Ford (NYSE:F) on Wednesday unveiled the overhauled-for-2017 Lincoln MKZ. The refreshed midsize sedan is arriving earlier than expected (next summer), and with a surprising new face: It wears the grille that debuted on the concept version of the Lincoln Continental earlier this year.
The current MKZ has struggled to find buyers, calling Ford's attempt at a luxury revival into question. Will this overhauled version help turn that around?
The current MKZ hasn't exactly lit up the sales charts
The current MKZ posted good sales numbers in the months after it began arriving at dealers in early 2013, but sales have since slowed. Sales hit a seven-year high in 2014, but they're down over 13% this year through October.
Ford executives say that part of the problem with the current MKZ is its grille, a striking wide-wing design that some see as polarizing. Hence the refreshed model, which lifts its new front-end design from the very-well-received Lincoln Continental Concept that Ford first showed in April.
Given that the Continental is expected to go into production late next year, it's reasonable for Lincoln to give its one-size-down sedan a similar face. The refreshed MKZ also gets an exclusive new engine option, a 3.0 liter twin-turbo EcoBoost V6, making a hearty 400 horsepower, and some interior and technology upgrades.
But I don't think any of that addresses the real challenge Ford is facing with the MKZ.
The refreshed MKZ doesn't address Lincoln's real problem
I suspect what's holding MKZ sales back is the same issue that has plagued Lincolns for decades: It's clear to most buyers that the MKZ is just a deluxe Ford Fusion.
The Fusion is a fine mainstream midsize sedan, but it's not a rival for German sports sedans like BMW's 3-Series. Neither is the MKZ, despite its similar price tag. Lincoln executives hope the new 400-horsepower engine will at least give it a talking point against the taut BMW and other German rivals, but it's still clear that the MKZ isn't the same kind of car.
Here's the other side of that problem: A loaded Fusion in top-level Titanium trim delivers much of what you'll get with a MKZ for about $10,000 less. (The Fusion is also, arguably, better-looking than the current MKZ. That isn't helping sales of the Lincoln, either.)
Contrast all of this with the approach that General Motors (NYSE:GM) has taken with Lincoln's old rival, Cadillac. The Cadillac brand hasn't yet reached the status of the Germans', but after several billion dollars worth of investment, the cars are genuine, serious rivals to the best from Germany.
And more to the point, they're not just fancy Chevrolets. GM gave Cadillac the budget and resources to create unique models that were engineered from the start to be luxury sedans. That's the expensive route to success, but it's an investment GM has been willing to make in anticipation of fatter profits down the road.
Ford's ambitions for Lincoln (and its budgets) are much more limited.
The upshot: Ford may not be willing to spend big on Lincoln
Lincoln brand chief Kumar Galhotra and Ford CEO Mark Fields have both said repeatedly that Lincoln is aiming at buyers who want an "alternative" to the taut German sedans (and now, Cadillacs). It's more of a throwback to older-school American luxury -- quiet, effortless, and posh rather than nimble and sporty.
The brand is apparently having success with that positioning in China. Ford launched Lincoln in China about a year ago, with opulent dealerships and exceptional customer service. Chinese customers who associated Lincolns with American movie stars and presidents have responded well to the initial effort.
The Continental is just the right car to follow up Lincoln's Chinese debut; it will likely do very well there, and the similar-looking-but-smaller (and cheaper) overhauled MKZ has a chance to ride to success on its bigger sibling's coattails.
But Americans associate Lincolns more with airport limos. Here, the MKZ has always seemed like not quite enough. This refreshed version might give sales a boost (or at least allow Ford to reduce its currently hefty incentives on the MKZ), but I don't think it'll drive a dramatic turnaround of the brand's fortunes.
Maybe that's enough for Ford. But it feels like the Lincoln brand could be a much bigger part of Ford's business -- if only Ford were willing to make a bigger investment.
John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, and BMW. 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.