Auto Outlook: Not grandfather's Lincoln

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Dec. 9, 2012 at 5:30 AM
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Ford 's ambitious plans for its languishing Lincoln brand are being met with hopeful bemusement.

Executives announced at New York's Lincoln Center the 95-year-old luxury brand was going back to its roots and would use its original name, The Lincoln Motor Company -- that's Lincoln as in President Abraham Lincoln.

To motorists of a certain age Lincoln was always the car of U.S. presidents. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower all rode in a Lincoln and President John F. Kennedy was sitting in the back of a four-door, convertible Lincoln Continental that fateful day in November 1963 when he was assassinated in Dallas. The limo was refurbished and armor-plated after Kennedy's death.

Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush also used Lincolns, before the White House added Cadillac, which provided presidential limousines in 1983, 1993, 2001 and 2004.

The discontinued Lincoln Town Car remains a favorite of limousine and livery companies, but the average age of a civilian customer is around 65 years old. Lincoln wants to get that down at least a decade to the mid-50s.

With the demise of Ford's Mercury brand in 2011, Lincoln has been regarded as sort of the last car you might buy to show you were successful before you drive off into retirement. Younger buyers simply were not interested in a rear-wheel drive dinosaur even though Ford's best was pretty darn good.

Sales are down 3 percent this year.

The question is: Can Lincoln do enough at this point in its history to differentiate itself from the rest of the luxury pack. The CBS Sunday Morning News recently broadcast a feature on Lincoln's storied past and its future ambitions. The video ended with a reporter driving away in a shiny new Lincoln with a retro push-button transmission on the side of the center instrument panel.

In recent years Lincoln has been nearly totally eclipsed by German and Japanese luxury brands like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, Sweden's Volvo and arch-rival Cadillac, which Lincoln raided to hire its latest design chief.

"We have to reach new customers, so we have to behave differently," Matt VanDyke, head of Ford and Lincoln's global marketing, told The Detroit News.

The latest, and perhaps last, effort to revive the brand will center on the nameplate's front-wheel-drive MKZ and MKZ hybrid midsize sedans. Look for them to be touted in print and broadcast ads featuring all-time NFL rusher Emmitt Smith, on Twitter, and in a commercial to be aired during the Feb. 3 Super Bowl telecast.

Starting with the MKZ, Lincoln Motor Co. is rolling out seven new and refreshed vehicles over the next four years, all from its Lincoln design studio in Dearborn, Mich. The new Lincolns, based on platforms shared with less expensive Ford vehicles, will debut in China in 2014.

The $8 million Super Bowl ad buy, Ford's first for the big game since 2006 and Lincoln's first-ever, will feature a 60-second spot created by comedian-late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon. Lincoln hopes it makes as big a splash as Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" ad featuring rapper Eminem or Clint Eastwood's "It's Halftime in America" spot did during the last two Super Bowls.

"We have to get noticed," said VanDyke. "The Super Bowl is as massive as you can get, and we need to make sure people know Lincoln is not what they thought it is."

The Lincoln Motor Co., started by Cadillac-founder Henry Leland in August 1917, became a division of the Ford Motor Co. in 1940, 18 years after Henry Ford's son, Edsel, signed an agreement to buy the company which built Liberty aircraft engines with parts supplied by Ford during World War I.

"Today we are announcing a new beginning for a brand that has been part of our company and the American fabric more than 90 years," Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said. "The new Lincoln brand will be defined by great new luxury vehicles, such as the new MKZ."

AAA warns of E15 ethanol fuel

Have you seen service stations in your area offering E15 motor fuel?

That's a blend of 85 percent gasoline and 15 percent corn-derived ethanol, 5 percent more ethanol than in ordinary motor fuel.

The AAA is warning its 53 million members that using the blend could void vehicle warranties and cause engine damage. The government recently approved use of E15 gasoline for 2001 and newer vehicles but AAA says 95 percent of motorists have not even heard of E15 and that its sale should be halted.

"It is clear that millions of Americans are unfamiliar with E15, which means there is a strong possibility that many motorists may improperly fill up using this gasoline and damage their vehicle," said Robert Darbeinet, AAA president and chief executive officer. "Bringing E15 to the market without adequate safeguards does not responsibly meet the needs of consumers."

Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and BMW have said they will not honor warranties for damage caused by use of E15 fuel and Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo said using E15 may void warranty service, The Detroit News reported.

Newer model flex-fuel vehicles can safely burn E85 fuel, a blend with 51 percent to 85 percent ethanol.

U.S. car sales sprint to year's end

After a torrid November, U.S. car sales are on pace to end the year at the upper-range of annual forecasts, around 14.5 million vehicles.

Sales jumped 15 percent over November 2011 to top 1.1 million vehicles, the best monthly U.S. sales since pre-recession 2007.

Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and BMW reported their best November sales ever and sales rebounded for the Detroit Three, up 14 percent, 6.5 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively, for Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

Ford F-Series pickup remains the top-selling vehicle in the United States with sales rising 17.9 percent followed by Chevrolet's Silverado, which fell 10.4 percent. The other top-November sellers were the Honda Civic, up 75.5 percent; Toyota Camry, up 22.7 percent; Honda Accord, up 82.8 percent; Dodge Ram, up 23.3 percent; Toyota Corolla, up 40.3 percent; Honda CR-V, up 36 percent; Ford Escape, down 3.9 percent and Nissan Altima, off 1.5 percent from October.

"It's clear that the industry will come in at the high-end of our full-year forecast, which is 14 million to 14.5 million," Kurt McNeil, GM's vice president of U.S. sales, told The Detroit News.

Analysts said sales rebounded from Hurricane Sandy, which hit the U.S. East Coast in October, but some warn sales could be waylaid if Congress fails to resolve tax and deficit-reduction issues that could push the economy over the so-called "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1.

"We see a pretty good jump coming in December through February, and then a sustained improvement through 2013 as they get some economic bounce of post-Sandy [which flooded or damaged an estimated 250,000 vehicles]," McNeil said.

Ford said it could sell 20,000 to 30,000 vehicles as residents of the U.S. Northeast receive their insurance checks and continue to replace vehicles lost in the megastorm.

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