It's time for Lincoln to stand and deliver.
Ford sold off a stable of European luxury nameplates – Aston Martin and Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo – to clear the field for its revamped luxury brand, which it rechristened Lincoln Motor Co. in December.
But the eye-catching and advanced 2013 Lincoln MKZ – meant to spearhead the brand's rebirth – had a painfully slow production launch last fall with some parts arriving late from suppliers and also delays related to producing the MKZ and the Fusion on the same line at Ford's Hermosillo, Mexico, plant.
The many-months delay in delivering vehicles frustrated buyers and left thousands of unfinished MKZs, waiting for parts and final inspections, parked at factories in Mexico and Michigan. The snafus also cost Ford momentum it had built for the relaunch from splashy and expensive Super Bowl ads.
But the flagship car is finally reaching dealers this month in meaningful numbers. About 10,000 are now in stock at showrooms around the country.
With production kinks out of the way, Ford should know in the next six weeks whether the early missteps have permanently damaged the new brand and whether its bold attempt to reinvent Lincoln as a global luxury player is the start of something big or a very expensive and embarrassing lesson.
"April's going to be very interesting," said Jim Farley, Lincoln boss and Ford global chief of marketing, sales and service. "People like the car, and it's bringing in new customers."
Ford is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade Lincoln's model line. Dealers around the country are spending millions more to compete with the opulent facilities where Lexus and Mercedes-Benz pamper their customers. The MKZ must start the brand on a journey upscale to justify those expenses and Lincoln's very existence.
In addition to striking looks, the MKZ features a hybrid model that scored an attention-grabbing 45 mpg EPA rating, which could be a strong selling point for the model going forward.
"There's promise and potential. The question is whether Lincoln can execute" with its vehicles, marketing and a buying experience that rivals other luxury brands, said analyst Rebecca Lindland of Rebel Three Media.
Ford is counting on Lincoln to attract affluent customers, generate deluxe profit margins and pioneer new technologies. The MKZ's stumbling launch diverted attention from the sleek sedan to Ford's ability to compete with global luxury leaders.
"It's better to under-promise and over-deliver," said a Lincoln dealership executive who did not want to be identified for fear of irritating Ford officials. "That's the No. 1 lesson of the MKZ. You should have thousands of cars at the dealerships before you start advertising."
The plentiful supply of MKZs can't come soon enough for buyers who've been waiting for months.
"I love the car now that I've received it, but I hated the wait," said Tanner Smith, a 49-year-old information security director from Phoenix. Smith ordered his MKZ Oct. 22. It arrived about four and a half months later, on March 11.
Smith says the worst part of the wait was a lack of information from Lincoln about why his car had been delayed and when it would be delivered.
That's one of the biggest lessons Farley says Ford has taken away from the faulty re-launch so far. Lincoln says it now aims to get dealers and customers more accurate information on future vehicles, he said.
"Our dealer council is asking us to improve. They say, 'Just tell us what's going on.' We have learned a lot about how to prepare for the second new product" from Lincoln's relaunch, a small crossover expected to arrive in 2014, Farley said.
Susan Moiseev ordered her MKZ hybrid in late August. Star Lincoln in Southfield, Mich., delivered it to the recently retired judge about six months later on March 1. But the dealership handled the delay well, Moiseev said, and she's ecstatic with her new MKZ hybrid.
"Star forwarded me emails saying that cars were being delayed for inspections to make sure everything was right," she said. "I know that was true, because when my car arrived, it had 'OK' written on the back window. I got the first or second MKZ hybrid in Michigan. I ordered it sight unseen. I went to the (Detroit) auto show in January so I could see what my car looked like. It was worth the wait."
Star Lincoln also sent Mosieev a gift card for dinner. The dealership delivered about 26 cars in March and 22 in the first half of April. It has about 50 in stock now, in time for spring sales.
"We kept in constant contact and gave our customers the best information we could," said Ryan McInerney, a Star salesperson.
Several factors led to the production delays, according to people familiar with the process. The assembly plant in Hermosillo was running flat out with three shifts building Ford Fusions when the MKZ went into production last fall.
The usual process would have been to slow down or stop the line to fix parts and fit issues on the MKZ. But that would have cut into the supply of the Fusion, which was selling faster and more profitably than Ford had foreseen.
So getting the MKZ right took much longer than expected, Ford says.
The factory also reduced the number of new MKZs it was building to fix what are referred to as "fit and finish" issues on the assembly line, such as pieces of trim that don't line up or a glove box door that doesn't hang evenly or close tightly enough.
"It's incredibly challenging to try to fix a production issue on a line that's running full speed," said Mike Wall, analyst with IHS Automotive.
The company eventually had parking lots full of MKZs waiting for parts to arrive and final inspections. Ford won't say which specific parts were responsible. Ford had also committed to inspecting every single MKZ built – which added to production time – rather than spot-checking cars like it usually does with other models.
Hermosillo is the only plant where the MKZ and Fusion are currently produced. The Flat Rock, Mich., plant, however, will add a second shift in late summer to also build Fusions, a much higher volume model for Ford than the Lincoln.
Interest in the MKZ spiked in response to big-budget advertising when Ford renamed Lincoln in December and also during the Super Bowl in early February.
A steady stream of potential customers already had been coming to Southfield, Mich.-based Star Lincoln since October to look for the car. But the dealership didn't get its first two 2013 MKZs until Feb. 1, the Friday before the Super Bowl.
The dealership decided not to sell them, instead setting them aside just for test drives.
"People want to see a new car, feel and touch a car," said Douglas Leonhard, Star general manager. "The delay probably cost us some sales, but at least we had a couple of cars when the Super Bowl commercials aired."
That's more than some dealerships could say. Some of them didn't get their first demo vehicle until well after the Super Bowl, months behind schedule.
"Somebody needed to raise their hand and say, 'We're not gonna have any cars when the commercials air,' " said Lindland of Rebel Three Media. "Instead, the Super Bowl ads were a complete waste of money."
Rhonda Sabatini, general sales manager of Hines Park Lincoln in Plymouth, Mich., said MKZs are now moving quickly off the lot.
"We're getting lots of conquest sales," when buyers trade another automaker's vehicle, she said. The dealership has taken trade-ins ranging from Lexus to Honda, Hyundai, Kia and even a classic 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III, she said.
"The 2013 MKZ draws a different client. You have to have the product, but you also have to provide the experience and presentation they're used to getting from other brands," she said.
Now that Lincoln has plenty of cars, it needs to recapture some shoppers' attention, several experts who have been studying the relaunch say. That could add tens of millions of dollars to the advertising costs Lincoln's already racked up.
Key to that would be a much heavier promotion of the MKZ hybrid, said Gordon Wangers, a marketing consultant who advises auto dealers.
"The hybrid's a real winner. It says a lot about technology and what's new about Lincoln. They need to demonstrate the hybrid everywhere and all the time. That needs to be the statement the brand makes to customers and the media."
It's still nearly impossible to find an MKZ hybrid at a metro Detroit dealership. The few that arrive are sold before they hit the ground. Ford clearly underestimated demand for the model.
"I wish I had 50 hybrids," said Matt Garchow, new car manager at Varsity Lincoln in Novi, Mich. "Every one that comes in is pre-sold. I can't keep them in stock."
Demand has been a lot higher than Ford expected, said Sabatini of Hines Park Lincoln in Plymouth. "You're not going to see many of them sitting on the lot."
What's more, Ford has been shipping most of the hybrids it builds to California, where it's particularly popular in a market that has been historically difficult for Lincoln over several decades.
"The hybrid is selling in just eight days on the dealer's lot," Farley said. "Los Angeles is the third-biggest market for the MKZ" after the traditional Lincoln strongholds of Detroit and New York. "The hybrid's a big part of the reason."
Wangers also advises Lincoln change its new vehicle names and return to some tried and true nameplates that have been popular for decades.
"They have an arsenal of meaningful, memorable names like Zephyr and Continental," he said. "Lincoln invested decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in establishing those names. Using them is the single most important thing they could do."
Other aspects of Lincoln's product strategy trouble Eric Noble, president of the Carlab, a product-development consultant. He said Lincoln needs to offer more and a greater variety of models than its current lineup of two sedans, two crossovers and a single SUV.
"It's not a re-launch just because you call it one," he said. "The strategy needs to be associated with enough new products to justify the name, and this one hasn't been."
Noble says the "One Ford" mantra championed by Ford CEO Alan Mulally of sharing platforms and components around the world is fine for the Ford brand, but not for Lincoln.
Cadillac developed an all-new platform when GM rebooted its luxury brand more than a decade ago. While some Cadillacs share their platforms with other brands, the heart of its lineup – the CTS and ATS – were engineered from the ground up specifically to take on BMW and Mercedes.
"Luxury brands can't rehash platforms and components from a mainstream brand. Ford has to make the painful and expensive decision to develop separate luxury platforms if Lincoln is going to survive," Noble said.
Farley, whose resume includes running Toyota's Lexus luxury brand before joining Ford, disagrees. He cites Lexus and Audi as flourishing luxury brands that share some platforms with their mainstream brands. Unlike Lincoln, however, they both have some platforms and engines developed specifically for luxury models.
Farley says Lincoln won't quit 'til it gets things right.
"Ford's commitment to Lincoln is complete," he said. "We're going to be patient and deliver the right vehicles to our customers."
Those deliveries start in earnest now.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mark Phelan is the Detroit Free Press auto critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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