The Lincoln Continental is exactly the car Ford's luxury brand needs to assert itself as an alternative to leaders like Audi, BMW, Cadillac and Lexus. The long, elegant concept, and the production model that will follow next year, shows a bold new vision for Lincoln that's light-years ahead of anything the brand has done before.

The Continental, despite bearing a name with roots in Lincoln's heyday 70 years ago, heralds a totally new direction for Ford's luxury brand, and a vision that can lead Lincoln to new heights.

Buyers in China, the world's biggest luxury market, should snap up the production version when it goes on sale next year. Americans who today dismiss Lincoln as a brand of airport shuttles and aging limos will look twice, the second time with admiration. European and Japanese luxury brands will add Lincoln to the list of competitors they must take seriously.

After years of relying gimmicky styling and features, the Continental's design and name acknowledge Lincoln must step up its game.

The Continental concept, and the upcoming production model, are as dramatic a break from the brand's past as the original 1940 Continental was from what Lincoln and Ford had been doing to that point. That car's flowing lines, sophisticated and worldly without copying European brands, set Lincoln apart.

There's nothing remotely retro about the concept being shown in New York, which boasts a pronounced grille, subtly sculpted body, innovative lighting and subtle touches that borrow brilliantly from aerospace design.

Inside and out, the car is distinctive and distinguished. It's destined to be one of the hits of the New York show this week, and a defiant trendsetter for Lincoln's future.

The Continental is only the start of a long process, though. No single vehicle can undo decades of mediocrity. Lincoln will have to develop a new platform and many new vehicles to reach its goal, but a great new car is a fine place to start.

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