By Nat Shirley
Tuesday, Oct 23rd, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Underneath the bright lights of the modeling room, nestled amid interior mock-ups and clay models, are three vehicles that represent the future of Lincoln. While the sleek MKZ midsize sedan debuted earlier this year, the other two are mysteries, vague shapes concealed beneath grey concept car sheets.

We're at the grand opening of the new Lincoln Design Center in Dearborn, Michigan, a facility that Ford touts as evidence of its commitment to returning its troubled luxury brand to relevance. Sparkling clean save for piles of clay shavings around work-in-progress models, the 40,000-square-foot studio houses 150 designers, sculptors and math sculptors. Notably, it is Lincoln's first dedicated design space since the 1970s.

Ford hopes to use the facility to help take advantage of what it views as a sea of change in the luxury vehicle market that occurred during the nation's recent economic struggles. The automaker believes that traditional, conspicuous-consumption full-size luxury cars are on the decline, leaving an opening for a new type of premium brand that uses small-but-stylish models as statement vehicles.

"During the great recession, the U.S. luxury market changed. Now, there is opportunity for a fresh, new alternative in the premium market," Jim Farley, Ford's global sales and marketing chief, said at the design center opening. "Lincoln's renaissance is built on our new product lineup and is a personalized experience with designs that deliver on our promise of a personalized motor car: beautiful, elegant, and most of all, surprising."

Ford has promised to introduce no less than four new Lincoln models by 2015, all of which will be styled at the new design center. The automaker plans to reposition Lincoln as a purveyor of "individual" products with a handcrafted feel that will do battle in the heart of the market - models that will seek to "democratize the feeling of a $200,000 car" yet compete in relatively high-volume segments. Expect to see new Lincoln sedans and crossovers, rather than four-door-coupes and other niche body types.

One of the challenges in remaking Lincoln will, of course, be convincing luxury buyers to open their checkbooks for vehicles that share major mechanical components with Fords. Lincoln hasn't had an offering with a truly upmarket platform since the rear-drive LS was discontinued in 2006, and that isn't likely to change in the near future. As a result, design will have to be emphasized as one of the ways to set Lincoln apart and cast it as a truly modern and desirable luxury brand.

Judging by the design center's first effort, the new MKZ, Lincoln's stylistic future seems to be in good hands. With an elegantly sloping roofline, a handsome rendition of Lincoln's split-wing grille and a neat full-width LED taillamp bar, the exterior is sleek and distinctive, but the cabin is perhaps even more impressive.

We had a chance at the grand opening to talk to Lincoln Interior Design Chief Soo Kang, who told us that her design efforts centered on trying to simplify the cabin, create organic shapes and reduce visual mass. Her vision resulted in the neat storage space underneath the center console (made possible by a dash-mounted push-button gear-selecter), which combines with a Volvo-style void behind the center stack to create a unique, airy feel - look through the doorway into the front of the interior and you can see all the way to the other side through both spaces.

Still, a single car, no matter how stylish it is, does not a luxury brand make. While we have a suspicion that one of the two covered models was Lincoln's rumored Ford Escape-based crossover, neither was revealed, leaving Lincoln's immediate future a bit murky.

As Ford President of the Americas Mark Fields acknowledged, Lincoln's transformation is a process that will take singular dedication over the course of a long period of time.

"It doesn't happen in one night," said Fields. "It doesn't happen in a few years."

Words and photos by Nat Shirley.