Will the 2015 Lincoln MKC Transform Ford’s Luxury Brand?

The all-new 2015 Lincoln MKC is Ford's latest foray into the fast-growing -- and very profitable -- luxury market. Photo credit: Ford Motor Co.

Ford (NYSE: F  ) on Wednesday unveiled the all-new 2015 Lincoln MKC, a "small premium utility vehicle" that will soon join the white-hot compact-luxury crossover segment.

The MKC is the latest move in Ford's long-range plan to turn Lincoln into a relevant -- and global -- premium brand. Ford said in a statement that the MKC is "the second of four all-new Lincoln vehicles to fuel the brand's reinvention." 

The first was the mid-sized MKZ sedan, which hit Lincoln dealers earlier this year. The MKZ is selling well, but it hasn't -- yet -- proven to be Lincoln's breakout product. 

Should Ford have higher hopes for the MKC when it arrives at U.S. dealers next spring?

Still based on Ford bones, but a new kind of Lincoln
Ford -- or, rather, the "Lincoln Motor Company" -- says that the MKC is "a unique creation from the ground up with an assortment of first-in-class features." That's true up to a point: Like most Lincolns in the last half-century or so, the MKC's underpinnings are shared with a mass-market Ford model. In this case, it's the Escape. 

But with many past Lincolns, it was easy to tell that you were looking at a fancied-up Ford. The MKC is different. Aside from its overall proportions, it doesn't look much like an Escape. The body panels and interior are different and distinctive, and there's an all-new engine -- a 2.3 liter turbocharged four-cylinder, the latest addition to Ford's "EcoBoost" lineup.

The 2015 MKC's interior has plenty of leather, with touches of real wood trim. Photo credit: Ford Motor Co.

The MKC comes with all of the high-tech and luxury features that are increasingly the price of entry in this segment. There's a collision warning system, another system that helps you stay in your lane on the highway, and systems that use radar to monitor your blind spots and to check for oncoming traffic when you're backing out of a tight parking space.

There are also some special lighting effects, again something that has become important in the luxury market in the last few years. Among other tricks, the MKC will sense its owner's approach and illuminate "welcome mats" on the ground next to the front doors. And it features distinctive LED lights all around.

The MKC's rear features LED lighting, a "wraparound" lift gate, and advanced radar sensors. Photo credit: Ford Motor Co.

It's all good stuff, and the MKC looks like an appealing entry. But Lincoln really needs more than an "appealing entry." It needs a big hit, something that will put the Lincoln brand back onto the radar screens of buyers who may not normally consider anything but a German brand.

The MKZ sedan has sold well recently, but it hasn't yet found that kind of following. Does the MKC have a chance of being that product?

Why the MKC could turn out to be a big deal for Ford
The MKC might not end up being a breakout hit here in the U.S., but it has the potential to do quite well for Ford. Smallish luxury SUVs and crossovers like the BMW (NASDAQOTH: BAMXF  ) X1 and X3 and the Audi Q3 have racked up big sales numbers in recent months. General Motors  (NYSE: GM  ) is thought to have a similar product under development for its Cadillac brand, but the new Lincoln may have beaten it to market.

According to Ford, the "small premium utility vehicle" segment is the fastest-growing part of the luxury market, up 25% since 2012 and up over 200% since 2009. There's no reason that the MKC can't end up with a hearty piece of that fast-growing pie.

The thing is, a lot of the growth in this segment is happening overseas -- especially in China, where entry-level luxury models are in very high demand. Month after month, Audi and BMW report big gains for their small SUVs in China. Will this new Lincoln be able to crash that party?

It's going to try. Ford is planning to launch the Lincoln brand in China late next year. Lincoln spokesman Stéphane Cesareo told me on Wednesday that the MKC and the MKZ would both be part of that launch. He also said that both models would be imported, not made locally in China.

That's a bit of a surprise. Ford already makes a version of the Escape (called the Kuga) in China, and the MKC can be built on that same assembly line. But Ford may see an advantage to marketing Lincoln as an "imported" made-in-U.S.A. brand in China, distinct from its locally made Ford models.

Either way, the 2015 MKC stands a good chance of becoming a hit in the world's largest auto market. More than any other Lincoln we've seen so far, the MKC seems like a product that's ideal for China. If recent sales trends are any indication, Chinese buyers love high-tech features and sleek, curvy styling, they love compact premium SUVs, and they're already fond of Ford -- the Focus is one of China's best-selling cars, and the brand's sales have boomed this year. It seems like a good bet that they'll love the MKC.

In that sense, the MKC could turn out to be the product that transforms the Lincoln brand -- by bringing it to a huge new market. 

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