Backed by a shockingly robust sales performance in July—led by the 2012 Lincoln MKZ—and some equally shocking design news this month, Ford's luxury brand is enjoying a rare positive moment in the spotlight. For a change, it looks like Lincoln may be ready to start capitalizing on this tiny sliver of momentum. A fresh MKZ will be debuting some time next year, and the stars are aligning in such a way that it could have a credible shot at success.
As far as compliments go, I know that's a pretty weak one, but as far as auto brands go, well, the same can be said about Lincoln—at least for now.
The Ford Motor Company had a nice showing last month, with overall sales up 8.9 percent in a market that grew by just .9 percent. This is more impressive than it looks, too, because Mercury's numbers were down the expected 100 percent, meaning the Ford division and Lincoln had to make up some 6,900 2010 Merc sales just for the company as a whole to break even. It's no surprise that the Ford division was up to the task, with sales up 12.7 percent, but I don't think even Alan Mulally was expecting Lincoln to become the third-fastest-growing brand in the industry in July. That's exactly what happened, though: Lincoln sales were up 40 percent last month, trailing only Mitsubishi and Jeep.
As for the MKZ itself, Lincoln's entry sedan reaped an 80.4 percent improvement in sales in July, when it was the automaker's second-fastest-growing vehicle behind only the Ford Explorer, which was up 107.8 percent. (FYI: I'm not counting the Lincoln Town Car here, and that car rang up a 116.3 percent sales jump in July.)
The MKZ also holds essentially the same position when you look at year-to-date numbers. If you put aside the company's two old-school sedans—the Town Car and Ford Crown Victoria—along with the Ford Fiesta—which doesn't have a full slate of 2010 sales against which the 2011 model can be compared—the Explorer is at the top of the podium and the MKZ is firmly in second place: It's seen sales climb more than 31 percent in the first seven months of the year.
Of course, we're still talking about a division that sold only 7,814 units in July. That's nearly 1,000 fewer sales than the Ford Econoline/Club Wagon managed last month. And if you really want to gauge Lincoln's place in the automotive firmament, consider that America's current top-volume luxury brand—BMW—delivered 21,409 vehicles in July. But while catching up with the Bavarians seems a tall order, Lincoln could approach parity with its crosstown competition in just a few short steps.
Cadillac, for all the effort and resources that GM is putting into it, watched as sales fell 25.5 percent in July, representing a mere 11,119 deliveries. Mathematically speaking, spreading those extra 3,300 or so sales throughout the Lincoln lineup would seem to be easily achievable. Yet by this time next year, Lincoln will have only four vehicles with which to achieve it, and this includes the dismally performing Lincoln MKT and not-much-better Lincoln MKS. The former struggled to make 469 deliveries in July and the latter is averaging well under 1,000 sales per month. The last member of the quartet, the Lincoln MKX, has been leveraging an effective refreshening into a modest sales surge—the crossover was up 32.7 percent in July, on a volume of 1,915 deliveries—and there is reason to think this kind of growth will be sustainable. Especially once the MKX adds a counterpart to the EcoBoosted Ford Edge, now capable of 30 mpg highway.
There's still a noticeable gap between Lincoln and Cadillac when you add all this up, but I can honestly say it's a gap the next-gen MKZ should be realistically capable of filling.
That's because of two key factors. The first and by far the most important is that Ford has finally set up Lincoln with its own specific design team, in its own specific design studio, to develop its own specific design language. It's been decades since the Blue Oval has made a serious effort to differentiate its Ford and Lincoln products like this, and the resulting damage to the latter brand has been incalculable. But we can expect the next-gen 2013 MKZ to start the repair work.
The car's second advantage should be a renewed effort to support the MKZ hybrid. Lincoln's decision to offer the hybrid powertrain as a no-cost option on the current MKZ was a stroke of marketing genius, but it hasn't paid off much in sales. Figures are hard to come by, but according to the HybridCars.com monthly dashboard, Lincoln only sold 480 MKZ hybrids in July. And it's now time to stop blaming this (entirely) on lack of interest in hybrids.
The Hyundai Sonata hybrid showcased a major breakthrough in July in becoming the first hybrid other than the Toyota Prius to crack the 3,000 monthly sales mark, and it did so by a fair margin with 4,177 deliveries. This is the first evidence I've seen that U.S. customers are perhaps getting serious about buying hybrids per se—as opposed to the Prius in particular—and it bodes well for the success of the Lincoln.
That's because Ford is taking its hybrid business more seriously, too, bringing more of its hybrid powertrain work in-house and clearly signaling it would increase both the availability and the fuel-efficiency of its next wave of hybrid products.
It's also worth pointing out that the 2013 MKZ, like the 2013 Fusion, will be riding on the global platform currently underpinning the European Ford Mondeo, and based on the company's recent success with integrating its international products within its U.S. lineup—see the Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta—will be another bonus.
Now, it does appear that the MKZ program has been delayed slightly, but with a vehicle as important as this one, it does make sense to get the details right. And besides, the 2013 MKZ may be the first Lincoln that's worth waiting for in a long, long time.