NEW YORK -- Ford Motor Co. executives say several features set the 2006 Lincoln Zephyr apart from its Ford and Mercury siblings. But a more robust powertrain isn't one of them.
Therein lies the rub: Can Lincoln persuade younger buyers to cough up an extra $8,300 for its new entry-luxury Zephyr?
Yes, the Zephyr's unique interior, custom suspension tuning and sheet metal changes distinguish it from its platform mates, the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans.
But it isn't clear whether that's enough to persuade younger, import-oriented buyers to take a chance on Lincoln.
The Zephyr is being launched with the same 3.0-liter V-6 engine that powers the Fusion and Milan. It generates 221 hp and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Ford executives dismiss questions about Zephyr's competitiveness. "I think it has a great interior package," said Elena Ford, Ford's director of North American product marketing, planning and strategy, at a press event here. "The big thing for us is that it looks great from the outside. I'm not that worried about the powertrain, to be honest."
While Elena Ford does not appear worried, the automaker already is developing a new, more powerful engine. A 3.5-liter V-6 will be added, Ford sources say, but officials declined to confirm previous reports that the Zephyr will get its new engine next fall.
All-wheel drive will arrive for the 2007 model year, and a hybrid version also is likely.
The same modified Mazda6 platform underpins the Zephyr, Fusion and Milan. That front-wheel-drive platform is competitive for the mainstream Fusion and Milan. But it may not live up to the expectations of luxury consumers who prefer the sportier handling of rear-wheel-drive vehicles.
With a starting price of $29,660, including shipping, the Zephyr is considerably more expensive than its sibling, the Ford Fusion. Consumers can purchase a Fusion equipped with the same 3.0-liter V-6 for $21,275.
Nevertheless, Lincoln is pitching the Zephyr's value. Company executives note that it costs $2,500 to $7,500 less than similarly equipped competitors such as the Cadillac CTS, Lexus ES 330 and the Infiniti G35. The Zephyr went on sale in September with a $500 cash incentive plus a $500 Ford Credit bonus.
Targeted at consumers aged 35 to 45, the Zephyr should lower the average age of Lincoln's customer from the current 60. Lincoln expects to sell 40,000 units annually.
Because the Zephyr is Lincoln's first stab at an entry-luxury vehicle, it gives Lincoln a chance to recover market share from rival luxury brands.
"There's volume opportunity, and there's profit opportunity for Lincoln and for Ford Motor Co. because now we're playing on somebody else's turf," said Al Giombetti, Ford vice president of sales, at the press event. "My job is to capture as much of this as we can, and we will."
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