Back in the mid-'90s, Lincoln was riding high. Ford's primo brand was actually outselling GM's Cadillac division, which at the time was purveyor of stolid starter caskets to the AARP crowd.
It was Lincoln that birthed the idea of taking a big SUV from the lower-key Ford line, chroming everything that wasn't plastic and then reselling it as a kind of 4x4 McMansion to go into the garages of actual McMansions.
You know, the Navigator.
On the strength of this monster hit, Lincoln became A Number One, the Duke of New York (and the rest of America, too).
Well, nothing but miscues and debacles like the Blackwood, Aviator, and Mark LT. And misfires like the coulda-been-a-contender LS sedan. That one was genuinely sad. Not because the car was a stinker, but because it wasn't -- and because of what it might have been. It was good-looking -- and it was rear-wheel-drive, with a manual transmission available. Instead of developing it, Lincoln just dropped it.
Lincoln built lemons -- while Cadillac built a better Navigator out of the Chevy Tahoe -- and then upped the ante by revamping its entire passenger car lineup to appeal to people who have not fallen and can't get up.
Now Cadillac is A Number One.
But Lincoln is apparently not croaked yet. At the Detroit Auto Show, Ford CEO Alan Mulally announced a $1 billion commitment to Lincoln's revival, and showed the press a new concept car that bears the "DNA" of seven soon-to-be-here Lincoln models, the first reportedly based on the show car and scheduled for production circa 2014.
That's good to hear -- but unfortunately, the new car has an old name: MKZ.
There is already an MKZ in Lincoln showrooms and the problem is it's not leaving Lincoln showrooms. At least, nowhere near enough of them are leaving showrooms. In 2011, about 27,529 MKZs found buyers.
Total Lincoln production for the year -- that is, all of Lincoln's current models combined -- added up to just 85,643 units.
It's a small number in such a big market.
Part of the reason why is the current MKZ is too obviously a Ford Fusion with a higher price tag. A much higher price tag: $34k to start vs. about $20k to start for the mere Ford. Just as the current MKS is a tarted-up Taurus. And the MKX is a not-well-disguised Ford Edge.
Cadillac, meanwhile, went clean sheet and renamed its new models -- none of which (other than the Escalade SUV) shared any "DNA" with mere Chevys. For whatever reason, the public accepts badge-engineered big SUVs like the Tahoe-Suburban based Escalade (and the Expedition-Navigator, which Lincoln of course still sells). But when it comes to cars, not so much.
Cadillac tried badge-engineering at a distance by smuggling in a rebadged European GM (Opel), the Catera -- calling it the "Caddy that zigs."
Except it didn't sell.
It was only when Cadillac brought out all-new (and Cadillac-exclusive) models like the CTS that the joint really began to jump.
Can Lincoln turn things around?
Time will tell, of course -- but it's not going to be easy or inexpensive. The lux market is even more competitive now than it was in the '90s -- when the big-name Japanese players were still second-tier players.
The MKZ show car has presence. It looks the part.
It reminds me of the last Lincoln car I had any interest in -- the '80s-era Mark VII. That car was a looker and a runner.
And so, it sold.
Then Lincoln screwed the pooch with the Mark VIII - a bathtub-looking oddity that never caught on and which ended up killing off what had been a very successful franchise. Arguably, Lincoln's demise as a premium car brand can be traced back to the disastrous redesign of the Mark series -- which ended with the cancellation of the slow-selling Mark VIII after a mediocre five-year run in 1998. Lincoln never recovered its mojo and other than the Navigator blip, it's been a slow-slide into also-ran status for Ford's once-proud luxury nameplate.
So, here's to hoping the 2014 MKS is more than a really nice next gen Fusion.
And maybe change the name, too.