Matthew McConaughey's flashy and eccentric TV ads for Lincoln Motor Co. got the world talking again about the aging American marque. But it's Lincoln's new SUVs that are luring customers to showrooms and helping to turn around the once-struggling carmaker.
Over the last decade Lincoln, the luxury arm of Ford Motor Co., lost market share to German competitors that prioritized sport-utility vehicles and performance over large sedans. Now, the radical decision to go all-in on SUVs has paid off: Lincoln's Nautilus and Navigator utes are in high demand, and third-quarter sales rose nearly 12 percent from a year ago with the roll out of the high-profile Aviator SUV.
"Before, Lincolns were basically re-badged Fords," Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at AutoTrader, told ABC News. "Lincoln now is trying to carve out its own path by looking for luxury buyers who want a lush interior over driving dynamics and speed. It's setting itself apart from Ford."
According to Krebs, Lincoln underestimated the demand for the Navigator, Lincoln's full-size SUV that starts at $73,205 and can easily top $100,000 with the Black Label trim. The three-row, mid-sized Aviator, which has garnered strong reviews for its smooth handling, striking exterior styling and plush interior, will likely steal sales from BMW's X7 and Audi’s Q7. Lincoln's latest SUV offering, the compact Corsair, targets customers who do not want to spend more than $40,000 on a vehicle.
"Lincoln's on a very good path," Krebs noted. "There's not a lot of variation with SUVs. There seems to be a certain formula everyone is doing. But luxury buyers want to be pampered and Lincoln is focusing more on concierge service."
In September, the company introduced its Lincoln Access Rewards loyalty program that allows customers to earn redeemable points toward future vehicles, dealer services and personalized experiences. Lincoln’s existing Pickup and Delivery service includes valets who will collect a customer’s vehicle at an agreed-upon location and drop it off at a dealer for maintenance appointments. A complimentary loaner Lincoln is provided to the customer.
Sharon Carty, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine, said she was impressed with the Aviator, calling the SUV a “home run” for Lincoln.
“It feels like American luxury,” she told ABC News. “It’s going to get a lot of attention.”
The Aviator’s pricing – $51,500 for the standard model (400 horsepower and 400 lb.-ft of torque from a twin-turbo V6 engine) and $68,800 for the hybrid Grand Touring variant (450 hp, 600 lb.-ft of torque) – could make it difficult for young drivers to afford, she argued.
“Lincoln needs to embrace who they are,” Carty said. “They make high-quality, luxury SUVs that appeal to older people. It's an older person's brand and maybe that's OK.”
David Placek, president of Lexicon Branding, a marketing firm based in northern California, said Lincoln’s hip, contemporary vehicles have wider appeal than years before. Will that be enough, however, to boost sales over the long run?
"The company needs to build a brand for the future instead of just going after millennials," he told ABC News.
The Aviator’s roominess, versatility and sexiness are exactly what millennials – and traditional customers – are seeking in an SUV, Kemal Curic, Lincoln’s head of design, told ABC News.
“Americans are spending more time in their vehicles now,” he pointed out. “The Aviator is the ultimate expression of our Quiet Flight. We don’t want the technology to overwhelm you. It’s a sanctuary.”
He added, “We’ve created this rolling, beautiful art on wheels. It’s important to have a timeless appeal.”