The 2015 Lincoln MKC began arriving at U.S. dealers late last month. Source: Ford Motor Co. 

The long-awaited 2015 Lincoln MKC finally began arriving at dealers late last month. Ford (NYSE:F) reported that it had sold 677 MKCs in May. 

It's likely that many of those are "demonstrators", vehicles that Lincoln dealers will use for test drives. It may be another month or two before dealers have ample stocks of the new model. But the launch of the MKC, a luxurious compact "crossover" SUV, is well under way. 

This is an important product for Lincoln, and for Ford: It's entering a very hot, and increasingly crowded, market segment. Does the MKC have the makings of a hit?

A new kind of SUV for a new kind of SUV boom
Contrary to what some folks seem to think, the SUV boom didn't die with the economic crisis. It's still going on -- but the SUVs have changed.

Heavy-truck-based SUVs like General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevy Tahoe are still around, but they aren't as popular as they once were. Instead, a new wave of car-based "crossover" SUVs has boomed in their place. 

The new SUVs are more fuel-efficient and more pleasant to drive, say proponents. A lot of people seem to agree: Sales have boomed -- and sales of luxury versions have soared. Not just in the U.S., but in other big markets as well, like China.

In fact, compact luxury SUVs might be the hottest market segment in the world right now. Honda's (NYSE:HMC) Acura RDX and Volkswagen's Audi Q5 are both big sellers and very refined products, setting a high bar for the class.

That makes the MKC -- which will be sold in China as well as the U.S. -- a critical product for Lincoln. Can it compete well with those big rivals and add the sales volume the brand needs?

Why the MKC has the makings of a big hit
We won't know for sure for a few months, but the MKC looks to have the makings of a big hit for Ford.

The MKC is based on Ford's Escape, but unlike past Lincolns, the MKC is more than a Ford in a fancy suit. The MKC's sheet metal is different and distinctive, with details like artfully shaped HID headlamps and a full-width tail lamp that are nicely upscale.

The MKC's interior is nicely trimmed, and distinct from the Ford Escape's. Source: Ford Motor Co.

The MKCs' suspension is more sophisticated than the Escape's, with a wider track and computer-controlled suspension damping. Its interior features nice leather, sensible controls, and some nice luxury touches. 

I sat in a pre-production example a few months ago, and I can attest that it's a refined, well-assembled environment. And on the road, it's quiet inside, say reviewers -- remarkably so, and more so than an Escape. 

And it's available with a new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder making a serious 285 horsepower. That isn't offered in the Escape. But with a base price of $33,100, the MKC is still accessible.

Early reviews have been quite positive. Automobile Magazine concluded that "the Lincoln MKC is a credible competitor for the Acura RDX, the larger Cadillac SRX, and quite possibly even the Audi Q5." Kelley Blue Book praised the MKC's "polished road manners" and "solid value story" and concluded that "there is much to like and little to fault". 

So it seems primed for success. What will this mean for Ford?

The MKC is about more than racking up sales numbers
IHS Automotive forecasts that the MKC will sell between 26,000 and 28,000 units a year, according to Automotive News, or in the neighborhood of 2,300 units a month. That won't exactly lead the class: Last year, the RDX sold 44,750 units; the Q5, 40,355.

But the MKC has more than one mission for Ford. Of course the company wants to generate as many profitable sales as possible. But the MKC, like every new Lincoln from now on, is also part of an effort to raise the profile -- and improve the image -- of the Lincoln brand.

Lincoln hasn't been taken seriously by most U.S. luxury-car buyers for a long time. And outside of the U.S., the brand is virtually unknown. 

Changing that is a project that will likely take many years, as Lincoln brand chief Jim Farley frequently acknowledges. But it starts with good products that show well against the established rivals. 

If early reviews are any indication, the MKC could be a product that puts the Lincoln brand on a lot more shopping lists. 

John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.