By BILL VLASIC
DEARBORN, Mich. — Every successful luxury car needs an identity for which consumers will pay a premium. Mercedes has its classic looks. Lexus epitomizes creature comforts. For BMW, performance is important.
The Lincoln division of the Ford Motor Company? If nothing particular comes to mind, you are not alone.
But Ford is hoping it soon will be high-tech features married with elegant designs masterminded by a 39-year-old Australian hired away last year from Cadillac.
“When do you ever get an opportunity like this?” the designer, Max Wolff, said in an interview. “Our goal is to make Lincoln look like nothing else that’s out there.”
Mr. Wolff has been given a free hand to revamp Lincoln, starting with a new version of its midsize MKZ sedan to be revealed at the Detroit auto show in January. Viewed recently at the company’s design studio, the car has a sleek, tapered silhouette, a retractable glass roof and a center console that rises like a ramp off the floor directly into the instrument panel. Even the traditional vertical lines of the grille have been turned horizontally.
“He is pushing them in a totally different direction,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with the research firm IHS Automotive, who got a sneak preview. “I almost fell over when I saw it.”
Detroit’s comeback so far has been built on shifting from big trucks and S.U.V.’s to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. But to cement the turnaround, the American automakers need the profit margins and prestige that higher-priced luxury models can generate.
General Motors is investing heavily in its Cadillac division, and last month unveiled a new flagship sedan, the XTS, at the Los Angeles auto show. Chrysler is not known for upscale products, but has had some success in promoting its 300 model as a quasi-luxury car that is more affordable than European competitors.
Lincoln, however, has been stuck in the unenviable spot of catering to older, less affluent consumers with a lineup of vehicles derived from its mainstream Ford models. The must-have value? Not much, except possibly for die-hard fans of the roomy interiors and flashy chrome of its discontinued Town Cars and Continentals, best known for limo rides to the airport. Lincoln’s glory days date back 20 years.
“They have a long way to go from a perception standpoint,” Ms. Lindland said. “Ford needs Lincoln so that the Ford buyer has a luxury alternative when they want to move up.”
Analysts like Ms. Lindland say remaking Lincoln is crucial to Ford’s reputation and financial results in the future, but its 77,000 sales in the United States so far this year place it a distant eighth among luxury divisions. Lincoln trails perennial leaders like BMW and Mercedes, but also Honda’s Acura brand and Nissan’s Infiniti models. While Lincoln accounts for 4 percent of the cars that Ford sold in the United States this year; Cadillac is about 6 percent for G.M.; Honda’s Acura brand is 10 percent, and Toyota’s Lexus division is 12 percent.
Since Alan R. Mulally took over as chief executive in 2006, Ford has sold off its foreign luxury brands — Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo — and concentrated on improving the quality and appearance of its core lineup of Ford cars, S.U.V.’s and pickups.
That strategy has paid off with steadily improving profits and sales. The next step in Ford’s turnaround is injecting some sizzle into Lincoln. “We need the same type of focus, commitment and capital resources we brought to the Ford brand,” Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product chief, said in an interview.
The company plans to introduce seven new or upgraded Lincoln models over the next four years. The first of those were on display at the Los Angeles show, when the full-size MKS sedan and MKT crossover were unveiled with new front ends, slicker interiors and suspension systems that automatically adjust for different driving conditions.
But bigger changes are yet to come, primarily from the design studio headed by Mr. Wolff, Lincoln’s design director.
Mr. Wolff’s design team has already toned down some signature features of past models — the boxy dimensions and gaudy grilles, for example — in the refreshed Lincolns that go on sale next year. But there is more work to do, he said.
The look of one competitor, Cadillac, has changed radically in recent years. The brand’s sharp creases and angular dimensions are polarizing to some consumers, but the edgy designs have helped Cadillac stand out from the rest of the luxury crowd. Ford is seeking a softer, more sumptuous design for its Lincolns that grabs similar attention.
The MKZ reflects the direction Lincoln is heading.
As he showed off the car in the studio, Mr. Wolff homed in on its aesthetic touches: scooped-out door handles, tail lamps that extend the width of the car and unusual side mirrors set on flat pedestals. “They’re meant to be like beautiful little pieces of sculpture,” he said. “We want customers who appreciate that unexpected attention to detail.”
Mr. Kuzak said the mechanics of the new Lincolns were aimed toward the “progressive luxury customer.” Fuel economy, he said, will be critical, along with better handling, braking and all-wheel-drive and hybrid options.
The changes are, in fact, long overdue. Lincoln’s typical buyer is 65 years old, compared with the industry’s luxury car average of 53. And the competition is getting more fierce in the segment, where entry-level models cost upward of $40,000 and consumers expect distinctive style and the latest technology.
Lincoln’s vehicles are priced somewhat lower than those of its chief foreign rivals. The MKS sedan, for example, costs about $42,000, compared with $50,000 for a Mercedes E-class or $47,000 for a Lexus GS. But those competitors are rear-wheel-drive models traditionally favored by luxury buyers as opposed to the front-wheel-driven MKS, and carry a cachet that Lincoln can’t match yet.
Younger buyers do not consider Lincolns to be cutting edge, said Randall Rosales, a 22-year-old law student in Orlando, Fla., who recently bought a used Infiniti. “Even my mom thinks Lincoln is a little boring,” he said.
And even older consumers often view Lincoln as a less expensive alternative to the latest European models. “A BMW or Mercedes may have more prestige, but there is a lot of value in this car,” said Gary Burkhart, a 68-year-old investment adviser in Birmingham, Mich., who just leased a Lincoln MKZ.
Changing those perceptions will take time, Ford executives say. But after watching Lincoln stagnate while competitors like Audi and Cadillac gain market share, Ford can’t afford to wait.
“We had to take the next step and make the big investment in people and dollars,” Mr. Kuzak said. “We need to provide something totally different to get today’s luxury buyer.”