Why Lincoln Won't Take the BMW Path to Success

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole

It seems like every luxury automaker is chasing BMW, trying to create faster, sportier, more engaging vehicles than the builder of Ultimate Driving Machines. But not all have drawn a bead on this Bavarian rival.

“We’re not doing that,” said Carey White, marketing manager for the Lincoln MKX. This is a rather contrarian thing to say as brands like Cadillac, Infiniti and even notoriously conservative Lexus have BMW in their scopes; on the surface, it even sounds borderline insane. Don’t you have to build sporty, enthusiast-focused vehicles to play in the luxury market?

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Clarifying his position, White said there are some rivals in the market today that are trying to out-BMW BMW but, “It’s not a path Lincoln wants; we want to have our own identity.”

White said there’s tremendous opportunity for Lincoln in the luxury space. BMW serves a very distinct buyer and they do an extremely good job catering to their needs. However, he also mentioned there are plenty of other customers out there who want a different experience, something warmer and friendlier.

“Please don’t misunderstand me,” cautioned White. “I’m not saying that we don’t want to have performance, I’m not saying we don’t want to have vehicles that are strong performers, we’re just … not going after zero-to-60 in four [seconds].” He said not to expect 700-horsepower V8s in future Lincolns.

Quiet Confidence

Aside from building dynamic, high-quality vehicles with an unquantifiable warmth not found in competing models, White said Lincoln is also focusing on a couple other key things. One of them is quietness.

Making Lincoln interiors as silent as possible is one of the company’s goals. “We want our vehicles to be sanctuaries for our clients,” noted White. And according to him, the new 2016 MKX crossover should deliver best-in-class quietness, bettering its primary rival, the Lexus RX.

Aside from silence, one of the other main ways Lincoln can stand out from rivals is at the dealership level, which White described as being the most important. “We want to create a very, very warm experience for the customer,” one with unparalleled service and a personal touch. He said they’ll have more to share next year about how Lincoln plans to achieve this.

And curiously, Lincoln is learning a lot about luxury clientele from its business in China, which is steadily expanding. By the end of this year, Lincoln is on track to have 25 dealerships in the country, a number that’s expected to grow to 60 by the end of 2016.

Lincoln is also very well respected by Chinese customers, who will play a crucial role in the brand’s ongoing renaissance. White said the MKZ and MKC are doing extremely well in the Middle Kingdom, which is good news for the larger MKX, which “literally will be there in the next couple weeks.”

After this, White said the Navigator SUV is slated to go on sale in December, which has been “a black-market vehicle there for quite a while.”

White said Lincoln will sell every Navigator it ships to China, even in spite of hefty import tariffs on vehicles that aren’t built in the country. The MKX, for instance, starts at 479,000 yuan, nearly $76,000. Base price for one of these vehicles in America is less than 40 grand.

Product Renaissance

Of course, none of the brand’s planned dealership or customer service improvements will matter if Lincoln doesn’t have competitive vehicles to sell. Not surprisingly, this is something else it is working to remedy.

“MKX is the third of the four all-new products that we’ve committed to, Continental will be the fourth,” said White. The production version of this large sedan is slated to be revealed at the Detroit Auto Show next January. But beyond this, he added there’s a whole other range of vehicles in the pipeline.

“We are building this brand to compete in the volume luxury segment,” said White. Expanding on this, he noted, “We’ll have coverage in the mid 90s, meaning we’ll have we’ll have a product in over 90 percent of the luxury segment.”

SEE ALSO: 2016 Lincoln MKX Review

When queried about the specifics of this plan, White said he couldn’t comment on future models, but when asked whether Lincoln would play in the compact segment with something like an Audi A3 or Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class he responded, “At this point [that] would be more of a niche segment in luxury just because there isn’t a lot there.” However, he admitted it’s something Lincoln will continue to study.

What about Rear-Wheel Drive?

But arguably the pachyderm in the parlor for this famous American brand is rear-wheel drive, something many pundits consider a prerequisite for competing in the luxury market. Surely, Lincoln deserves a version of Ford’s fantastic new Mustang, right? With a chuckle White said, “Never say never,” not a very confidence-inspiring reply.

When asked if a vehicle like this is something Lincoln needs, White said, “I’m not sure rear-wheel drive is absolutely necessary,” adding, “I understand why people like rear-wheel drive [and] high-power V8s, I get that, but times have changed.” According to him, EcoBoost powertrains, all-wheel drive and torque vectoring can give you the same feel. And from his answer, it’s crystal clear these technologies are part of Lincoln’s future.

Patience, Please

As for this brand’s ongoing rebirth, White wants everyone to relax. He said, “I think we’ve got to take it in steps … people need to patient. When I say people, I mean media, even inside of the company, we need to be patient, because we have to grow organically.”

Sales and market share, transaction prices and conquest sales need to continue growing for this brand to succeed. But White’s not worrying. “If we can continue to drive home those three metrics, I think we’re going to be in a really, really good place for the brand.”

In recent years, many pundits have counted Lincoln among the automotive dead, or if they didn’t consider it an outright casualty, they treated as little more than a zombie brand, the driving deceased. But after decades of neglect, things finally feel like they’re starting to turn around.

Fresh, competitive products are on the way and for the first time in recent memory, Lincoln has a clearly stated place in the market, serving as a challenger brand with something unique to offer. Enthusiastically, White said, “I’m very confident in what we’re doing. I wish I could tell you everything right now.”

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Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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  • CactusJack CactusJack on Oct 16, 2015

    I buy American cars made as much as possible from North American sourced parts. Buying a Toyota is great for Japan's economy, but does little for ours. That said, if ANY car came along and just fixed the problems that I report, I would buy that car. When I tell the Buick dealer that the transmission slips occasionally, it's because the transmission slips occasionally. Telling me he can't duplicate the problem suggests that he doesn't believe me. I want him to take the transmission apart and fix it, not just road test it. SO...listen Lincoln: I'll buy your car if you guarantee you will fix problems that arise. I had been planning on replacing my car when the warranty runs out and Lincoln was very much in the running. I've recently decided not to bother, since I'll just get another car with a problem that the service department can't duplicate, like each of my last 5 new cars. I think I'll just keep this one until the wheels fall off. At least I already know what the problems are.

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  • Timothyhood Timothyhood on Oct 20, 2015

    The Continental, far more than any car we've seen from Lincoln in a long time, shows that it finally has created a product from which it can build its new identity. It's a car that actually looks like luxury, will surely sell well in China, and explains exactly how Lincoln will attempt to compete in the luxury market without hanging their hat on performance. If they follow up with other models with this same level of improvement, the rebuilding of the brand will be successful.