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Ford revives the Lincoln Continental, aims at US and China

Lincoln Continental returns

Ford Motor will resurrect the Lincoln Continental as its top-of-the line luxury sedan, betting the classic name will help rebuild the brand's image in the United States and China.

Ford's Lincoln unveiled a prototype of the future Continental sedan on Monday ahead of the April 3-12 New York auto show, which will feature many of the Continental's future rivals, including the Cadillac CT6 sedan from General Motors, a new Jaguar XF sedan from Jaguar Land Rover and a bevy of super-premium models from Daimler Mercedes Benz.

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Ford retired the Continental name in 2002, and joined its rivals in using letter and number codes for most models. But memories lived on in China, where Continentals had been the car of political leaders and celebrities. China now is the main market for premium sedans such as the Audi A6 or A8, the Mercedes S-class or the BMW 7-series.

Ford executives say they were surprised to learn that the Continental name also had legs in the United States, where grandly proportioned Continentals from the 1960s had prominent cameo roles in movies such as the popular Matrix science fiction series.

Though China is currently home to the largest sedan segment, the Continental was designed for both the U.S. and Chinese markets, Ford CEO Mark Fields told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street." He said Ford found far more similarities than differences in what American and Chinese consumers want.

The biggest difference is that Chinese car buyers are often chauffeured, leading Ford to focus on offering a wide range of passenger amenities, Fields said. The concept vehicle includes a backseat computer system, reclining rear seats, and "smart" windows that turn opaque with a tap of the finger to reduce the temperature.

Fields and other senior executives decided to call the car the Continental about 18 months ago based on positive research.

The car debuts a new look for Lincoln, with a grille and stance that lean more toward Jaguar or Maserati than Cadillac or BMW.

When it launches next year, the Continental will be the latest salvo in a $2.5 billion renovation of Lincoln. In the United States, the brand lags well behind BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Cadillac and Lexus.

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"When you look at what we've done with the Ford brand over the past seven or eight years, we've grown the brand, we've added customers to our stable of products," Fields told CNBC. "So what we want to make sure is if and when they want to move up to a luxury car, that we're there for them with Lincoln."

Fields said Ford would look to use its position as one of the smallest producers in the luxury segment to its advantage.

"We want our engineers and our marketing and sales folks—we want them thinking about experiences, that personalized experience, and then how does technology enable that?" he said.

Lincoln's U.S. sales are up 1.2 percent for the first two months of 2015, lagging the 9.2 percent increase in the overall market. By 2020, Ford wants to expand Lincoln sales globally to 300,000 vehicles a year, about triple current sales.

Ford is in the early stages of relaunching Lincoln in China, with 11 dealerships and 25 planned by the end of 2015. Ford has not announced plans to build Lincoln vehicles there. GM says it plans to build the CT6 in China and at its factory in Hamtramck, Michigan.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.