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Ford's Lincoln Dream Faces Long Odds

Lincoln MKZ
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Lincoln MKZ

As I sat on stage with Mark Fields, President of Ford operations in North and South America, I wondered what he was thinking as researchers presented their findings on Gen Y (those folks between 18-34 years-old) attitudes on luxury auto brands. We were speaking at the 4th annual Deloitte conference on Gen Y auto buyers and this was the final presentation of the night: "Gen Y Buyers View of Luxury Autos." In a nutshell the research team from UCLA said Gen Y wants established luxury brands, particularly those associated with performance.

No wonder BMW and Audi were listed as examples of luxury cars 18-34 year olds aspire to own. Lincoln is not. And I would venture to say it's not even on their radar of possibilities.

Against that backdrop and the fact Lincoln sales dropped last year while industry and luxury auto sales increased, Ford continues to talk a good game about Lincoln. At the Detroit Auto Show, CEO Alan Mulallywas emphatic in telling me Ford is committed to rebuilding Lincoln as a strong, competitive premium brand.

Sounds good.

Will the plan become reality? It's a longshot right now.

Yes, the Lincoln MKZ concept Ford showed at the Detroit Auto Showis gorgeous. Yes, Ford designers under Derrick Kuzak have given us an intriguing vision of what Lincoln could become. And yes, Mulally has earned the right to tell us Lincoln will rebound given the impressive rebound he has orchestrated at Ford.

But here is the reality. The Lincoln image is that of town cars driven by older people to the country club. Changing that image will take more than a gorgeous model or two. It will also take pumping tens of millions into recasting Lincoln as the car wealthy up and comers not only drive, but crave. It will also take millions to update and refurbish Lincoln dealerships that are nice, but nowhere close to the standard set by Lexus, BMW and Mercedes.

The research from UCLA's school of management on Gen Y attitudes about luxury is clear. While the percentage of buyers 18-34 actually plunking down money for a luxury car is small, this is the next generation of luxury car buyers. What they aspire to drive is coming out of Germany, not Dearborn. That's what Ford is trying to change Lincoln.

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___________________________ Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.comand Follow me on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews

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