By DEE-ANN DURBIN, Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — After years of dismal sales, Ford's Lincoln luxury brand is reintroducing itself with a new name and a new midsize sedan.
The brand is returning to the name Lincoln Motor Co. as it launches its new MKZ sedan. That was its name before founder Henry Leland sold the brand to Ford in 1922, and it was used in advertising all the way through the 1970s and 1980s, Lincoln chief Jim Farley said. Consumer research showed that people found the name change intriguing.
"It's a refreshing change to highlight what will be great about Lincoln going forward, which is impeccable service and really breakthrough vehicles," Farley told The Associated Press in an interview Monday.
The MKZ will arrive at dealerships this month. It starts at $35,925, or about the same as its archrival, the Lexus ES 350. A hybrid version is the same price. The MKZ is the first of seven new or revamped Lincolns that will go on sale by 2015.
The new sedan is longer and wider than the one it's replacing, giving it a more luxurious look. Among its new features are a push-button transmission instead of a shifter and an optional panoramic glass roof. It still has Lincoln's split-wing grille, a tribute to the 1938 Lincoln Zephyr and one of the brand's most recognizable features. But designers made the grille thinner and more tapered after complaints about the ungainly maw on the most recent Lincolns.
CEO Alan Mulally says the MKZ's elegant design is its most striking feature.
"It's smooth and soft. It will stand the test of time," he told The Associated Press on Monday. The new car, he says, is the "proof point" of Ford's commitment to the Lincoln brand.
Ford will need all the help it can get as it revives Lincoln, which was the top-selling brand in the U.S. two decades ago. Sedans like the Continental and the Town Car used to be the pinnacle of luxury and good design. But then Ford bought up other luxury brands, like Jaguar and Volvo, and ignored Lincoln. Its lackluster products couldn't compete in the hotly contested luxury market.
Lincoln now has the lowest U.S. sales of any luxury brand, with just over 69,000 vehicles sold in the U.S. so far this year. BMW has sold more than four times that number.
Ford hopes to change that with a marketing blitz to introduce the MKZ. Farley and Mulally were promoting the new sedan with an event Monday at New York's Lincoln Center. Ford has hired former football star Emmitt Smith as Lincoln's new pitchman. It's also developing Lincoln's first Super Bowl ad with comedian Jimmy Fallon.
Farley says Lincoln is targeting customers who aren't served by the current luxury market.
"After the great recession, luxury customers really changed. People are really buying luxury to treat themselves, not to impress others," Farley said.
He said Ford's research indicates that 25 percent of the luxury market is made up of quirkier, progressive buyers who aren't attracted to current brands.
"They want a warm and inviting automobile, one on one service, not a big box luxury retailer with 200 customers in the showroom," he said.
Ford plans to meet those demands with a 24-hour live shopping concierge who can help buyers as well as lavish gifts for customers and "date nights," where potential buyers are shown the new MKZ and then treated to a nice dinner.
"We know that for Lincoln to be successful we have to do two things: Surprise people with the product and deliver competitive service in the dealership," Farley said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.