It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago, as the song says. One day in the spring of 1982, my father pulled into the driveway behind the wheel of a new Lincoln Town Car Signature Series. His new Lincoln Town Car Signature Series, purchased to commemorate his ascension to the post of Executive Vice President in a small food brokerage. Let the record show that my father was thirty-seven years old, as I am now. If he was confused and occasionally frustrated by life, as I am now, he never showed it; if he struggled with doubts and fear, as I occasionally do, it was never apparent. He was a respected businessman and stalwart, if not particularly cheerful, presence at church each Sunday. Still, I take comfort in the fact that his Town Car was painted a particularly outrageous shade of sky blue, referred to as “Wedgwood” in the manual but immediately characterized by my automotively diffident mother as “Polock Blue”. Not as outrageous as a bright green Audi S5, perhaps, but neither was this the car of a man who shied away from attention.
His choice of a Town Car surprised me. My grandfather — his father — was a confirmed Cadillac man who piloted a stainless-roofed Eldorado Biarritz from home to country club and back every day. Surely a Sedan de Ville (French, amusingly, for “town car”) would have been a better choice? As always, though, Dad had his finger vaguely on the American pulse. The Town Car was “hot” and the de Ville was “cold”, so he chose the former. And how I loved to ride in that blue-velour interior, surrounded by chromed script and plastic wood, serenaded by the “Premium Sound” system complete with door-mounted subwoofers! And though my father would eventually follow that American pulse away from Lincoln, through a series of BMWs, Jags, Lexuses, and Infinitis, I never forgot this: sliding behind the wheel of a big new Lincoln meant that one had “made it”.
Fast-forward to the present day. I am in full attack mode, bearing down on the tail of an E36 BMW through a series of vicious decreasing-radius turns. He’s pushing hard, breaking the tail loose slightly at every exit. I’m holding the gap from braking zone to apex and closing it from there. A pair of utterly silent turbochargers quicken the cultured twin-cam music filtering into an exceptionally quiet cabin. We have all-wheel-drive and make full use of it, clawing the road at full throttle and ripping the scenery back through the windshield. On a wide sweeper, I see the needle swing well past the triple-digit hash mark, the Bimmer’s license plate swells to myopic visibility, and the chase is finally over. We’re on his tail, will not be shaken. My three passengers relax a bit. They are each reclined in a power-ventilated individual chair, surrounded by figured maple and stitched leather, lit by the sun through a panoramic glass roof and soothed by a studio-quality sound system. We’re in a Lincoln. More pertinently, we’re in a Lincoln station wagon.
Every brand needs a core. From the core, the marketroids derive image and positioning. The core is what the man in the street remembers, what the neighbor notices, the image that floats unbidden across one’s mind. In the modern era, deviations from the core are punished without mercy by the ever-sensitive customer. Rolex once made quartz watches; today they are an embarrassing rarity, forgotten in company publicity and mentioned in whispers by a select group of iconoclastic collectors. The core of the Mercedes-Benz product lineup is the S-Class, which is why the $45,000 C350 is referred to as the “Cheap-class” in Mercedes-Benz service departments. The core of the BMW product lineup is the 3-Series, which is why the 7-Series will always play second fiddle to the big Benz. The core Jaguar is the XJ; the core Porsche is the 911. Infiniti struggled for years in the market until ithe G35 arrived to become its true core car. Lexus debuted with the LS400 at the core but that mantle has passed to the ES350.
Through the early part of this century, Lincoln and Cadillac were brands without core products, mismanaged and sickly. The DTS sedan, successor to the de Ville and ostensibly Cadillac’s core car, was a warmed-over 1995 Aurora blighted by an unreliable engine and an Avis-quality interior. Lincoln was in worse shape: the Town Car was still riding on the same basic platform as my father’s 1982 Signature Series and was sold mostly to the livery trade. Each brand had made an attempt to provide a mid-sized rear-driver, but the Lincoln LS and Cadillac Catera had failed to find friends among the import intenders. Instead, the showroom traffic at America’s premier luxury brands was primarily focused on a disturbingly cynical pair of rebadged work trucks, the Navigator and Escalade. The coveted title of “best-selling luxury brand in America” had been handed to Lexus, perhaps permanently. As my friend Adam Barrera of highmileage.org says, “Lincoln was a punchline! Cadillac was a punchline!”
Salvation came for Cadillac in the form of the 2003 CTS. This awkward-looking, rather cheaply-finished car was very far from perfect, but it ushered in a unique and recognizable “Cadillac style”. The cars that followed — SRX, STS, facelifted DTS, and revamped Escalade — built on that style. Today, as in 1959, a Cadillac is instantly recognizable on the street. The second-generation CTS provided the icing on the cake, fixing most of the original car’s defects while hammering the “Art & Science” look further into the public consciousness. If the old hands at Cadillac were depressed that the core product of the “Standard of the World” was now an Infiniti G35 competitor instead of a prestigious full-sizer, they managed to conceal their horror behind a simple gratitude for continued employment.
Their counterparts at Lincoln could count on no such saving grace. The 2006 Cadillac lineup was visually unified and mostly brand-exclusive, but the 2006 Lincoln lineup was nothing short of depressing. There was a Ford Fusion derivative whose name, Zephyr, had been most recently used on a Ford Fairmont derivative — and that was, really, the best product in the showroom. The Town Car was celebrating its twenty-seventh birthday, and the other two Lincolns were variants of full-sized Ford trucks. Without a true core product, Lincoln dealers were forced to watch sales follow public perception down the rabbit hole. Pundits inside and outside the industry openly discussed the brand’s impending demise, and the PR pleas to “just wait a little while” seemed to be mere wishful thinking. Forty-odd years ago, the Lincoln Continental had been the finest luxury car available at any price, but those days seemed to be long gone. It was a brand without a purpose.
Cadillac had a purpose, and that purpose was performance. The capstone on this new corporate image was to be the 2009 CTS-V, a Nurburgring-ripping supercharged statement of superiority. The “V” brand would achieve parity with AMG or BMW’s M Division, and by extension — so the theory went — Cadillac would achieve parity with Mercedes-Benz and BMW. Well, maybe not parity, but enough prestige would be generated to justify the fact that a base CTS costs $38,860 while a base Mercedes C300 sells for $33,600.
To combat this bespoke lineup of high-speed rear-drive super-sedans, Lincoln planned… a bunch of FWD platform derivatives. Their CTS fighter, the revamped MKZ, would continue to be a Fusion under the skin, while the MKS sedan and MKT crossover would be related to the Taurus and Flex. The analysts looked at the two companies and took their knives out for Lincoln. It would take more than a few chrome-nosed front-drivers to compete with mighty Cadillac.
It’s at this point that I would like to ask the reader to indulge me in a bit of time travel. We’re going to go back to 1985, if you don’t mind. You see, it was in 1985 that General Motors unveiled their all-new lineup of “downsized” front-wheel-drive luxury cars. Born and bred for a world of OPEC-controlled fuel prices, the GM B-body (LeSabre, Delta 88) and C-body (Electra, Ninety-Eight, de Ville, Fleetwood) cars were just the right product at the right time. Ford knew that it needed downsized FWD sedans to compete against GM’s new lineup, but it didn’t have the development money, so it simply let the full-sized “Panther” RWD Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis, and Town Car continue on without revisions. Everybody sat back and waited for GM to kick the living you-know-what out of the market.
You know what happened next, or maybe you don’t, if you’re young enough. Ronald Reagan broke OPEC’s back, fuel prices fell overnight, and the downsized GM luxury cars were showroom poison. Two successive “up-sizing” efforts on the original platforms failed to recapture customers who were appalled by the dismal-looking 1985 models. Where did those customers go? Why, to Ford, of course. The big “Panthers” acquired sales momentum so powerful that it took twenty years of neglect to destroy the brand equity in the Town Car and Grand Marquis names. The moral of the story? Sometimes it’s better to be lucky.
Let’s return to the present day. Once again, times have changed in ways that the automakers could not predict. Fuel prices are up again, this time perhaps permanently. Whether you call the current state of the American economy “recession” or “depression”, there’s no doubting the effect it’s had on domestic automakers. GM is bankrupt and taking welfare checks from the government, while Ford is backed into a financial corner that would tax Houdini’s powers of escape. Purchasing power is down. Performance is no longer tops on the luxury buyer’s agenda.
As in 1985, Ford’s inability to pay for a clean-sheet luxury lineup may turn to its advantage. I spent last week in San Francisco driving the revised Lincoln lineup. The facelifted MKZ is a genuinely decent car, and the EcoBoost MKS is a nice way to get a Taurus SHO’s pace with additional headroom and luxury features, but the Flex-based MKT…
…well, this is a core car. To begin with, it’s the first American luxury vehicle in a very long time to offer four absolutely premium seating positions. The middle row of an MKT is simply a spectacular experience, from the wide-opening doors to the multiple-speed seat ventilaton. If the Cadillac CTS-V is a love letter to America’s drivers, the MKT is a bouquet of roses delivered to the door of its passengers. The seats recline, legroom is worthy of a long-wheelbase S-class, and the uncanny isolation of the MKT’s interior makes it possible to hold a cross-cabin conversation at very high speeds. As in the Flex, there is a freezer/refrigerator between the seats, but unlike the Flex there’s also a full-length console with storage areas. Passengers looking for a better experience are best advised to consider the Maybach 62, because short of that humpbacked super-Benzo it’s almost impossible to find this level of comfort and convenience.
The MKT doesn’t have a Maybach’s worth of power, but the EcoBoost variant is rapid in the best Hot Rod Lincoln tradition. A flat torque curve assures rapid step-off for part-throttle drivers, while drivers who press the pedal to the floor will be rewarded with a Cosworth-esque wail and a quarter-mile time somewhere in the mid-fourteens. As is the case with the Taurus SHO and MKS Ecoboost, the brakes are worthless; this rig is fast enough to literally set the brakes on fire in fast driving. It could really use a set of big Brembos, such as those supplied on the… Cadillac CTS-V.
On a racetrack, the CTS-V would leave the MKT behind. In fact, it would leave most cars behind, a fact no doubt noted by GM product czar Bob Lutz when he challenged “any member of the media” to beat a Lutz-driven CTS-V around a racetrack in any other stock production sedan. This challenge was later modified to exclude “ringers” such as, ahem, your humble author, but the point was made: the CTS-V is very possibly the fastest new sedan money can buy. Does it matter? Cadillac has bet, and bet heavily, on the fact that “luxury” really means “luxury performance” in the BMW tradition. The CTS and STS are not spacious cars, and they are not necessarily comfortable ones, particularly not in the second row. They are meant to be driven.
Lincoln, on the other hand, has placed its chips on traditional American luxury virtues: evocative styling, unparalleled comfort, reasonable pricing, high feature count. The worst back seat in the Lincoln lineup — the one in the MKZ — is as good as the best one at the Caddy dealer. In a perfect world, both companies would continue to find an audience, but this is no longer a perfect world. This is Recession America, and there may not be enough space at the dinner table for two full-line domestic luxury brands.
In this battle of core cars, my decision comes down to a very simple fact. It’s possible to find a more entertaining drive than a CTS-V for less money, but the MKT offers a passenger experience that can’t be matched by cars costing half again as much. Furthermore, the MKT isn’t a terrible drive, particularly in turbo form, while the CTS is rather dismal when pressed into passenger duty.
Scratch that. I’m fibbing. Well, I’m not fibbing necessarily, but I’m not being completely honest. I’m picking the MKT because the CTS-V, as wonderful as it may be, is simply an American M5. It’s an imitation. It’s an attempt to be something that Cadillac never really was. The MKT, by contrast, is a perfect successor to that iconic 1961 Continental. It’s the ultimate American luxury car, and the fact that it’s technically a Canadian-built truck doesn’t matter one bit. In a world where I had followed my father’s path — an alternative universe where I had chosen hard work and respectability over club racing and sleeping ’till noon — I’d bring a new car home to my kids to celebrate my new job, and it would be a Lincoln. Trust me on this one. When the smoke clears, the last brand standing in domestic luxury will be the one from Dearborn.