What luxury brand would you guess earned this year's top ranking in the "Premium Brand" segment of automotive research firm AutoPacific's 18th-annual Vehicle Satisfaction Awards? Perhaps Audi? BMW or Mercedes would be a solid guess. How about Lexus, Jaguar, or Porsche?
Nope, none of those elite brands took home the top ranking. Instead, Ford's (NYSE: F ) practically forgotten and still-struggling Lincoln brand earned the top spot among luxury vehicles. Stunning, right?
A Lincoln turnaround?
This chart of Lincoln's sales offers a clear illustration of why Ford's luxury brand desperately needed some good news.
"Vehicles that score highest in the Vehicle Satisfaction Awards are delivering value and satisfaction across a wide range of attributes," AutoPacific President George Peterson said in the Detroit Free Press. "The winners perform well in 50 separate categories that objectively measure the ownership experience," Peterson added.
Looking at individual vehicle winners, Lincoln's MKS was No. 1 in the "Executive Luxury Car" segment and Lincoln's MKZ landed the top spot for the "Luxury Mid-Size Car" award. Lincoln's hybrid version of the MKZ, which has been far more popular than the automaker anticipated, placed first for the "Hybrid Car" award.
Lincoln's winning the top "Premium Brand" award, as well as multiple individual awards, comes at an opportune time as Ford continues to pour money into the luxury lineup's revival.
Lincoln's newest vehicle, the MKC, just became available last month. The highly anticipated luxury crossover is expected to take Lincoln's sales to heights not seen in years and will likely rival the MKZ midsize sedan -- which itself was recently redesigned -- as the brand's best-selling vehicle. The MKC is expected to reach sales between 26,000 and 28,000 annually, according to IHS Automotive. That high end would nearly equal the sales level for all of Lincoln's vehicles combined through April of this year (28,046 units).
What's next and why it matters
Lincoln will also roll out a redesigned Navigator next year, along with another new vehicle. The brand will follow that up with yet another new vehicle in 2016. Consumers and investors have cheered Ford's turnaround from losing tens of billions of dollars before and during the recession, as well as for its avoidance of a taxpayer bailout during that time. It needs to perform the same type of turnaround on its luxury brand to become a top global automaker.
If recent results are any indication of Lincoln's future, it has a chance to compete. The MKZ has been well received and the MKC is expected to impress luxury consumers. Lincoln sales, while still much lower than a decade ago, are up 21% to date in 2014 compared to the corresponding year-ago period.
Lincoln becoming a competitive luxury brand is important to Ford, which commands one of the most loyal consumer bases in the industry for its mainstream Blue Oval lineup. Unfortunately, consumers previously have had few viable options to step up to the company's luxury offerings from the Ford brand. If Lincoln continues to impress critics, win brand awards, and produce popular vehicles, those consumers won't have to leave Ford/Lincoln lots for a competitor's. That will be a huge win for the company, its investors, and loyal Ford car buyers.
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