AP Auto Writer
DETROIT (AP) -- Lincoln is getting a new car and a new name designed to reverse 20 years of falling sales.
The 97-year old luxury brand, synonymous with presidential limos and black Town Cars, is returning to its original name, Lincoln Motor Co. Lincoln hopes the name will help restore the brand's luster as the new MKZ sedan goes on sale this month.
Lincoln Motor Co. founder Henry Leland -- who also started Cadillac -- named the company after his hero, Abraham Lincoln. He sold it to Ford, which wanted a luxury brand, in 1922. Lincoln Motor Co. was used in advertising all the way through the 1970s and 1980s, but had fallen out of use more recently, Lincoln chief Jim Farley said Monday. That's not unlike the brand itself, whose sales have been slipping since buyers began defecting to foreign brands like Lexus and BMW in the 1990s.
Ford is depending on the MKZ to start reversing that slide. It's the first of seven new or revamped Lincolns due out by 2015.
The MKZ, which was unveiled in concept form at the Detroit Auto Show last January, is longer and wider than the current version. It starts at $35,925, or about the same as its archrival, the Lexus ES 350. A hybrid version is the same price.
Among its new features are a push-button transmission instead of a shifter and an optional panoramic glass roof. It still has Lincoln's split-wing grille, a tribute to the 1938 Lincoln Zephyr and one of the brand's most recognizable features. But designers made the grille thinner and more tapered after complaints about the ungainly maw on the most recent Lincolns.
CEO Alan Mulally said the MKZ's elegant design is its most striking feature.
"It's smooth and soft. It will stand the test of time," he told The Associated Press on Monday. The new car, he said, is the "proof point" of Ford's commitment to the Lincoln brand.
Lance Willis, a Lincoln dealer with the Bayway Auto Group in Houston, likes the new MKZ but is frustrated that it's not in showrooms yet. Ford has built up a lot of hype but needs to deliver the MKZ and the rest of its new cars if it wants to keep people interested.
"One car itself won't do the job," he said. "They need to shorten the timetable."
But Willis applauds the name change, saying it helps separate Lincoln from the Ford brand.
Lincoln was the top-selling brand in the U.S. two decades ago, when sedans like the Continental and the Town Car were the pinnacle of luxury and elegant, uncluttered design. But then Ford bought up other luxury brands, like Jaguar and Volvo, and ignored Lincoln. Its lackluster products couldn't compete in the hotly contested luxury market.
Lincoln now has the lowest U.S. sales of any luxury brand, with around 75,000 vehicles sold in the U.S. so far this year. BMW has sold more than four times that number.
Ford has sold off its other luxury brands so it can concentrate on Lincoln. On Monday, Mulally and Farley were promoting the MKZ with an event Monday at New York's Lincoln Center. Ford has hired former football star Emmitt Smith as Lincoln's new pitchman. It's also developing Lincoln's first Super Bowl ad, which will feature Tweets from actual consumers that have been put into script form by comedian Jimmy Fallon.
Farley said Lincoln is targeting customers who want a warmer, more personal experience in the showroom.
"After the great recession, luxury customers really changed. People are really buying luxury to treat themselves, not to impress others," Farley said.
He said Ford's research indicates that 25 percent of the luxury market is made up of quirkier, so-called progressive buyers who aren't attracted to current brands.
But even moderate success will take a long time and require a constant stream of compelling vehicles that are different from Fords, said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com.
"Lincoln is just starting out on a long journey to gaining luxury car credibility and it is miles behind its competitors," she said. "Success will take more than a company name change and a Super Bowl ad."
The brand hopes to attract buyers by ramping up its customer service. It will offer a 24-hour live shopping concierge who can help buyers navigate their purchase as well as lavish gifts for customers and "date nights," where potential buyers can take someone to dinner in a new MKZ.
"We know that for Lincoln to be successful we have to do two things: Surprise people with the product and deliver competitive service in the dealership," Farley said.
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