2009 Lincoln MKS: Sub-luxury brand, sub-luxury price

August 7, 2008, 5:45 PM UTC
Fortune

2009 Lincoln MKS
2009 Lincoln MKS

Dating exactly when Lincoln fell out of the luxury-car category is difficult – but fun.

You could start with the 1977 Versailles, a version of the Ford Grenada that was started up with a vinyl roof and bumper-mounted spare tire. Or maybe it was those short-lived pickup trucks, the Blackwood and the Mark LT, that staggered under the Lincoln star and excessive sticker prices.

My personal answer to the question ‘”What killed Lincoln?” is the corporate reorganization in the 1990s under CEO Jac Nasser that led to the Premier Automotive Group. A slug of money was allotted to Lincoln so that it could develop an exclusive large sedan, known internally as “The Flagship,” to relaunch the brand. But a recession arrived before “The Flagshp” did, and Lincoln was reduced to marketing knockoffs of Ford (F) division models like the Fusion and Edge. Their heritage was little disguised by Lincoln’s decision to adopt Euro-style nameplates like MKZ and MKX.

All that zigging and zagging has produced a predictable effect on sales. Today rival Cadillac (GM) is outselling Lincoln handily, with about three Caddys sold for every two Lincolns.

While Ford shows no interest in trying to hoist Lincoln up to luxury status again with exclusive models or pioneering technology, it is becoming more clever at “badge engineering:” spinning Lincolns out of Fords.

Case in point: the 2009 MKS, which bears almost no resemblance to the homely Ford Taurus (nee Five Hundred) from which it sprung. The high rear-deck, sleek profile and in-your-face front grille on my Sangria Red test car drew a surprising number of thumbs-up from passersby during a drive from New York City to the Massachusetts Berkshires. The interior was just as handsome,  with its finely-detailed instrument panel, sophisticated graphics, and leather and wood steering wheel.

The MKS can’t completely escape its humble origins. It is powered by a 3.7 liter version of the V6 Duratec that resides in the Taurus (and produces a mediocre 17 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway). But the test car came loaded with standard equipment, and even with special wheels, a rear-view camera, and a navigation system, it stickered out at just $42,605 – a good value in my eyes.

Lincoln’s future direction became clearer recently with the announcement that the Mercury brand would be shifted to smaller cars. That will allow Lincoln to occupy Mercury’s old price point: above popular-priced Fords, but below true luxury levels.

Lincoln, in other words, is becoming Ford’s equivalent of Buick, albeit with glitzier pretensions.