Jim Farley, you're Ford's global marketing and sales czar and a pretty smart car guy with a grand vision for what sells and a global point of view of how to get messaging out to the tech-savvy masses from Beijing to Kitchener-Waterloo. So, does Ford's underperforming Lincoln premium brand need an iconic flagship mode?
"Yes," he said at a dinner in Detroit.
And what might that iconic flagship be? Something like the upcoming Buick Verano compact already on sale in China and coming to North America later this year?
"You'll see," he said.
Ford's wonderful turnaround story - $6.7-billion (U.S.) in profits last year and No. 1 status in Canada - is tainted by the Lincoln chapter. While General Motors' Cadillac brand sold 150,000 vehicles in North America last year, Lincoln did something like 100,000.
Sure, the Lincoln MKX crossover has some wonderful gee-whiz technology, a quiet ride and a toothy grille that can blind you in bright sunlight. But when you think Lincoln, you should not think SUV; you should have an image of a sexy car. There are no sexy Lincoln cars.
But Farley and others atop Ford say they have a Lincoln plan. It's based on the promise of seven new or improved vehicles by 2014.
What's more, now that Ford has discontinued its Mercury brand and sold Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, the company has more money to rebuild its remaining luxury brand.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally told auto analysts in Detroit in January that Ford won't make Lincoln a global brand any time soon, but that does not mean Lincoln doesn't have Ford's full attention.
So new investment is coming to Lincoln and a lot of it is aimed at the Millennial generation - often defined as those people born between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. Farley says Millennials eventually will want fun-to-drive, fuel-efficient luxury vehicles. Lincoln will offer that with a promised compact vehicle due by 2014. Note to Farley: Buick is selling the Verano right now.
This is mean and it's the truth. Lincoln's so-called untapped potential will wither and die permanently without more and better products. Ford gave a hint of what they'll be in January. Future Lincolns will be dramatically different from Fords. Their interiors and exteriors will be utterly unique and the technology will be special, too.
"The strategy isn't just new products, but full differentiation from the Ford brand in not only design, but in technology," Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice-president of global product development, told a group of auto analysts at the Detroit auto show.
For now, though, Lincoln is not a luxury brand. Near luxury, sure. As evidence, take a look at the 2011 MKX. I've chosen to dig into the Lincoln brand here because while the 2011 MKX has more power, a quieter ride, a nice interior and some very cool new technology - MyLincoln Touch - the rest of this pretty rig is not all that different than the 2010 version.
Damning with faint praise? Not really. While the MKX looks more truck-like than car, it's still handsome, luxurious, quiet, solid and well built. Not a bad combination for a premium crossover. I have no qualms about recommending a test drive.
My bet is you are going to like the MyLincoln Touch technology. It creates a whole new way for customers to interact with digital and vehicle technology and because the controls are simple and there is an emphasis on voice activation, it's very smart technology.
I'm also a fan of how Lincoln has replaced traditional vehicle buttons, knobs and gauges with clear, crisp LCD screens and five-way buttons and sliders. This is a lot like your smartphone and your iPod. Moreover, it's possible to personalize the system with little fuss. Heck, touch-sensitive sliders even manage the climate and stereo. Slick.
The exterior design, tweaked for 2011, has a nice flow to it, though the MKX still looks a lot like the Ford Edge with which it shares a platform and an Oakville, Ont., assembly line. The interior, however, is a standout. Lots of luxurious touches in there. Moreover, Lincoln says the preliminary data show the 2011 MKX is quieter than Lexus or Audi rivals.
And the powertrain? The engine is a what Ford calls a new 3.7-litre Duratec V-6 with a best-in-class 305 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque versus all V-6 competitors - plus top-rated fuel economy.
Lincoln will have a future, but the MKX is the present. If I were buying a crossover, I'd look hard at this Lincoln - it's that advanced and that pleasant to drive. Alas, Lincoln needs more than this in its future and even to have one.
2011 Lincoln MKX
Type: Premium mid-size crossover
Price: $46,500 ($1,550 freight)
Engine: 3.7-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 305 hp/280 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: all-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 12.2 city/8.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz ML, Acura MDX, Audi Q7, Lexus RX, Infiniti FX35, Volkswagen Touareg