DETROIT After failing numerous times to revamp its lagging Lincoln brand, Ford Motor Co (F.N) is preparing to try yet again with a new compact crossover aimed at younger drivers looking for a finely crafted but low-key luxury car.
The Lincoln MKC, will be previewed as a concept at the Detroit auto show in January and should reach U.S. dealers in early 2014, according to people familiar with the matter.
The MKC is the second of four core models that Lincoln will pitch to an growing market insiders call "discreet luxury," epitomized by fashion labels such as Paul Smith and Bottega Veneta that avoid overt symbols of wealth.
But auto experts say Ford will find it difficult to overhaul and reposition an ageing brand broadly viewed as musty. It also faces competition in the luxury compact market from BMW AG's (BMWG.DE) X3, Honda Motor Co's (7267.T) Acura RDX and others.
"What they always forget about is that brands carry baggage," said John Wolkonowicz, an independent auto analyst and historian. "You can't just push a magic button and the baggage is gone, and suddenly Lincoln can be anything I want it to be."
Ford says this overhaul will be different because it has pruned its brands since 2006. Selling Volvo, Jaguar/Land Rover and Aston Martin leaves ample resources to focus on Lincoln and distinguish it from Ford, company executives have said.
Lincoln, which Ford purchased 90 years ago, was the top-selling U.S. luxury car in 1998, but has since tumbled into eighth place. Its sales have declined from a peak of more than 231,000 in 1990 to just under 75,000 in 2012. Daimler AG's (DAIGn.DE) Mercedes-Benz, the top-selling luxury brand, has sold about three times more vehicles than Lincoln this year.
The average Lincoln buyer is 65 years old. Ford wants to lower that to 57 and raise the target average income by more than 50 percent to nearly $160,000 a year.
The redesigned 2013 MKZ midsize sedan, which arrives at dealers later this month, is the first of the new Lincoln lineup. Before it left the studio, the MKZ was reworked by 40-year-old chief designer Max Wolff, who was lured to Lincoln from Cadillac in January 2011.
The MKC crossover will be the first Lincoln model completely designed by Wolff, whose projects at rival General Motors Co (GM.N) included the popular 2013 Cadillac XTS.
Under Wolff, designers are crafting a new look aimed at younger consumers "who enjoy fine things, but are not overt 'badge-wearers,'" said a Ford executive familiar with Lincoln's evolving game plan.
Graphic on Lincoln's decline: r.reuters.com/gus44t
Wolff is also overseeing the styling of two other Lincolns - the redesigned 2015 MKX midsize crossover, due in the autumn of 2014, and the redesigned 2016 MKS full size sedan, expected in the spring of 2015, according to two industry analysts familiar with the plans.
"What's good is Lincoln's push to differentiate itself from Ford," said Sam Stevens, a dealer for Stevens Auto Group in Milford, Connecticut. "Why would you buy (Lincoln) if you can buy the same thing on the floor for less?"
Ford declined to confirm its $1 billion investment in the Lincoln brand or its planned compact crossover.
TOUGH ROAD AHEAD
The No. 2 U.S. automaker renamed the brand the Lincoln Motor Co this week and announced a Super Bowl spot to show off its new vision.
Lincoln is also considering - but has not approved for production - several products in addition to the four core models, said the analysts familiar with Ford's line-up.
For 2016, a luxury rear-wheel-drive coupe could share its underpinnings with the Ford Mustang and could be assembled at Ford's Flat Rock plant in Michigan.
Ford says its new Lincoln lineup could draw about a quarter of the U.S. premium car market now up for grabs as the economy recovers.
"They are looking for something new," said Jim Farley, head of global marketing and the Lincoln brand, in an interview with Reuters Television on Monday. "They really don't have a brand out there that really talks to them individually."
But Wolkonowicz and other experts said the Lincoln lineup still does not have a "design signature" such as the sharp, more aggressive look Wolff helped refine at Cadillac.
"Lincoln's image is lagging behind, compared to its actual product line," said TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak. "The product is the best they've had, but people make decisions based on the image of the brand."
Although they are being extensively redesigned, the 2015 MKX and the 2015 MKS will share the same midsize platform with the 2013 MKZ and its sibling, the 2013 Ford Fusion, according to the analysts familiar with Lincoln's plans.
The new MKC will share its basic underpinnings with the Ford Escape, which is built on a version of the company's global compact platform.
In addition to those four core products, Lincoln plans to introduce a mildly revised version of its big Navigator utility vehicle in the autumn of 2013, said a company executive familiar with the brand's launch schedule.
The 2014 Navigator is expected to use Ford's powerful EcoBoost V6 engine instead of the current 5.4-liter V8, but will retain its truck-based body-on-frame architecture and ample size. Another carryover model is the MKT full size crossover, which received a modest update earlier this year, but is not slated for any major changes over the next three years, according to the analysts.
Lincoln is considering a near-luxury compact sedan which, like the MKC crossover, would be based on the global compact platform, for 2016 or later.
If approved, the small sedan likely would be sold in the United States and China, where the brand is being launched in 2014, said a company executive familiar with Lincoln's plans.
(Reporting By Paul Lienert and Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Andrew Hay, Tiffany Wu and Andre Grenon)