DETROIT -- Lincoln sales have shrunk to less than half of their peak, making it almost a boutique brand rather than a major player in the luxury segment.
Ford Motor Co. marketing boss Jim Farley sees that as an opportunity.
Farley, taking the wraps off the Lincoln MKZ Concept car at the Detroit auto show, promised Lincoln customers would receive the kind of personal touch he says some much larger luxury brands have lost.
Farley singled out Mercedes-Benz and BMW for their battle for 2011 luxury sales leadership, which BMW won by a whisker. Perennial leader Lexus was out of the running, in part because of inventory shortages after the Japan earthquake.
"There seems to be a contest over who can offer the most vehicles in their line and who can build the most extravagant dealerships," Farley said. "This has left some luxury customers wondering what happened to the personal connection, the individual touch.
"It's as if some luxury brands have become big-box retailers, efficient and soulless, forgetting the hallmarks that made them special in the first place and leaving their clients feeling like a number and not a name," he said.
There's a certain irony in Lincoln passing judgment on its far more successful rivals. In 2011, Lincoln's U.S. sales were down 0.2 percent at 85,643 units and well off the brand's peak of 231,660 in 1990. BMW brand sales rose 13 percent, well above the overall industry's 10 percent gain, to 247,907.
But Lincoln has a new vision of what it wants to be. Now Lincoln dealers will have to turn that vision into reality.
About 300 Lincoln dealers from the top 130 luxury markets came to Detroit to see the unveiling of the MKZ Concept and, away from the show, other future Lincoln products. The brand plans seven new or refreshed cars by 2014. A production version of the MKZ mid-sized sedan will be unveiled in April at the New York auto show.
Billy Vaughn Jr., general manager of North Park Lincoln in San Antonio, was impressed. "They've put a lot of thought and effort into it," Vaughn said. But he says Lincoln still has much work to do. "There is a lot of competition in the luxury segment, and they're at the back of the pack."
Differentiation from Ford brand vehicles is a big issue for Vaughn and other dealers, who don't want rebadged Fords sold as Lincolns. "Differentiation has always been a huge topic of discussion. Fortunately Ford Motor Co. understands that," which wasn't always the case in the past, he said.
Max Wolff, Lincoln's design chief, said the sheet metal on the MKZ Concept is 100 percent different than that of the 2013 Ford Fusion sedan, which was unveiled a day before the MKZ Concept.
Farley promised Lincoln's powertrains would be different from Ford's. The Ford Fusion will come only with four-cylinder engines. Lincoln is likely to get a V-6 engine, as well as a hybrid, for the MKZ, an industry source familiar with the Lincoln plan said.
Farley said Lincoln customers will get the kind of pampering he believes some luxury competitors have lost.
Lincoln dealerships will have greeters, with a two-person team assigned to each customer. Farley also said service bays at Lincoln dealerships will have cameras so customers can use their smartphones to watch the work being performed on their cars.