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Lincoln charts own course in luxury market

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As Ford Motor Co. struggles to right its own ship, the company's Lincoln brand has been left to drift virtually rudderless on the periphery of luxury car market.

Sporadic efforts to revive Lincoln over recent years have not made much impact on consumers, so the brand has relied on its traditional Town Car audience for survival.

Now, with the launch of the new Zephyr mid-size sedan, Lincoln is taking another stab at competing in the entry level premium sector. Two questions arise immediately: Can the product break through in such a fiercely competitive market sector and does Lincoln have a coherent lasting strategy in place this time?

Shedding some light on the Zephyr itself, Ford's North American design chief, Peter Horbury, says the car's styling points to a fresh interpretation of Lincoln's heritage. "Lincoln has always been an antidote to Cadillac, with simpler cleaner shapes," Horbury contends, adding that the more memorable Lincolns of the '50s and '60s were distinguished by their discrete forms and lines.

The Zephyr follows suit, he says, with a simple but elegant appearance. "Stealth design and funky facets" are not part of the recipe, Horbury notes in a thinly veiled jibe at Cadillac's current sharp-angled designs.

Lincoln's design philosophy, says the ex-Volvo designer, is a reflection of Americans' desire to avoid overt displays of opulence. "Lincoln does not need to be in your face."

A prominent styling feature of the Zephyr, its 'waterfall' grille, will become one of two new faces for the division. A different egg-crate grille treatment is coming on the next generation Aviator, a crossover-style vehicle due from Lincoln late in 2006.

The Zephyr design also breaks from standard practice in the luxury sedan arena by having an upright, double binnacle-style instrument panel, versus the lower, more sculpted dashboards of most rivals. Extensive use of blond wood trim is another distinguishing factor.

In terms of competitors, Lincoln has set the Zephyr's sites on models such as the Cadillac CTS, Acura TL, Infiniti G35 and Lexus GS350. To varying degrees, these vehicles are considered to be expressive designs, with fairly aggressive styling. By comparison, the Zephyr will be considered conservative, which may or may not work in its favor.

Though the Zephyr's performance is respectable, its 221-hp, 3.0-liter V6 is notably light on power compared to some of its rivals. That deficit will be lessened by the arrival of a more powerful 3.5-liter version of the engine next year, but meantime the Zephyr is trailing the pack. The Zephyr engineers have chosen to favor a cushioned ride over precise steering and handling, which seems to be contrary to the trend in the market sector.

Injecting new life in such a storied name as Lincoln is to be welcomed, but one wonders if the direction taken with the Zephyr is entirely the right one.


http://www.detnews.com/2005/insiders/0511/...auto-386382.htm
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