Lincoln regroups with 2013 MKZ
Photo credit: FORD
Editor's note: The MKZ is not expected to have an eight-speed transmission. An earlier version of this story said it was expected to have one.
NEW YORK -- The redesigned 2013 Lincoln MKZ sedan, which debuted Monday night ahead of the New York auto show, has a big assignment: Restore Lincoln's tattered credibility as a competitive luxury brand.
The small-luxury segment is where many customers enter the luxury world, trading Toyotas, Hondas, Chevrolets and Fords for brands with more panache.
But since it was introduced as the 2006 Zephyr, the now-renamed MKZ has lagged its sedan competitors in that segment, which is dominated by the BMW 3 series, Mercedes-Benz C class, Infiniti G and Cadillac CTS.
The redesign of the MKZ, with the addition of new technologies, aims to close the gap. Moreover, the MKZ is just a step for Lincoln. The MKZ, plus the refreshed MKS sedan and MKT crossover that are arriving in showrooms now, are among seven new or revamped Lincoln products to be introduced by the end of 2014.
The MKZ -- previewed as concept at the Detroit auto show in January -- is the first to showcase the brand's new design identity.
C.J. O'Donnell, Lincoln group marketing manager, said 40 percent of current Lincoln sales are conquests -- customers lured from other brands. Armed with new vehicles such as the MKZ that are aimed at younger customers, Lincoln hopes to grow that number to 60 percent by the end of 2015.
Rebecca Lindland, an IHS Automotive analyst, says, "It's one car at a time. You improve a brand one car at a time."
If Lincoln is going to succeed -- which first means getting on customers' shopping lists -- it must convince customers that the MKZ is more than just a Ford Fusion with extra chrome and fancier trim levels. The automaker will have to give Lincoln's target buyers the kinds of luxury appointments offered by the dominant players, as well as competitive lease rates and monthly payments in what is a highly price-sensitive segment.
Lincoln's strategy for winning more buyers: Outdo the high-volume luxury brands with customer service.
Lincoln has identified what it calls "culturally progressive luxury customers" who are younger than Lincoln's current customers. Lincoln believes these customers are disillusioned with their treatment from the German luxury brands. These brands' high volumes make it more difficult to offer truly personalized service, Lincoln says.
Ford Motor executives have said their goal is not to chase BMW and Mercedes on volume, but Lincoln will need to boost its lagging sales to fund its extra customer service.
Not a Fusion
The redesigned MKZ will be built on the same architecture as the Ford Fusion. To set the new MKZ apart from the 2013 Fusion, Lincoln will offer a six-cylinder engine along with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine and a hybrid version. The Fusion will have no V-6.
The new MKZ will share many systems with the larger 2013 Lincoln MKS sedan, which has just gone on sale.
Lincoln shares underpinnings with Ford models but aims to distinguish its vehicles from their Ford siblings with technologies aimed at luxury customers.
Lincoln's Continuously Controlled Damping, which adjusts the suspension as many as 500 times per second for optimum handling and comfort.
Lincoln Drive Control, which enables motorists to adjust among Comfort, Normal and Sport driving modes.
Active noise cancellation, which replaces certain undesirable engine-noise frequencies with more pleasing exhaust notes, particularly a throaty roar in Sport mode.
A push-button operated transmission.
Lincoln hired designer Max Wolff from Cadillac to bring a new vision to Lincoln. The MKZ will feature Wolff's new Lincoln signature grille, introduced on the MKZ Concept at the Detroit auto show, and a full-length retractable glass roof.
The 2013 MKZ will arrive late this year or early in 2013 in a segment where it has sold steadily but unspectacularly since its introduction in the 2006 model year as the Lincoln Zephyr.
U.S. sales peaked at 34,363 in 2007. In 2011, Lincoln sold 27,529 MKZs, up 22 percent from 2010. In the first two months of 2012, sales totaled 4,149, up 24 percent from a year earlier.
But in 2011, BMW sold 94,371 units of the 3 series, for 18 percent of the segment to the MKZ's 5 percent.
"The BMW 3 series is easily the dominant player," Lindland says. "It's a tough, tough place for Lincoln to play in. The biggest issue they're going to have is the perception issue. I saw the product back in the summer and it was really beautiful. It looked good in Detroit and will look good in New York -- but it's still a Lincoln."
Lease rates rule
Tom Libby, an analyst for R.L. Polk & Co., calls the segment a "bridge between nonluxury and luxury. It's a first step. For Camry and Maxima owners, it's getting their feet wet in the luxury market.
"Monthly payments are extremely important in this segment. They're heavily marketed, more than price," he says, and "incentives are very important."
Says Libby: "This situation gives an advantage to the manufacturers who have the resources with which to be able to provide competitive incentives."
One way to do that is with favorable lease deals. Polk data show that what it calls the luxury compact segment leads all others with leases accounting for 52 percent of all transactions in 2011. The luxury mid-sized segment was next, with 45 percent leases. In contrast, only 29 percent of luxury mid-sized SUVs were leases.
In 2011, leases accounted for just 34 percent of MKZ sales, vs. 60 percent for the 3 series.
The current three-year MKZ lease deal is for $329 a month with $1,779 down.
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com.