Discuss as:

Ford hopes new small Lincoln will help revive musty brand

Sam Varnhagen / AP

The 2013 Lincoln MKZ is the brand's latest entry in the luxury midsize segment.

Ford’s Lincoln luxury brand will make its first foray into the compact segment when it introduces a small car this fall, probably at the Los Angeles auto show in November.

To the degree that Lincoln is famous, it is for its enormous slab-sided Continental of the 1960s, a midcentury modern design rebuttal to the winged ’59 Cadillac.  More recently its plush Navigator SUV was popular with influential NBA players and rap musicians for about an hour in the late 1990s, before Cadillac introduced the Escalade and locked up those customers.

Finally, we have ridden in tired Town Car limos leaving airports for a couple of decades now, helping to ratchet down whatever cachet Lincoln ever possessed. Now the company aims to reclaim its image with a small car, referred to in the industry as “C-segment.”

“We’ve been open about our plans to develop a vehicle for this segment as we steadily grow the new Lincoln lineup for a new kind of Lincoln consumer with seven new or significantly refreshed vehicles by 2015 – including this first-ever C-segment vehicle,” said Lincoln spokesman Timothy Elliott.

Lincoln’s biggest problem has been the unsuitability of Ford vehicles, until recently, as the starting point for luxury vehicles.  In today’s industry, even luxury brands usually build their cars on the underpinnings of a cheaper mainstream model.  Toyota perfected this approach, printing cash by the bushel selling the Lexus ES350 and RX350, vehicles that are basically leather-swaddled Toyotas.

Lexus could do that because the underlying Toyota models were fundamentally sound. Most Ford models, in contrast, were made with the proverbial baling twine, built on cheap, outdated fundamental components that were ill-suited as the foundation of true prestige cars.

But since Ford president and CEO Alan Mulally has refocused the company on its “One Ford” mission, Ford’s vehicles have become spectacularly good as beneficiaries of the company’s global resources. Ford models like the midsize 2013 Fusion serve as excellent starting points for Lincoln models like the gorgeous Lincoln MKZ.

In fact, new Fords are so good that even the compact Escape and Focus are suitable candidates for “Lincolnization.”  Which is what will happen soon, probably first to the Escape, given the established popularity of compact luxury SUVs like the Audi Q5.

When Mulally arrived at Ford from Boeing in 2005, he found an unfocused company that he thought was trying to be too many things to too many people. His solution, like Thoreau’s, was to simplify. 

He sold off foreign car brands like Volvo and Aston Martin and shuttered the irrelevant Mercury division, whose products were transparently rebadged Fords. All focus was to be on the Ford brand, the so-called “Blue Oval.”

And now that’s all that remains of Ford Motor Co.  Except for Lincoln. Why didn’t Mulally retire Lincoln too, while he was whittling away Ford’s distractions? It wasn’t because the brand was reveling in success.

It was because the Lincoln brand has the potential to reach image-conscious buyers that Ford cannot. Maybe most importantly, Lincoln has a better chance to reach customers in the burgeoning Chinese market, where it will start selling cars in 2014. 

“Lincoln is an important part of our plan, and introducing Lincoln in China marks the next step in our expansion in Asia and our commitment to serving customers in the luxury market,” Mulally said in a news release. “We recognize the growth potential for Lincoln in China, building on the growing appeal of our new Lincoln products and unique, personalized customer experience in North America.”

Market researchers IHS Global Insight forecast that the Chinese luxury car market will surpass that of the U.S. by 2020, making it critical to participate there.

This establishes the need to keep the Lincoln brand, but its kind of luxury behemoths aren’t in keeping with increasingly stringent U.S. government fuel economy standards.  So we will get compact Lincolns that help keep the brand viable in the U.S. so it can make money selling big cars in China.

The good news is that the Escape and the Focus are both sufficiently excellent cars that we can look forward to enjoying their Lincoln derivatives, no matter what the politics behind the gestation of the brand’s first compact model may be.

More money and business news: