Ford (NYSE:F) is in the early days of a campaign to rebuild its luxury Lincoln brand, which has been selling fewer than 100,000 vehicles annually in recent years. Ford is one to two years behind its crosstown rival, General Motors (NYSE:GM), in this respect -- GM has been working hard to revitalize its Cadillac luxury brand.
Unfortunately, whereas GM's efforts seemed very promising just a year ago, Cadillac has hit a wall since then. Does this mean Ford's attempts to make Lincoln more competitive in the luxury market are also doomed?
Cadillac: From revival to despair
The centerpiece of GM's turnaround effort at Cadillac was a rapid product refresh. Since the beginning of 2012, Cadillac has introduced three new models: the ATS compact car, the XTS full-size sedan, and the ELR plug-in hybrid. It has also refreshed two of the other three Cadillac models: the CTS midsize sedan and the Escalade SUV.
Most industry experts agree Cadillac now has the best product portfolio it has had in many years. For a while, the new products seemed to be driving solid sales growth. Despite a mediocre December, Cadillac's U.S. deliveries rose 22% in 2013, reaching 182,543.
However, by the beginning of 2014, Cadillac's momentum had already run out. Through the end of August, sales for the brand were down nearly 5% year over year in the U.S. Ironically, the SRX crossover -- the only model that hasn't seen a major refresh in the last three years -- is by far the best-selling Cadillac.
There are a lot of potential issues that could be weighing on Cadillac sales. GM's recall woes could certainly be a contributing factor -- nobody buying a luxury car wants to worry about quality issues. Incoming Cadillac chief Johan de Nysschen has blamed bloated inventories for hurting the brand's cachet. Many Cadillac owners are also turned off by the high prices Cadillac is charging for its new products.
Cadillac recently announced it is moving its global headquarters from Detroit to New York in order to connect better with luxury buyers. This suggests Cadillac is still early in the process of searching for answers.
Lincoln's revival attempt began last year, when the company introduced a new version of its MKZ midsize sedan. Sales were initially depressed by supply constraints and quality-control problems (sound familiar?), but full-year MKZ sales still increased by a respectable 15% year over year.
However, the recent introduction of the MKC compact crossover was far more important, since it moved Lincoln into one of the hottest segments of the auto market. Through the end of August, dealers had sold 4,655 MKCs, and in early September, Ford announced that dealers were nearing full stock for this critical model.
Accordingly, Lincoln is now embarking on a major marketing campaign for the MKC, featuring actor Matthew McConaughey. If all goes according to this plan, it should drive strong sales growth at Lincoln this fall.
An updated version of the Lincoln Navigator SUV will hit dealer lots soon, too, and the MKX midsize crossover is due for a refresh next fall. However, the MKC is likely to be the top growth driver at Lincoln in 2015.
Still long odds
Lincoln has a few advantages compared to Cadillac heading into 2015. First, it has much easier comparisons. Cadillac sold more than twice as many vehicles as Lincoln last year. It's much easier for Lincoln to move the needle in terms of sales growth because it hasn't been selling that many cars recently.
Second, Lincoln doesn't have to worry about the overhang of massive recalls, whereas Cadillac is tainted by being part of the GM family. Third, Lincoln appears to be arriving in the compact crossover segment at the right time. The Ford Escape, which is built on the same platform as the new Lincoln MKC, has been posting record sales results recently.
The full-scale launch of the MKC should drive strong 20% to 30% sales growth at Lincoln in the next 12 months. However, that will still leave Lincoln as one of the smallest luxury auto brands in the U.S. To make further progress in its turnaround, Lincoln will need to introduce additional compelling new models. Even then, it will have a tough hill to climb.
Adam Levine-Weinberg is short December 2014 $15 puts on Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. 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.