Lincoln spreads its wings
Max Wolff steers luxury brand's design in a new direction
DETROIT -- Lincoln chief designer Max Wolff is on a mission to set Ford Motor Co.'s luxury brand apart. His first salvo is the MKZ Concept, shown at the Detroit auto show, which lays out the brand's new design manifesto.
Refinement, elegance and simplicity -- those are the hallmarks of the new Lincoln look that Wolff hopes will differentiate the brand from its luxury competitors. But he also needs to set Lincoln apart from its current look and from that of Ford-brand vehicles built on the same platforms.
Consider the grille.
The difference between the Lincoln MKZ Concept and the 2012 MKZ production sedan begins with the front end. Both cars have a split grille with chrome bars. But on the production car, the chrome bars are vertical, like a waterfall. On the concept car, the bars flow horizontally, evoking an eagle's spread wings.
The waterfall grille made a bold statement, but it alienated some customers.
"Today's MK vehicles were in some ways deliberately provocative," Wolff says. "The split-wing or bow-wave grille motif was purposely a little oversized on some of the vehicles.
"With this one we wanted to bring it back a little bit. We'll still keep the basic graphic because that has the opportunity to be very distinct but add a level of refinement and elegance," he says.
For many customers, the production MKZ, even with its in-your-face grille, wasn't sufficiently different from the Ford Fusion, with which it shared a platform, doors and other major sheet metal elements, to justify a $10,000 price premium.
U.S. sales suffered. In 2011, Lincoln sales slipped 185 units to 85,643. Luxury-segment leader BMW's sales rose 13 percent to 247,907, outpacing the industrywide light-vehicle gain of 10 percent.
"Between the Ford brand and the Lincoln brand, there is a distinct difference in the customer type we're going after," says Wolff, a whippet-thin native of Melbourne, Australia, who came to Ford from Cadillac a year ago. "Lincoln needs to be a luxury brand. The expectation is different. The look, the feel and, in some cases, the technology need to be different."
Wolff, who looks the part of a car designer with his spiky black hair, closely cropped beard and deep-set dark eyes, says the MKZ Concept will be broadly similar to the production car. Lincoln plans to show the production car in April at the New York auto show.
The concept's full-length sunroof may get a shading element in the production version to protect passengers from sitting in a greenhouse, but otherwise the car's arching silhouette will be similar. It won't share any sheet metal with the next-generation Fusion.
The next production MKZ will be offered with a V-6 engine, a turbocharged four-cylinder and a hybrid powertrain. The Fusion, which still will share a platform with the MKZ, will be available with three four-cylinder engine options and hybrid and plug-in hybrid powertrains -- but no V-6.
Bob Tasca Jr., owner of Tasca Ford-Lincoln in Cranston, R.I., and chairman of the Lincoln National Dealer Council, thinks Lincoln has hit the mark with the new models.
He says the new car's sleek exterior, coupled with its unique interior, will wow people. The interior has a push-button electronic gear selector and a center console inspired by a suspension bridge.
"The new MKZ was one of the hits of the auto show. It's a very sharp looking car," Tasca says. "We can't wait to get that on the showroom floor."
But he will have to wait. Before the MKZ replacement arrives later this year, Lincoln will launch refreshed versions of the MKS sedan and MKT crossover this spring. Those vehicles will feature a toned-down version of the waterfall grille and will have Lincoln's continuously controlled damping suspension feature, which lets a driver choose among ride qualities.
Other Lincolns in the pipeline include a compact crossover that shares the same platform as the Ford Escape. The new Lincolns will sport variations of Wolff's signature look.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.