Lincoln is make design changes to speed up its comeback

Lincoln MKZ 2015 LA Auto ShowMatthew DeBord/Business InsiderThe 2017 Lincoln MKZ.

One of the big stories in the surging US auto market is the comeback of Lincoln.

Ford’s top brand was headed for the dustbin of automotive history after the financial crisis, but then CEO Alan Mulally was convinced to keep the marque, which had largely gotten lost in the luxury shuffle.

At this week’s LA Auto Show, Lincoln pulled the cover off a significant refresh to its MKZ midsize sedan.

The big story is the front end. The Lincoln revival won’t be led by the swoopy, beak-like front design that has probably both helped the brand’s cars stand out — but also held it back with potential buyers who simply couldn’t warm to the Gallic flair of the look.

The new grille is drawn from the design of the all-new Continental, a large-and-in-charge sedan that Lincoln revealed at the New York Auto Show early this year.

Lincoln has also dropped a 3.0-litre turbocharged V6 under the hood, good for 400 horsepower.

A new look, more power, and even a ditching of the “EcoBoost” name to describe the turbo. The new MKZ get just a simple “3.0T,” which executives told Business Insider resonates better with the luxury customer the brand is aiming to woo.

Rebranding, much less wholesales revivals, don’t happen overnight. Lincoln is working incrementally here. The first strike was of course the suite of offbeat, yet in retrospect very innovative, ads starring Matthew McConaughey and his esoteric musings. The parodies immediately followed, but Lincoln’s recovery had gone viral, setting the stage for the unveiling of the Continental.

The right cars at the right time

Meanwhile, Lincoln was selling a hulking uber-SUV, the Navigator, and a lineup of smaller crossovers that were the right cars to have on dealers lots at the right time, as the US auto market was roaring toward sales heights not seen since before the Great Recession. Cheap gas and loose credit made it possible for consumers to think about SUVs again. For Lincoln, this was a boon, as luxury SUVs can serve up beefier profits than their mass-market counterparts.

All this has established a baseline for Lincoln to make an intriguing push into territory dominated by Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Lexus. The German carmakers push performance as a luxury value, Lexus wants luxury to be effortless, while Lincoln’s Detroit rival, Cadillac, aims for aggressive luxury.

Lincoln Continental 2015 LA Auto ShowMatthew DeBord/Business Insider… connects the MKZ to the Continental.

The MKZ is emblematic of Lincoln’s desire to offer a less self-conscious type of luxury. The performance is there, although no one will mistake an MKZ for a BMW 3-Series. Inside, the MKZ envelopes the drivers ans passengers in a plushness that’s relaxing, while being crisp enough to keep everyone awake. There’s technology galore and an abundance of premium materials. The seats are, for my money, the best in the business.

Comfy luxury

Does the thing have rear-wheel drive? It does not. It has all-wheel drive, as well as a front-drive version, a smaller 2.0-litre engine with 245 horsepower, and a hybrid trim option. In theory, this should keep the MKZ out of the Big Luxe Club, where rear-wheel drive rules. But Lincoln might not be angling for a true head-to-head with the Bimmers and Mercs.

Rather, the brand is trying to deftly outflank the competition with some suave maneuvers. I drove the hybrid version of the outgoing MKZ last year and found it to be a car that was perfectly comfortable in its own skin. The whole undergirding premise of the Lincoln comeback now appears to be try hard but never let them see you sweat.

The bottom line is that as a luxury brand Lincoln isn’t quite ready to take on the Germans, and it has a way to go before even Cadillac should get worried. The logical foe is GM’s Buick, which makes sense: Buick was also in rough shape a decade ago, but GM couldn’t let it go because it was so important to the China strategy (Buicks are traditional accorded high status there).

The updated MKZ is a step along Lincoln’s similar path to redemption. And in any case, even though the car goes on sales next year, it will be revamped in a few years. Lincoln is slowly and steadily improving. At the lack of drama around the MKZ reveal in LA is consistent with the brand’s new mojo.

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