Lincoln reveals new Corsair SUV at New York auto show, targeting China and fast-growing utility vehicle market US

Key Points
  • Lincoln released the Corsair, a two-row small SUV.
  • The brand said it is aiming at one of the fastest-growing segments, the small premium SUV market.
  • It will also be the first vehicle Lincoln plans to build in China, where the brand has grown as parent Ford has struggled.
The 2020 Lincoln Corsair.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Lincoln unveiled a new small sport utility vehicle called the Corsair at the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday, in a bid to keep revitalizing its brand and recreate some of the success it has seen with larger vehicles such as the Navigator.

The two-row Corsair continues Lincoln's strategy of leaning into what it considers its new brand identity: plush, spacious, and quiet vehicles that offer smooth rides and new technology. It is the smallest SUV Lincoln makes, but Lincoln President Joy Falotico said the vehicle competes in one of the fastest growing segments in the market.

Ford's luxury brand has not released any pricing information yet, but the vehicle is likely to cost less than the next-larger SUV, the Nautilus, which starts at around $40,000. Despite the Corsair's relatively small size, Lincoln said it is taking the idea of spaciousness seriously: the company said the car has more rear seat legroom than larger SUVs such as the Tesla Model X and the Mercedes-Benz GLS.

2020 Lincoln Corsair
Source: Lincoln

Lincoln is also playing up the vehicle's smooth ride, made possible by a new suspension system and a part-time all-wheel drive system that adjusts to road and weather conditions. The Corsair comes with either a 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 250 horsepower and a 2.3 liter turbo four that makes 280 hp. Both engines come with an 8-speed automatic transmission.

Lincoln does have plans to electrify the vehicle, confirmed Falotico. There will be a plug-in hybrid version, which Lincoln expects will have longer range than the plug-in hybrid version of the similarly-sized Ford Escape. Lincoln expects the plug-in version will be available within the first year of the vehicle's production.

Meanwhile, Lincoln is working on an all-electric version, but has to sort out the technical issues. The all-electric will likely be laid out in a skateboard platform, similar to those found on Tesla vehicles, where the batteries and key electrical components are located in or under the car's floor.

Lincoln has not decided whether the plug-in version will be performance-focused, as is the case with the hybrid version of the larger Aviator.

Lincoln is also loading the car with high-tech features, such as a system that allows users to operate the car with their phones instead of keys, similar to the system found on cars such as the Tesla Model 3. There are also small details, such as a range of colors for the cabin's ambient lighting system, and door chimes developed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which the company began offering with the mid-size Aviator SUV.

The premium subsidiary of Ford Motor Co. has been rehabilitating its image and trying to reconnect with buyers in recent years. The company cut its name as the maker of stylish and quintessentially American sedans like the Continental in the 1960s. It did the same for high-end SUVs in the 1990s with the Navigator.

In more recent decades, however, Lincoln was considered an "also-ran" that ditched its roots and mistakenly tried to compete with other luxury makers, especially those from Germany and Japan. But Lincoln had a hit in the redesigned Navigator full-size SUV in 2018, and is rolling out several more similar vehicles in various sizes and price points.

2020 Lincoln Corsair
Source: Lincoln

The Corsair also will be Lincoln's first vehicle made in China for the Chinese market, a big step for the company. Lincoln is something of a bright spot for Ford in China. Overall, the second-largest automaker has long struggled in China. Total Ford China sales fell more than 36% in 2018, but Lincoln grew 2.2%.

So far all of the Lincolns sold in China have been imports. Building the Corsair locally will be a crucial next step for the overall business, and will allow Lincoln to take advantage of cost savings and local expertise in certain areas, Falotico said.

2020 Lincoln Corsair
Source: Lincoln

For example, the Chinese market is moving rapidly ahead in infotainment systems and in-cabin technology. Lincoln can take lessons from the market in that country and bring them back to the U.S. customer as it tries to forge ahead with its renaissance at home.

"Lincoln is betting on a familiar formula with the Corsair, but that's not necessarily a bad thing," said Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell. "Slow and steady wins the race, and cranking out a stable of stylish SUVs with actual names shoppers can identify isn't a bad way to build a brand right now. If Lincoln continues to build the types of vehicles shoppers want with a focus on style and quality, it has a real shot at a comeback."

CNBC freelance Paul Eisenstein contributed to this article.