DETROIT (AP) — The Lincoln Continental has a storied past. Now it has a future.
The new Continental full-size sedan debuted Tuesday at the North American International Auto Show. It goes on sale this fall in the U.S. and China.
For most of Lincoln's 99-year history, the Continental was the pinnacle of luxury, the car of kings and presidents. It was born in 1938, when Henry Ford's son Edsel asked designers to make a convertible he could drive during a vacation to Palm Beach. Thrilled by his friends' reactions, Edsel made the Continental part of Ford Motor Co.'s luxury Lincoln brand.
But Ford faltered in the 1990s. It bought other luxury brands, like Jaguar and Aston Martin, and underestimated growing competition from Japanese and German luxury brands. Lincoln stopped making the Continental in 2002 so it could focus on a newer model, the LS. It eventually sold its other luxury brands. But Lincoln sales fell further.
Lincoln is reviving the Continental as part of a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar comeback. It's a nod to the history that sets Lincoln apart from its rivals. It's also targeted at customers in China, who have a particular appreciation for historic American brands. Lincoln expects to sell around 60 percent of the Continentals it makes in China, where it plans to double its dealerships to 60 by the end of this year. The Continental will be made in Michigan.
Continental sales will likely be limited in the U.S. Sales of full-size sedans have been plummeting as midsize cars like the Lincoln MKZ get bigger and more luxurious and new small SUVs like the Lincoln MKC entice buyers. Pricing hasn't been announced, but the Continental will likely start around $50,000.
The elegant Continental hasn't changed much from the concept version that debuted at last year's New York Auto Show. It has the same gently undulating sides, wraparound taillights and a panoramic glass roof. The doors open with very little effort and snap themselves closed, one of many ways designers tried to make the vehicle relaxing and serene.
Inside, there are patented, Ford-designed seats that can be adjusted up to 30 ways. They have separate settings for each thigh, inflating cushions, heating and cooling and a massage function, and they're designed to hug your back if you swivel around. In another nod to China, where many owners are chauffeured, there is a reclining seat in the rear. There's also a specially designed, 19-speaker Revel audio system.
The Continental is powered by a new, 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V6 engine with 400 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque.
Kumar Golhatra, Lincoln's president, says the brand's effort is paying off. Lincoln's U.S. sales rose 7 percent last year, faster than the industry average; it sold more than 100,000 vehicles in the U.S. for the first time since 2008. Sales in China topped 11,500.
Quirky ads featuring the actor Matthew McConaughey helped spark interest and lower the average age of Lincoln buyers to 58. That's down from 68 three years ago.
Analysts say Lincoln is making the right moves, but still has a long way to go to get noticed in the cutthroat luxury market. Mercedes-Benz sold nearly four times more vehicles than Lincoln in the U.S. last year.
"Imported luxury vehicles have more prestige," said Jack Nerad, a market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "As good as American luxury cars ae ore, they can't overcome that."
Ford CEO Mark Fields says Lincoln isn't trying to compete with German brands. Instead, it's trying to convey a warm and welcoming sort of luxury.
"We spent a lot of time trying to figure out if we could carve a unique place in this segment," Fields said. "People are really stressed. We wanted to give them a sanctuary."