Lincoln's entry in the brutally competitive near-luxury segment is a fine car. But is "good" good enough in 2006?
I just knocked out a road trip in a Lincoln Zephyr, which proved itself to be a fine and capable highway machine. But as I clicked off miles at a quick, comfortable clip on my way home from the inaugural 24 Hours of LeMons – an inspired endurance race for cars that cost less than $500 – I realized that the Zephyr is one of the (many) reasons that Ford Motor Company is going down the tubes. Not because it’s a bad car, but because it’s a good one. And nobody’s noticing.
Based on the platform that underpins the excellent Mazda 6, the Zephyr is the up-market version of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan. (Ford also believes that it will appeal to a younger demographic, but this is just a corporate delusion.) As such, it’s a solid piece of work that will provide buyers with years of reliable transportation. Sure, enthusiasts won’t have much use for it, but that’s not the target market. This is a family sedan designed to roll down the road in slightly more style than the Camrys and Accords of the world, and it comes reasonably close to the bull’s-eye.
The exterior styling is bland despite a nod to gangsta chic, but the interior is inspired, with high-quality materials and a Mustang-like architecture that evokes the glory days of the ‘60s without seeming like a retro cliché. The 221-hp V6 is perfectly serviceable, and a six-speed automatic is a bonus in this class. The handling is sporty only in comparison with the Lincoln Town Car, but that’s fine, too. Clearly, the Zephyr is built more for comfort than for speed.
MSRP for the base model is $29,000. The car I was driving went out the door at 33K and change, with the lion’s share of the premium accounted for by the excellent nav system. That’s a competitive price that ought to convince anybody shopping in this segment to consider this car. And yet I doubt it’s on the radar screens on most consumers.
During the 20th century, American cars were the default choice for the vast majority of American car buyers. Sure, a lot of them bought foreign cars, but only if they had a compelling reason. Nowadays, the tide has turned, especially on the coasts and in the Sunbelt, and a new generation of consumers no longer expresses its patriotism by reflexively opting for domestic products. This is bad news for the Big Three, and it’s been showing on their scary P&L statements.
Ford is by no means completely out to lunch. The Mustang and F-Series pickups have been monster hits, and deservedly so. And it’s not realistic to expect the folks in Dearborn to hit a home run every time they step up to the plate. But the days when they could hope to draw a walk or two and wait for the opposition to commit a few errors are long gone. If Ford wants to compete with the Asians and the Europeans, it has to take the bat off its shoulders and swing for the fences.
Ford faces a bunch of serious systemic problems – legacy costs, aging plants, crushing debt and so on – that require sophisticated solutions. According to the latest Harbour Group report, the company is losing nearly $500 on each vehicle it sells, and you don’t have to be a Wharton grad to know that this isn’t a business model with long-term prospects for success. But if Ford is going to reposition itself as an industry leader rather than a follower, then it has to begin by pumping out better products.
Obviously, this isn’t as easy as it sounds, and executives can’t just wave a magic wand over their tired model lineup and magically make all of their cars winners. Also, let’s face it: Nobody wants to build a bad car, and there are a lot of smart people at all of the car companies. But at the very least, one thing Ford can – and must – do is start designing and building products that are bolder than the opposition. It’s time for the company to take a chance with something different, something innovative, something that isn’t afraid to deviate from mainstream norms. And, no, the Ford GT doesn’t count.
We live in an era when cars are more competent than ever before, but also more forgettable. Maybe I’m just jaded after 20 years of writing about cars, but I want to be wowed. I want to be astonished. At this point, to be honest, I’d rather be offended than bored. The Fusion, I can understand. It’s supposed to be a white-bread, red-state car. But a Lincoln’s got to be something more, be it graceful or garish. That’s what buyers are looking for and, equally important, that’s why the marque exists – to give Ford designers, engineers and product planners a chance to push the envelope.
Bottom-line: The Zephyr is a good car at a time when Ford needs great cars.