A few years back, when Ford CEO Alan Mulally was keeping his company out of bankruptcy, shedding luxury brands such as Jaguar and Land Rover, and unifying his far-flung employees around an inspiring “One Ford” message, I argued that it was time to say goodbye to Lincoln.
Lincoln is Ford’s luxury division — its counterpoint to General Motors’ Cadillac. But the marque has struggled mightily in recent years. It was selling nearly a quarter of a million cars in the early 1990s. But this year, it will do well to sell 80,000.
There were rumours that the brand was on the chopping block in 2010-11, but Mulally decided against a Lincoln assassination. He reportedly wanted to ditch the brand again last year, when as Automotive News reported “sales fell to a 32-year low.” Ford’s now-CEO Mark Fields talked Mulally out of it.
Lincoln has mounted a bit of a comeback this year, as historic rival Cadillac has hit a bad patch. But quite honestly, I was still sceptical about the brand’s future. As I had been before. And before. And before.
But I recently had a chance to spend a week with the MKZ, Lincoln’s midsize sedan (it was actually the hybrid version of the car). I drove it in and around New York City and had at least one notable experience.
After taking some friends home to Brooklyn from Manhattan, I was headed back to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway when, at a stoplight … a guy knocked on my window.
Now, when somebody knocks on your window in New York, out of nowhere, you don’t generally react in a calm manner. But this guy didn’t look as if he had any troubling plans — he was wearing construction-worker gear, a yellow safety vest and a hardhat — so I rolled down the window.
“Bee-yoooootiful!” he enthused. “Whadidit run ya?”
He added, gesturing back toward the sidewalk, “Me and my friends were curious.”
I wasn’t completely sure, as I didn’t have the car’s sticker handy and hadn’t checked pricing before I picked the car up. I threw out a figure, but it was a bit higher than the MKZ Hybrid’s slightly-north-of $US35,000 list price (which can obviously climb significantly higher as one adds options).
And then we exchanged pleasantries, and I drove away.
And therein are two lessons about Lincoln’s destiny. First, off the top of my head, I priced the car higher than Lincoln has it priced. It feels like a lot of car for the money.
Second, if people are knocking on your window in Brooklyn to tell you how much they like your car and to ask how much it costs, Ford probably made the right decision in saving Lincoln. A motivated potential customer is the finest potential customer of all.
On paper, there are reasons to complain about the MKZ Hybrid. It’s essentially an upmarket version of the Ford Fusion, which costs $US6,000 less. Although the non-hybrid MKZ is available with all-wheel-drive and an optional turbocharged V6 engine, the hybrid version has only front-wheel drive and is motivated by an engine that generates a modest 188 hp. The core differences from the Fusion are a lusher interior and more distinctive exterior styling.
Good reasons to be cynical, like I said. But then the MKZ Hybrid goes and breaks down your resistance simply by being an utterly soothing thing to drive and sit in. Horsepower is so overrated! Rebadging a mass-market sedan and calling it a luxury car isn’t a scurrilous practice — it’s perfectly logical! There we were, my family and I, joyfully tooling around New York in our MKZ Hybrid, with the sunroof open to a lovely sunny day in very late summer, jazz station WGBO trickling standards from the speakers, burning dinky amounts of gas and simply having ourselves a grand time.
I was rapidly growing to regret all the bad things I had ever said about Lincoln.
The MKZ Hybrid is not a car that’s dealing with any existential issues. Some luxury cars want to be BMWs or Mercedes. Some want to be Porsches. Some even want to be Ferraris. A lot want to be Audis. But the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is content to be the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid. Unlikely to empty your wallet at the pump. Unlikely to invite speeding tickets.
You might conclude that it’s a great pseudo-luxury sedan for the retired and those on the road to retirement. But no, not that at all, because then there’s the exterior design.
Ever since Lincoln dispensed with the more bold, blocky cues of its previous generation of cars and adopted the current, more sinuous, almost voluptuous, vocabulary, I’ve found myself … drawn to the sedans. They don’t look like other luxury sedans. They look …
… sort of …
There are no French cars, much less French luxury cars, being sold in the U.S. market, so if you enjoy French cars and French design in general, Lincolns are all you’ve got. They’re the Citroëns of the USA, but American-made Citroëns.
These are heretical statements, I know, but also true.
Furthermore, it’s not clear that Lincoln is aiming to sell existentially unconflicted luxury cars in the U.S. But hiring Matthew McConaughey to serve as a trippy spokesman for the brand suggests Lincoln at least hopes to put buyers in a reflective mood.
And the bottom line, for me anyway, is that to spend time in the MKZ Hybrid is to inhabit a car that’s perfectly at ease in its own skin.
We pass our lives trying to achieve this enlightened state. It’s quietly thrilling that a luxury brand whose future was once in grave doubt can help us get there.
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