DETROIT — Lincoln was once the pinnacle of luxury. Continental limousines carried presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. Town Cars ferried executives through Manhattan. Athletes and rappers cruised around in Navigator SUVs.
But over the last two decades, the Lincoln lineup grew stale as Ford transformed its other cars and trucks with new designs and features. Now it's finally Lincoln's turn for an update, one that aims to show customers the brand can make more than hearses and airport limos.
It's been a long wait. For years, Ford saw more promise in other luxury brands it was buying, like Jaguar and Volvo. Many Lincoln models became too similar to their lower-priced Ford siblings. Sales suffered.
Lincoln sold a little more than 85,000 vehicles last year, down 63 percent from the brand's peak in 1990. At one time, it was the top luxury brand in the U.S. But Lincoln is now outsold by seven other luxury brands, including Lexus and Infiniti. Presidents since Bill Clinton have ridden in Cadillacs.
Saving Lincoln has been on Ford's back burner for a long time. The automaker decided first to tackle more pressing matters like downsizing and returning to profitability. After a five-year turnaround, the company is making money again. CEO Alan Mulally has shed Ford's other luxury brands and is ready to focus on turning Lincoln into a real competitor that can attract wealthy buyers and fat profits.
Fourteen months ago, Ford assigned a team of 180 designers and engineers to focus on Lincoln full time. The company recently opened its first dedicated Lincoln design studio since the 1970s.
Buyers will see the fruit of those efforts at the Detroit auto show, where Ford on Tuesday pulled the wraps off an MKZ sedan that is close to the model that will go on sale this fall. The new MKZ is one of seven new or revamped Lincolns due out by 2015, when the Lincoln brand will celebrate its 100th birthday.
The 2013 MKZ is already getting some critical buzz.
"They're doing the right things. People are going to aspire to own a Lincoln again," said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with consulting group AutoPacific Inc. The new design reminds him of an Audi.
Among the MKZ's features is an all-glass roof that opens automatically and slides over the back window, giving both front and rear passengers a convertible-like ride. It still has Lincoln's split-wing grille, a tribute to the 1938 Lincoln Zephyr and one of the brand's most recognizable features. But designers toned it down after complaints about the ungainly maw on the most recent Lincoln sedans.
The car is longer and wider, giving it a more luxurious look, and it has an elegant, clean dashboard with flush buttons for controls instead of knobs. The concept car — in a rich reddish brown dubbed "cognac" — has cream leather seats perforated into a pattern that's meant to resemble champagne bubbles.
"Our movement as a brand is toward something we call elegant simplicity. It's something warmer and more restrained," said Lincoln Design Director Max Wolff, an Australian who was lured away from Cadillac to revitalize Lincoln.
Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst with the consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said the design will help Lincoln get noticed. But he thinks it's just a start and expects Wolff to continue refining designs over the next several years.
"It takes a long time, and a lot of other brands have had a head start. Cadillac's already 10 years into their reinvention," Bragman said.
Ford marketing chief Jim Farley said Lincoln has studied the comeback of other luxury brands, like Burberry and Gucci, and plans an ad campaign to reintroduce Lincoln. The company has also cut around 175 dealerships in its top markets and is pushing the remaining ones to spruce up their showrooms and offer perks like home delivery of new cars and cameras in the body shop so customers can watch their vehicles being repaired.
Right now, Lincolns are essentially rebadged Fords, built on the same underbody but with different designs and more bells and whistles. The MKZ will start to break from that; while it will still have Ford's basic architecture underneath, it will have its own engines and transmissions. Future Lincolns will have their own platforms for the first time since 1999.
The MKZ will feature some of the same safety systems offered in the 2013 Ford Fusion, including an alert that warns drivers if they're swerving out of their lane. Other options will be unique to Lincoln, including a button that automatically adjusts the suspension and steering if the driver wants a sportier, road-hugging feel.
Ford isn't revealing fuel economy or price right now, but expect the MKZ to start around $41,000, which is similar to an Audi A6.
Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president of product development, says Lincoln wants to give customers something between the smooth, comfortable ride of a Lexus and the sportiness of a BMW.
"We're not going to out-BMW BMW," he said. "We'll let Cadillac do that."
For now, just 4 percent of buyers considering Lexus and 3 percent of those considering Audi are also considering Lincoln, according to automotive Web site Edmunds.com.
"There's nothing really bad about Lincoln out there, but nothing really good either," Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl said.
The MKZ is currently Lincoln's best-selling vehicle, with sales up 22 percent to 27,529 last year. But that's dwarfed by other entry-level luxury cars. The BMW 3-Series, for example, sold 92,836, while the Lexus ES350 sold 40,873.
Lincoln's overall sales were flat for the year, dragged down in part by Ford's decision to end production of the Town Car, a 30-year-old classic that was once the brand's flagship but essentially became a fleet-only vehicle for limo companies.
Ford hopes the new Lincoln will attract younger buyers — the brand's median age is now 65 — and more women.
It also wants to make inroads on the West Coast, where Lincoln sales are anemic. Ford has done that before. New products like the Ford Fiesta and Ford Explorer helped the company increase its California sales by 25 percent in the first nine months of 2011, according to the California Auto Dealers Association.
The big push starts at the Detroit auto show. Lincoln's stand used to be wedged into a dark corner, but this year, it has two levels, art-filled lounges and its own atmospheric soundtrack. On the upper level, it displays a 1934 Model 40 Special Speedster that once belonged to Henry Ford's son, Edsel. The new MKZ sits on a pedestal on the lower level.
Glenn Mears, a Lincoln dealer from Dover, Ohio, is among those remodeling his dealership. He said he trusts the company after seeing the revamp of the Ford brand over the last five years.
"They're creating products that are pulling customers into the showrooms," Mears said. "They know what they're doing."