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Lincoln MKC is latest bid to regain marque's luster

The new model is seeking dominance in a crowded market by appealing to baby boomers who are downsizing and younger families seeking their first luxury vehicle.

November 12, 2013|By David Undercoffler
  • Journalists get their first look at the Lincoln MKC in Detroit. Base models will have a 2.0-liter power plant with 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque.
Journalists get their first look at the Lincoln MKC in Detroit. Base models… (Lincoln )

When Lincoln pulls the wraps off its 2014 MKC crossover in New York on Wednesday morning, most observers will pay little mind to the two simple knobs controlling stereo volume and tuning.

But such seemingly insignificant details may say more about the direction at Ford's luxury brand than the fact that this is an all-new model, or the first Lincoln fitted with a new turbocharged engine. The old-school knobs — replacing touch-screen controls that many owners hated in other Lincolns — signal that the brand is listening intently to customers.

Lincoln has little choice: Once a dominant luxury brand, the choice of presidents and movie stars, the brand now finds itself in a full-scale reinvention aimed at reversing a long downward spiral in sales. The brand plans four new models by 2016. MKC is the second, behind the MKZ sedan launched last year. With the stakes high — Lincoln is Ford's only hope in the high-profit luxury segment — no detail is too small to correct, said Max Wolff, Lincoln's design chief.

"We've obviously reacted to some 'feedback' that we've gotten" regarding the previous setup, said Wolff, Lincoln's design chief.

Wolff and a team from Lincoln were in Los Angeles last week to give a sneak peek of the MKC before Wednesday's unveiling in New York. The MKC is a welcome sight for Lincoln and its dealers, who are desperate for a sales hit.

"This is one of the more important launches for Lincoln in recent memory," said Tom Libby, lead analyst at Polk.

The compact crossover segment in which the MKC will compete has quadrupled its market share in five years and is expected to continue to grow over the next five years.

The MKC will fill a crucial hole in the brand's lineup when it goes on sale in late spring 2014. The trouble is that nearly every other luxury automaker is rushing into the crossover segment with new models, including some that already have a strong foothold, such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.

BMW launched a smaller X1 a year ago to complement its X3. Mercedes will use the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show to unveil to North America a smaller GLA crossover, priced below its popular GLK. Also on display at the Los Angeles show will be an all-new small crossover from Porsche called the Macan and a crossover concept from Jaguar.

On the other side of the globe next week, Lexus will display its LF-NX concept at the Tokyo Motor Show that teases a new crossover, and Audi says that it will have a smaller Q3 crossover for sale in the U.S. by the end of 2014.

Still, Lincoln believes it can emerge from the scrum with a big boost in sales.

"This segment is blowing up right now," said Andrew Frick, the head of Lincoln's marketing. "There's a lot of growth, and it's not being dominated by any one player. It's very evenly spread out."

The growth is spurred by several factors. Baby boomers who have driven larger luxury vehicles are now downsizing, but they aren't willing to give up amenities. Younger families looking to get into a luxury vehicle for the first time now have more money to spend, thanks to an improving economy.

And every automaker with hopes of surviving into the next decade knows that it needs strong sales in China, where Lincoln plans to start selling vehicles in 2014. That Lincoln designed the MKC to handle China's rough roads is no coincidence.

The MKC is loosely based on the Ford Escape. It will come in front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive configurations and it will be powered by one of two turbocharged four-cylinder EcoBoost engines.

Base models will have a 2.0-liter power plant with 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. Optional will be an all-new 2.3-liter turbocharged engine with 275 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. The MKC is the first Ford or Lincoln to feature this engine, but expect it to show up in a wide variety of models soon.

Our walk-around last week indicated that the team at Lincoln is getting better at hiding its vehicles' modest Ford roots. The exterior styling is fresh and athletic, intended to attract a younger customer.

"We wanted it to be the most youthful Lincoln yet," Wolff said.

The front continues the brand's split-wing grille design, while the rear is highlighted by a dramatic one-piece, wraparound liftgate.

The interior is nicely fitted with matte wood trim and ultra-soft leathers; style and craftsmanship far exceed the lesser Escape. Safety and technology features include active collision avoidance, lane-keeping assist, a system that parks (and unparks) the MKC, and a smartphone app that owners can use for specific functions such as starting the vehicle remotely and setting the climate control.

But Lincoln sought to avoid overloading the MKC with apps of dubious value, a common flaw in many tech-laden cars.

"We've done some research on which ones are important," said Scott Tobin, head of Lincoln product development. "We didn't want to have it be like your blinking VCR clock, where nobody uses them."

Many consumers are likely to appreciate the moderated approach to technology. At the least, they will welcome the return, after a four-year absence, of simple stereo knobs.

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