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Ford Logs In With a Sporty New Lincoln

It Won't Be Easy to Overcome Stodgy Image in Appealing to Younger Buyers

April 08, 1999|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ford Motor Co. rules the sport-utility and light-truck markets in the United States but has stumbled in the luxury-car arena, letting its Lincoln division suffer with stodgy, outdated cars that appeal mostly to the over-60 crowd.

Now, in what it says is the most expensive product launch campaign in its history, the company is taking aim at that profitable luxury market with the Lincoln LS.

Ford sees the sporty entry-level luxury sedan as a car that finally can bring younger car buyers into Lincoln showrooms when sales begin in June.

But the world's No. 2 car maker will face tough competition from well-regarded European and Japanese luxury models favored by the 35- to 55-year-old drivers coveted by Lincoln.

Analysts say Lincoln--backed by a resurgent Ford pumped with almost $17 billion in cash--has the muscle to compete, but must overcome a reputation for old-fashioned styling and a spongy ride.

"It is going to be a tough row to hoe for the first few years," says analyst James Hall of AutoPacific Inc. in Detroit.

But with the success of the Navigator, a luxury sport-utility introduced in late 1997, Lincoln has shown that it can attract younger buyers. Navigator, an upscale version of the Ford Expedition, drew buyers in their early 40s to mid-50s and proved itself a formidable alternative to Range Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers and the GMC Suburban from General Motors.

The Navigator's popularity among baby boomers, however, didn't spill over to Lincoln's car line. The Town Car, Lincoln's top-selling model, still appeals mainly to buyers in their 60s and 70s, said analyst David Healy of Burnham Securities Inc.

"LS is important for diversifying its market offerings," Healy said.

Lincoln hopes to carve a niche for itself among buyers who crave the luxury and room of larger sedans. Though priced as an entry-level luxury car, Lincoln says the LS is as roomy as the Mercedes-Benz E-class, a mid-sized import that costs up to $16,000 more.

The key marketing message from Lincoln will be that the LS "is the only vehicle that combines American luxury with superb international driving dynamics," says Lincoln marketing manager Jim Rogers. "Not old-style, soft, mushy American luxury, but very quiet and comfortable with a firm ride."

Lincoln's youth hunt started last year with an intensive Internet marketing drive that helped the company generate 80,000 consumer inquiries on the LS, most from the target age group of 35 to 55.

Lincoln also is running its first ads ever in the so-called buff books, auto magazines like Car & Driver. Television and print advertising from Young & Rubicam will begin in earnest in July.

The car maker won't cut its throat with older consumers by shouting in its ads that it is seeking a younger buyer. But it will tout the car's performance and handling--code for "younger buyers wanted."

The ads "will signal that this is different than the traditional luxury cars we sold, cars for an older target group," Rogers said.

One thing Lincoln won't be bashful about advertising is the LS pricing, which undercuts most of its rivals. The 252-horsepower V-8 version is being touted as the industry's least-expensive V-8 luxury sport sedan. Its base price of $35,225 is thousands of dollars below most eight-cylinder luxury cars. The 210-horsepower V-6 version will start at $31,450.

Lincoln's sales rose last year--just under 3%--but the gain came almost entirely from the hot Navigator SUV. At the same time, Mercedes-Benz sales were up 18% in the U.S., while Lexus sales rose 13.7%. BMW, without a sport-utility to help boost its numbers, posted a 7.4% gain. Overall, luxury-car sales in the United States rose nearly 7% in 1998, and for the first three months of 1999 are running 5% ahead of last year's pace.

Lincoln's competitors aren't going to let it into the entry-level luxury market without a fight. Several are preparing new entries in the "young" luxury market. Lexus will launch the V-6-powered IS sport sedan transplant from Europe next year. Audi is revamping its A4, and Infiniti has redesigned its I30 sedan and aimed it at the entry-level luxury market, pricing it comparably with the V-6 Lincoln.

"The youth part of the market is where the opportunity is," says Randy Fior, product planning director for Infiniti, Nissan's luxury division.

Fior says he's not writing Lincoln off as a competitor, but he believes that Infiniti--despite Nissan's much-publicized financial woes and weak showing in the U.S. market in recent years--has better recognition among younger luxury-car buyers.

That's the attitude at Toyota's Lexus division as well. Its ES300 entry-level luxury sedan was the company's biggest seller until it introduced the RX300 luxury sport-utility last year.

Lincoln officials have not yet released the LS for driving tests. But it will share the same platform as the Jaguar S-Type, introduced last year in England, and that car has won rave reviews.

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