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Lincoln MKS Holding Own in Difficult Market

Lincoln paid particular attention to instructing dealers how to sell the MKS, launching a nationwide training program seven months before Job One.

The all-new ’09 Lincoln MKS flagship sedan is performing well out of the gate, although the U.S. credit crisis that has sent industry sales plunging is tempering expectations.

“Before Job One, which was seven months ago, we had 8,500 orders in the system, which is unique (for) us,” Pei Wen Hsu, MKS marketing manager, tells Ward’s. “We got tremendous momentum going.”

But the orders haven’t necessarily been translating into sales. The MKS hit dealership in July, albeit in limited numbers, and racked up 385 deliveries. Since then, sales mostly have hovered at about 2,000 units. Through September, total year-to-date MKS sales stood at 6,852, Ward’s data shows.

Hsu and her team initially forecast annual sales of 36,000 units, but the sagging market has driven that estimate downward.

“We don’t have enough stock in place yet, and those targets were before the market collapsed,” says Hsu. “I think everybody’s targets are out the window. The important part is (market) share improvement.”

In the third quarter, the MKS controlled 2.5% of the lower-luxury market, which is dominated by heavy-hitters such as the BMW 3-Series that tops the segment with a 10.8% share, Ward’s data shows.

The MKS has been enjoying conquest sales, Hsu says, noting most consumers are shopping the vehicle against Japanese brands, including Lexus and Infiniti.

“There’s no way BMW and Mercedes-Benz drivers will leave for this car, at least not yet,” she says, noting that could change once the MKS gets Ford Motor Co.’s direct-injected turbocharged EcoBoost technology next year.

“German cars are more performance oriented, whereas our vehicles are about everything luxury,” she says. “Our goal is to start clawing back market share from the Japanese. (If we can) get market share back from Acura and Lexus, we’re doing our job.”

However, data from Compete Inc., a Boston-based Web analytics company that monitors automotive purchasing trends, indicates the MKS also is being cross-shopped against German brands.

Jackie O’Dowd, senior associate-automotive at Compete, says that in August and September, the Audi A6 was the No.1 vehicle cross-shopped against the MKS, followed by the BMW 5-Series, Lincoln MKZ, Nissan Maxima, Cadillac CTS, Hyundai Genesis, Lexus ES, Lincoln MKX, Saturn Vue and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

Although some of the models cross-shopped don’t reside in the luxury segment, O’Dowd says that’s common for a vehicle new to the market.

“Customers didn’t quite have a clear picture of what (the MKS) was (early in the launch), which is common when a new nameplate comes out,” she says, noting the MKS in recent months has been attracting more luxury buyers than those shopping other segments.

O’Dowd says the real opportunity for the MKS is what she calls reverse cross-shop. “For example, 60% of A6 shoppers also consider (the) MKS. That’s a lot of shoppers…to convert into buyers.”

However, much depends on Lincoln dealerships.

“If the supply, mix or distribution is off, then the MKS could miss out on the opportunity to actually conquest these shoppers,” she says. “And because the model is new, it’s likely dealers won’t have the right mix. Or (competitors) will realize (the) MKS is a threat and may take competitive action, like raising incentives.”

Base price for the MKS is $39,555, while the ’09 Audi A6, which arrives in showrooms in January, is expected to start at $43,000.

Hsu says Lincoln paid particular attention to instructing dealers how to sell the MKS, launching a nationwide training program seven months before Job One.

The training has paid off, Hsu claims, noting MKS models don’t last long on dealers’ lots. “We turn MKS (units) in eight to 16 days. The Cadillac CTS takes 100 days to turn.”

Some pundits have knocked the MKS for not offering a V-8, arguing a luxury sedan requires a large engine to compete in the ultra-competitive segment. The only engine available on the model is a 3.7L V-6 that makes 273 hp using regular gasoline and about 275 hp with premium. The only transmission is a 6-speed automatic.

Hsu disagrees that a V-8 is necessary to be competitive, although she admits the MKS product-development team considered adding one to the mix.

“When we showed the car as a concept, we showed it with a V-8,” she says. “But that V-8 was from Yamaha (Motor Co. Ltd.), and it wasn’t competitive. So it would have required a lot of investment.”

To illustrate her point, Hsu points to Cadillac and Lexus. “Their V-8 sales have tanked,” she says. “They used to be 20% (of the mix), now they’re less than 10%.”

Meanwhile, Lincoln has launched an advertising campaign highlighting the MKS’ technological attributes, in particular its push-button start, which is shown in television spots that liken the sedan to a starship.

However, the feature is an extra-cost option. Hsu argues the push-button start is included in highly contented models, which have proven the most popular with buyers.

“Most vehicles you see on the showroom floor would have that option,” she says. “We advertise the loaded version because 80% of our inventory is loaded.

“(Other upcoming) MKS TV ads are edgy, and they stand out,” Hsu says. There’s a very technological flavor to them. That look and feel will be adopted over the whole brand. That’s how we’re going to talk about Lincoln.”

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