Nick Bunkley
Nick Bunkley
Staff Reporter - Enterprise

Lincoln shoots for a happier ending after troubled MKZ launch

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How far off track did the launch of the redesigned Lincoln MKZ get? The car, whose chassis bears the burden of a once-thriving luxury brand now trying to prove it's still relevant -- originally was supposed to start arriving at dealerships last fall, around the same time Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln was hitting theaters around the country.

But by the time many customers who had ordered an MKZ actually got their cars, Lincoln already was out on DVD.

Ford Motor Co., desperate to avoid botching the MKZ's introduction and putting the final nail in Linc -- hmmm, better use a different metaphor here -- irreversibly destroying the brand once and for all, decided to delay shipping the car to dealers so it could perform unusual quality inspections and repairs. Ford began shipping MKZs from the plant in Mexico that built them to a plant in Flat Rock, Mich., where it lined them up in a parking lot and checked them one by one.

My colleague Bradford Wernle chronicled the MKZ's "difficult birth," as our headline put it, in an excellent story featuring what has to be the only interesting aerial photo ever taken of Flat Rock.

What was Ford looking for? It won't say.

"We wanted to make sure that we had a product that meets all the criteria for a world-class luxury brand," Jim Farley, Ford's executive vice president of marketing, sales, service and Lincoln, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. "We wanted to be on the safe side of that."

How widespread were the problems? Ford won't say.

"We wanted to err on the side of getting them right," Farley said when I asked. "The customers receiving the vehicles now, they're getting a world-class quality product."

So Ford started the extra inspections because it was afraid of irritating customers and dealers with a car that wasn't ready. In doing so, it irritated customers and dealers because the car wasn't ready.

And it hasn't even come out and actually said what went wrong, which naturally fuels speculation that the problems must have been so bad that it was better to anger everyone to some degree than to anger a few people who might have gotten a flawed car.

"It was just the right decision for our customers and for the long-term interest of our dealers," Farley said.

Ford has run into some issues with a few recent launches and was no doubt eager to avoid similar trouble with the MKZ. Several prominent recalls on the newly redesigned Escape and Fusion raised big questions about Ford's quality-control processes.

Yet a few months later, the Escape and Fusion are thriving. They are Ford's two top-selling nonpickup nameplates. Escape sales were up 52 percent in April. Fusion sales jumped 24 percent, and it is making a serious run at the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, which have long dominated the mid-sized segment.

Meanwhile, Lincoln floundered without the MKZ, getting outsold in the first quarter by Scion and Mitsubishi. From January through March, Ford never mentioned the word "Lincoln" even once in the text of its monthly U.S. sales releases, leaving the bad news to speak for itself in the data tables at the end.

Lincoln finally had good news to share in April, now that the MKZ is hitting showrooms in respectable numbers. MKZ sales more than doubled from a year earlier, to 4,012 units, a single-month record for the nameplate. Lincoln sales overall jumped 21 percent, though models not named MKZ were down a combined 19 percent.

Much of that surge undoubtedly is the result of the backlog that months of supply shortages created. The months ahead will tell whether April is the beginning of a long road back for Lincoln or just a temporary cause for celebration in a story that unfortunately ends just like the movie.

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter

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