I once asked the head of a German car company in the U.S. what he would do if he were running Cadillac. He hesitated, then said, "Well, I wouldn't have brought out the Catera." The Catera is the $32,000 "entry level" made-in-Germany Cadillac, selling now for a few years without much success. You remember: "The Cadillac that zigs."
His answer puzzled me. Cadillac needed a car in that "entry" market, and back then I mistakenly thought the Catera would turn out to be a pretty good car. But this very successful executive said that the point wasn't whe-ther the Catera was good or not.
"You don't create a car like this to make a few sales," he said. "You do it to make a statement, to say where you are going. And this car doesn't say anything."
True. The Catera's bland styling and bland performance said nothing positive about the future of Cadillac, and, in the end, again tarnished the Cadillac name.
I bring this up because Ford's new "entry level" Lincoln, called the Lincoln LS, is out. It's a much better car than the Cadillac Catera, but with some of the same problems. It should speak loud and clear about Lincoln's future. It certainly says more than Catera did, much more, but doesn't say enough or loudly enough. Remember how loudly that first Toyota Lexus spoke?
What I think is wrong:
n The name: Lincoln LS. Half the cars around seem to be called the LS. Couldn't Ford come up with a name with some American flair, history or even originality? LS is a copycat name used by foreign brands and American makes seeking to appeal to foreign cars buyers. Boring.
n The styling is bland. I doubt many will turn their heads when a Lincoln LS goes by. Car & Driver, which was trying to be nice, said, "several observers perceived a surprising resemblance to the Mitsubishi Diamante." Lincoln's new motto is "American Luxury." What's American about it? That's what we like about Cadillac's Evoq sports car-to-come: The Evoq design says, "I'm not German, I'm not Japanese. I'm Made-in-Detroit, and if you don't like it, tough."
A small wager: The Lincoln LS design is not where Ford's new design team wants to go with "American Luxury" and the LS will get a Made-in-Detroit look some day. Alas, some day might be six years off.
n The car is underpowered for its class with a 210 horsepower V-6 and a 252 horsepower V-8. "The car's greatest shortcoming, particularly in the V-6, is lack of oomph," says Business Week. The new Nissan Infiniti I-30, which competes with the Lincoln LS V-6, for example, has 227 hp; The LS V-6 will run 0 to 60 in about 9 seconds with a manual, about 9.5 seconds with automatic. I see in AutoWeek that the Hyundai Sonata (automatic) runs 0 to 60 in 9.33 seconds. "American luxury" must dig to whip a Hyundai away from the stoplight. Okay, maybe it's not that important, but I think folks that pay this much for a car want to know they can go fast, even when they don't.
Why not more power? The engines in the Lincolns and Ford's Jaguar S Type are similar, but the Jaguar engines are much more punchy. Ford charges at least $10,000 more for the Jaguars, and my guess is that Ford wanted to make sure there was a real performance difference between the two luxury brands. That was wrong.
If Lincoln was to make a statement, it should have been to be as strong as possible, and let Jaguar fend for itself.
The new Jaguar, in fact, has everything the new Lincoln hasn't:
1. A great name with tradition, "S Type."
2. A great design
3. And, as noted, terrific engines, 240 hp in the V-6 and 281 in the V-8.
Now, three-quarters of the Lincoln LS buyers are expected to take the V-8 (252 hp), which runs 0 to 60 in less than 8 seconds (that's fast enough), and the LS handling and road-hugging have been widely praised. The price seems right, $31,450 for the V-6 and $35,225 for the V-8 (and add, say, $3,000 to $4,000 more for extras).
Ford knows how to sell a car, and be sure that Ford President Jac Nasser will see heads roll if this car doesn't sell.
Strange, sometimes I think the Lincoln people are no smarter than the Cadillac people, just luckier. Lincoln planned to junk its Town Car and go front-wheel drive when Cadillac did in the 1980s. But Ford ran short of money, didn't finish the FWD job, and was forced to keep building the Town Car. Suddenly, the old rear-drive Town Car became a hit, much to Ford's surprise; a former Ford chairman told me this. Sales climbed past 120,000 a year and profits past $1 billion a year, which helped pull Ford out of bad times.
The latest Lincoln Continental is a huge disappointment; 100,000 sales annually had been expected, last year the number was 35,000. And internally, Ford people seem ashamed of theTown Car/Crown Vic/Grand Marquis platform, which is Ford's most profitable (says a former Ford president) U.S. car platform.
Better lucky than smart, they say.
The Lincoln LS will sell, and broaden Lincoln's sales base. But a new car like this comes once-in-a-lifetime. Too bad. The new Lincoln is a good try; it is close, but no cigar.
The Jaguar S Type gets the cigar. o
- Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.