Last week, Lincoln unveiled its 2017 Continental in Detroit. The Continental, a big four-door luxury sedan, will be built in Michigan and will begin arriving at dealers in the U.S. and China this fall.
The Continental is an all-new design that replaces the soon-to-be-retired Lincoln MKS sedan. It's the last of the four new Lincolns that Ford (NYSE:F) CEO Mark Fields promised when he committed to Lincoln's overhaul a couple of years ago.
Lincoln's new products have covered the basics
Lincoln now has (or will soon have) updated products in all of what it considers to be its core market segments. The midsize MKZ sedan is being revamped for 2017, with a bunch of new features and a new front end that is similar to the Continental's. The compact MKC crossover was brand-new for 2015, and its larger sibling, the MKX, is all-new for 2016. And the big truck-based Lincoln Navigator was given an extensive revamp for the 2015 model year.
Soon, the oldest Lincoln left in the lineup will be the big MKT crossover, last overhauled for the 2013 model year. And given that its Ford sibling, the Explorer, was revamped for 2016, it's likely that a refreshed MKT is already in the works.
With two sedans, three crossovers, and a big SUV, it's fair to say that Lincoln has now covered the basics. Last week, I asked Lincoln president Kumar Galhotra whether the Lincoln product line was now complete.
"I think we have a very strong core portfolio," he said. "We have strong products in all of the core segments in the U.S. and in China."
But, he said, there are more new models for Lincoln on the way.
More new Lincolns on the way
"We have planned for adding two more products to the [Lincoln] portfolio," Galhotra told me. He didn't share any details. But he did say that Lincoln's product development teams were in the same process of "observational research" that led to the Continental.
This is a new thing for Lincoln, and for Ford. Under Galhotra, the brand has changed its approach to developing new products. It starts by spending considerable time with customers -- not in focus groups, but one-on-one.
As Galhotra explained it to me, Lincoln's designers and engineers take the insights gleaned from one-on-one time with customers and design what they call the "experience" -- and then look at what kind of vehicle and what kinds of technology and features will best deliver that experience.
For example, look at the Continental -- specifically, at the words that the company uses to describe the big car. "Elegant, effortlessly powerful, serene" reads the press release announcing the car. Those words, and similar ones, were used over and over in Detroit by Galhotra and other Ford executives.
But note: The new Continental wasn't described in terms of its features, price, or power ratings, like other automakers typically do. The terms that were used over and over described the experience that it was designed to deliver to customers.
What Lincoln is likely to do next
So what kind of experiences will Lincoln look to deliver with its two upcoming new products, now that it has covered the basics?
I wouldn't be surprised by a sporty, upscale Lincoln coupe -- or, more likely, a convertible. Don't expect a supercar: I expect that any upcoming new Lincolns will continue with the theme of "quiet luxury" established under Galhotra. Rather than emphasizing performance, I think it's more likely that a Lincoln coupe or convertible would be a plush, soft-riding cruiser with (hopefully) striking good looks.
And the other? Given the strength of small premium crossover sales around the world recently, I'd bet on a plush but small crossover for Lincoln, one size smaller than the MKC. Look at the Buick Encore, which has been a surprisingly strong seller for General Motors' (NYSE:GM) upscale Buick brand in both the U.S. and in China. (Its sibling, the closely related Opel Mokka, has sold very well in Europe, too.)
The Encore is smaller than the MKC, which is based on Ford's Escape. Ford does have a crossover that's smaller than the Escape, though it's not sold here. But it's possible that the next generation version of that vehicle, which is called the Ford EcoSport, will come to the U.S. in a couple of years.
A plush, comfortable, quietly luxurious small Lincoln that is built on the same architecture as that next EcoSport seems very likely to this Fool.
Lincoln's revival story is still in early chapters
Galhotra is clear that Lincoln is on what he calls a "journey," and there's still a long way to go. The brand is getting a toehold in China, and its sales growth outpaced the overall market's in the U.S. last year.
It still has a long way to go before it's making the kind of contribution to Ford's sales numbers (and bottom line) that Fields and Galhotra obviously hope to see. But it's turning out to be an interesting story, one that's different from the luxury pushes seen by some of Ford's rivals.
Instead of trying to sell a vision of luxury that's rooted in what the Germans have been doing for decades, Lincoln is essentially offering an updated version of the old American vision of plush, smooth-riding luxury cars. For Ford investors, the most interesting part of the story is that it seems to be working.