explaining their different performances on the sales charts.
The Farley Factor
That's why it's so important that Ford's group vice president of global marketing, sales and service, Jim Farley, stated clearly in a recent "Automotive News" interview that the Blue Oval will be dedicating itself to more strongly differentiating the design of its Lincoln lineup from the products being sold under the Ford nameplate. Strong design differentiation is the best and easiest way to change people's perceptions, because a vehicle's exterior is the first and main thing most people perceive about a car or truck.
So, how does the Fusion's fraternal twin, the MKZ, fit into the picture? Those big design changes will make a difference for the next generation of Lincolns, but today the brand needs a different "hook" to get customer attention'”and selling an MKZ hybrid'”with best-in-class fuel efficiency but without a hybrid price premium'”could be just the answer.