Ford (NYSE:F) last week unveiled the production version of the all-new Lincoln Continental. It's a big luxury sedan that Ford hopes will serve as a proper flagship for the Lincoln brand in both the U.S. and in China.
The car itself wasn't much of a surprise. But the thinking behind the car might be a bit surprising: Ford is taking a very different route to "luxury" than the paths followed by most of its rivals.
A "quiet luxury" flagship for Lincoln
I say it wasn't much of a surprise because the production version of the Continental closely follows the lines of the Lincoln Continental Concept that Ford showed off in New York last spring.
Your humble Fool, who has seen both cars up close, thinks the production version of the Continental has been toned down a bit from the concept. It might lack a bit of the charisma the concept car had in person.
But it's not bad. It hits a lot of the same points: The interior is loaded with well-thought-out luxury features that aim to fulfill Lincoln's current goal of delivering what executives call "quiet luxury." The back seat is huge, sized to fit two adults in easy comfort, and there are options that will make the Continental's second row positively posh, including reclining seats with built-in massagers.
The Continental's powertrain is put together in the same kind of spirt. The only available engine is a 400 horsepower 3.0 liter twin-turbo V6. It's a fairly potent engine, but it's not about high performance. Instead, it's about making the car feel effortless in highway driving.
The whole experience Lincoln is trying to deliver could be summed up by that one word, "effortless." It's a very different approach to luxury than that taken by most automakers, who follow the example of German luxury giants like BMW (NASDAQOTH: BAMXF) and Volkswagen's (NASDAQOTH:VWAGY) Audi brand, hoping to engage driving enthusiasts with more overtly sporty engines and suspension tuning.
Audi in particular has been very successful in China, a market that Ford would very much like Lincoln to crack. Will the new Continental open doors for Lincoln in the world's largest new-vehicle market?
Lincoln president Kumar Galhotra thinks it will. He says the brand's approach, in both China and the U.S., has been shaped by a new approach to product research: It involves spending much more time one-on-one with Lincoln's customers.
Lincoln is taking cues from other luxury businesses -- and from its customers
"We have changed our [product] research methodology very substantially," Galhotra told me in an interview in Detroit last week. "We are not doing the traditional, multiple choice or email kind of surveys. We are doing a lot of observation research, which means spending a lot of time with our customers. We are spending time with them one on one, trying to get insights into how they use the car."
What is Lincoln looking to learn? "At what points does the car frustrate them? At what point do they really enjoy the car? What role does the car play in their whole life?" But, Galhotra says, Lincoln's engineers and designers don't just use the feedback to design features. "We take those insights and we design the experience first. Then we look at technology and features that can deliver that experience."
Galhotra said the process of delivering the Lincoln "experience" is going beyond what's in the vehicles. He told me that Lincoln is in the process of training its dealers' staff members on a new approach, one rooted in hospitality rather than in sales.
"We have a very well thought out training program, the Lincoln Institute. We are taking all our dealer partners and their staff through that. And we are not training them on negotiation. We are training them on hospitality."
Galhotra said Lincoln hired trainers with experience in luxury hotels. "We want to give the staff and the dealerships a sense for the luxury customer's expectations," he said. "It's starting to move our service in some very interesting directions."
A work in progress, but some results are already showing
Lincoln's revival is still very much a work in progress, Galhotra said. There are two more new Lincolns yet to come, and the brand's work with its dealers is far from complete. But the work Galhotra and his team have put into the brand since he took over as Lincoln's president 16 months ago is already starting to bear a little fruit: Lincoln's U.S. sales were up a little over 7% in 2015.
Some of that fruit is growing in China, too. Ford introduced its luxury brand to China late in 2014. Its first full year was promising, with over 10,000 vehicles sold. 2016 could be even better, starting with the Continental: Galhotra said he expects just over half of Continental production will be exported from the U.S. to China.