There once was a time very long ago when shoppers looking for a luxury car had only one serious question to tackle: Cadillac or Lincoln? Those days ended around the time Jimmy Carter left office, and the American public learned that Mercedes-Benz and BMW were German words for luxury. After decades of shamelessly chasing the blue plate special crowd, Cadillac and Lincoln woke up sometime in the early 2000s to find themselves out of touch and ill-equipped to handle the modern luxury market. Full-size SUVs like the Navigator and Escalade may have gotten the brands through some of the leanest years, but their offerings were nowhere near the caliber of competitors like Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, and Lexus.
Cadillac took action first, undertaking an astonishing transformation that took the company from churning out soft-sprung luxo-barges to building some of the best performance sedans in the world. As its cross-town rival bulked up to take on the big dogs, Lincoln sank even further into its decades-long malaise. Ford maintained that it had full confidence in its luxury brand, but as Lincoln continued to field a half-baked lineup of rebadged Fords, many began to wonder whether the storied luxury brand would be the next American marquee to disappear from the market. Now, Ford may have just silenced most of the naysayers, as a new Continental is on the way. This new Lincoln is the most exciting car to wear the iconic crosshairs badge in years, and it may be just the thing to bring the beleaguered company back from oblivion.
Last week, a Ford fan forum broke the news that an unfinished page on Lincoln’s website had appeared outlining an all-new Continental for 2017. While Ford had made no mention of a new Continental in the works (and quickly took the page down), the company has been on a roll as of late with surprise blockbuster reveals – most notably with the Ford GT supercar. As speculation built throughout the week, Ford has confirmed the rumor and released details on the new car ahead of its official debut at this week’s New York International Auto Show, instantly upstaging rival Cadillac, who is set to unveil its long-anticipated CT6 sedan. Unlike the last Ford Taurus-based car to wear the Continental name, this new concept is the most brand-specific Lincoln in years. And unlike Cadillac, this all new Lincoln makes few aesthetic concessions to the top-selling Germans. Simply put, this Continental is an all-American luxury car the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.
Imagine a world where the Germans never quite caught on in the American market, and all the baroque features that came and went during the Malaise-era continued to evolve. The new Continental is from that world – and surprisingly, it’s a sight for sore eyes. Unlike the Germans (and the new Cadillacs), this Continental isn’t razor-sharp and minimalist, it’s a bold-faced celebration of American luxury that goes all the way back to Lincoln’s roots. The original Continental of the 1940s was the V12-powered ride of choice for Hollywood royalty. The 1956 Continental II was one of the most advanced and exclusive cars in the world, and it cost more than the average house. Elwood Engel’s streamlined design for the 1961 Continental redefined American automotive design, and John F. Kennedy’s well-publicized fondness for the car helped make it one of the most iconic cars of the 1960s. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Lincoln ballooned into the ultimate luxo-barge, with plush interiors, massive dimensions, opera windows, and a garish pseudo Rolls-Royce grille.
Unlike the clean sheet approach taken by Cadillac, Lincoln borrowed liberally from its history, and details of past Continentals are all over the new concept. The belt line from the ’60s car and liberal amounts of chrome? Check. Deep blue paint from its years as the government car of choice? Check. Blue interior, pillow-top seats, thin chrome door handles from Grandma’s Town Car? You bet. That said, this is no retro-mobile. Lincoln has its sights set on its foreign competitors, and it means business. The company took out 50 new patents on the power seats alone, and speaking with Road and Track, a Lincoln spokesman boldly described the car as “5-Series with 7-Series luxury and tech.”
The BMW 5-Series may be an ambitious target, but it shows that Lincoln is ready to reenter the luxury market in a big way. Performance details are slim for now, but Lincoln says that the car will be powered by Ford’s 3.0 liter EcoBoost V6. The car will most likely ride on Ford’s CD4 platform, shared with the Ford Flex and the current Lincoln MKZ. While the CD4 is a front-wheel drive platform (unlike the rear-wheel drive Continentals of Lincoln’s glory days), there is a strong rumor that the car would use Ford’s new torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system from the upcoming Focus RS. While you probably couldn’t drift the Continental sideways through a forest like you could a rally-based Focus, an AWD Continental could prove to be a compelling alternative to all-wheel drive sedans like the Audi A6 Quattro.
While the Continental may be the first big, modern, and unapologetically American cruiser we’ve seen in decades, Ford isn’t as concerned with how the car performs in the domestic market as it is about China. While a big, luxurious sedan with a Lincoln badge seems uniquely American, the car was designed to appeal to China’s growing appetite for large luxury cars with a focus on the rear seat passengers. Audi A8s, BMW 7-Series, and Mercedes-Benz S-Classes are all massive sellers in the Chinese market, but there is also a strong demand for American cars. Cadillac sells respectfully, and Buick’s success in China may have been a major factor in GM’s decision to keep the brand alive during the global financial crisis. Lincoln officially launched in China in 2014, and Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields hopes to sell 300,000 Lincolns there in 2020. An upscale Continental seems like a great place to start.
The world seems like a much different place today than it was when your only choices for a luxury car were a Cadillac or a Lincoln, but is it? The Germans still rule the luxury car roost, and the demands of the Chinese market influence car design more than any other market in the world. Tesla is desperately trying to break into the market with its electric Model S, the Cadillac CT6 was all but designed for the Chinese marketplace, and Buick’s gorgeous Avenir concept was designed in GM’s Australian styling department because of its proximity to China.
Ironically, as the CT6, Avenir and Continental all illustrate, these American cars developed with the Chinese market in mind are getting closer to the cars of Detroit’s heyday than almost anything else to come along in decades. If the global market demands a full-size Lincoln Continental, who are we to judge? Thanks to China, the full-size American luxury market is back. So, what’s it going to be, a Cadillac or a Lincoln?
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