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Against loaded Fords, can Lincoln stay relevant?

Posted by Bill Griffith  November 22, 2010 10:07 AM

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(Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe)

A 2011 Lincoln MKZ we tested this year was hardly different than its Ford Fusion counterpart.



So what differentiates a luxury car from a nicely equipped, mid-priced vehicle these days?

That question first occurred to me early this fall when Ford was introducing its new Explorer to the automotive media. While the Explorer has been the trendsetter in the SUV movement, this latest version seems poised to raise the bar again in terms of powertrain, design, versatility, materials, and technology.

Even a casual viewer of the automotive scene is aware that all of today's cars are loaded with more and more electronic wizardry.

It used to be that these advances started on luxury models and "trickled down" to the less expensive mid-sized and compact vehicles. In the past two decades, this has included features such as navigation systems, stability control and anti-lock braking (ABS). More recently these features have included rearview cameras, impact warning systems, adaptive headlights, advanced cruise control, and collision warning systems.

Today, that's no longer the case.

As automakers target younger buyers, the so-called Gen X and Gen Y markets, they're loading up small cars with lots of technology, rightly realizing that these buyers are used to "being connected."

"You can call it a 'bottom-up' approach," says Shawn Tucker, an industry analyst and Autotrader.com executive. "We're seeing wireless technology in entry-level vehicles."

Which brings us back to our original question, which we asked of Ford executive Andy Sarkisian, "What can Lincoln do to differentiate the brand from a loaded Ford product?"

Our thinking was that if the new Fords are so attractive and loaded with technology that they rendered the Mercury brand expendable, how is Lincoln going to position itself going forward?

"The new Lincolns will have all the technological features, but they'll stand out with distinct design, higher-quality materials, and especially with the dealership experience," said Sarkisian.

Lincoln last week announced that its "Complimentary Maintenance Program," introduced last summer as a promotion for select vehicles, will be a standard feature with all 2011 model year vehicles.

This program builds on the transferable four-year, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty on new Lincolns. Included are eight dealership visits for standard service such as oil changes, tire rotations, and multipoint inspections.

The goal is "to redefine the Lincoln customer ownership experience," said C.J. O'Donnell, Lincoln group marketing manager.

Lincoln's plans focus on comfort and convenience, including fully retractable glass roofs; adaptive computer-controlled suspensions; electronic, push-button gear selectors; active noise control and exclusive MyLincoln Touch driver connect technology.

There also are plans for new compact (C-segment) vehicle, more efficient engines and transmissions including the company's EcoBoost turbocharged technology, and an emphasis on quality.

As a good step into its future, Lincoln jumped from 26th to eighth in the 2010 J.D. Powers Initial Quality study, a measure of reliability after three months of ownership.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
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AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
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