SAN FRANCISCO - The Lincoln Navigator has become more than a hot seller.
Company executives say the Navigator also is a teacher. The sport-utility's success helped them redefine Lincoln's mission: American luxury. This summer, Lincoln will introduce the 2000 LS sedan, further staking out the new territory.
'Lincoln is not a German wannabe or a Japanese copy. It is an American original,' said Richard Parry-Jones, Ford Motor Co. group vice president of product development. 'Is this a risk-free strategy? No.'
Rather than copy German and Japanese styles, Lincoln will try to make American luxury different and attractive. Lincolns will shoot for tight European handling along with American comforts, such as large interiors and comfortable seats.
The LS will not fight BMW or Mercedes head to head. Instead, Lincoln will target first-time luxury sport sedan buyers moving out of such cars as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
Lincoln delayed the LS launch this spring to revise chassis tuning and powertrain calibrations to reflect the new strategy.
'Navigator gave us confidence,' Parry-Jones said. 'We can be bolder in how far we go in moving away from the traditional Lincoln. So the LS has not even a trace of the float or mushiness that would have been associated with prior Lincolns.'
Lincoln wants to reach buyers who say, 'I am proud to be an American. That is a Lincoln, and I am proud it is American,' he said. 'There is a huge number of people oriented to American products.'
LS blends the ride-and-handling characteristics of Euro-pean luxury sedans with a less austere interior, more comfortable seating and more interior space, Lincoln marketers said.
For example, so-called theater seating in the rear of the LS raises passengers 11/2 inches above those in the front seat, providing better visibility and a more spacious feel, Lincoln said.
'LS is a first step in where we want to take the Lincoln car brand,' Parry-Jones said. 'We have some more ideas which will continue this direction.'
For example, the Lincoln Blackwood, a luxury pickup, is due in showrooms within two years.
The American luxury strategy will work outside the United States, Parry-Jones said, citing the success of American brands such as Levi, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan in overseas markets.
Nevertheless, Lincoln has decided not to put the LS on sale in Europe this fall as planned. Lincoln had planned to sell an estimated 15,000 to 18,000 units annually in Europe.
During the next 12 to 18 months, executives will review whether the Lincoln brand should be launched in Europe at all.
In March, Ford bought Volvo Cars and hired former BMW AG executive Wolfgang Reitzle to run a newly created Premier Auto-motive Group overseeing Lincoln, Volvo, Jaguar and Aston Martin. Volvo already is a well-known brand in Europe.
Lincoln will proceed with plans to sell the LS in Japan, Mexico, the Middle East and other overseas markets. A right-drive LS will be produced.
In the United States, Lincoln expects to sell 30,000 LS sedans in the first year and eventually reach 60,000 sales annually, said Robert Rewey, Ford group vice president of marketing, sales and service. Forty percent of buyers are expected to be women.