DETROIT -- Lincoln is resurrecting the Continental name and phasing out the brand's signature split-wing grille.
A full-size sedan named the Continental will go on sale in North America and China in 2016, executives said. Lincoln will then discontinue the MKS, which perennially has been one of the slowest-selling cars in its segment.
The Continental Concept being unveiled at this week's New York auto show reveals the brand's shift in styling direction as it strives to triple sales in five years, emphasizing Lincoln's focus on interior serenity and comfort as it bids for renewed relevance in the luxury market.
The Continental will have a new 3.0-liter V-6 EcoBoost engine that's exclusive to Lincoln and a trapezoid-shaped grille with a repeating pattern mimicking the shape of Lincoln's badge. The car has roughly the same dimensions as the MKS but more interior space, particularly in the rear to compete with long-wheelbase luxury sedans preferred by chauffeured Chinese buyers.
The automaker isn't saying which platform the Continental is built on and whether it is front- or rear-wheel drive.
Lincoln hopes bringing back the Continental name, dormant since 2002, will help rekindle some of the connections that past customers -- and more importantly, their children and grandchildren -- felt with the brand. But it doesn't necessarily signal the end of the MK naming scheme, said Matt VanDyke, director of global Lincoln.
"When we have iconic names from the past, we think it's a smart thing to do," VanDyke told Automotive News. "There's latent good will for the Lincoln brand, but people are waiting for products like the Continental."
The Continental is the first vehicle fully developed under design chief David Woodhouse, who joined Lincoln about two years ago, adding only some finishing touches to the MKX crossover that goes on sale this fall.
Early in development, "it was nice, but it didn't blow anyone away," Woodhouse said. Then, Ford Motor Co.'s top executives gave the order to call it the Continental, which Woodhouse described as a pivotal moment.
"When that name was mentioned," he said, "that reset expectations and the standards we have to meet."
The Continental Concept's rear seat has a console that holds a tablet-supporting lap desk, shown, and a champagne chiller.
The concept, shown in "rhapsody blue," features a glass roof that can electronically switch from clear to opaque, seats that adjust 30 ways -- including separate thigh supports for each leg -- and subtle door handles concealed in chrome beneath the windows. A chrome console bisects the length of the cabin, which has thick wool carpeting underfoot, soft Alcantara armrests and a satin headliner, all matching the exterior color.
The rear seat was inspired by first-class airline travel, Woodhouse said. The passenger-side "ultra comfort" seat reclines, with a footrest that extends outward as the front seat moves forward. Thin Venetian leather travel cases attach magnetically to the back of both front seats. At the push of a button, an integrated tablet-supporting lap desk emerges from within the chrome console, which also has a cavity for chilling a bottle of champagne.
Lincoln's ambitions in China have made rear-seat amenities and spaciousness a priority for the brand.
"In days past, you'd find the designers paying all the attention to the driver," Woodhouse said.
On the exterior, designers gave the car a low, wide profile, underscoring horizontal lines to accentuate its length, Woodhouse said.
The Lincoln badge on the grille looks like chrome but lights up from within, a technology that Woodhouse said is being explored but "not feasible today." The taillight, which spans the width of the rear, employs a similar effect.
New grille, old name
The new grille represents an end to the polarizing split-wing design that Lincoln adopted in 2007. VanDyke said the split wing had been improving with each iteration -- early versions had vertical slats, vs. the horizontal ones used now -- but that the shape was difficult to adapt for all sizes of vehicles.
The Continental's grille, which will spread across the lineup with future redesigns, "sets such a new, unique and aspirational face of the brand going forward," he said.
The Continental's introduction next year will complete Lincoln's overhaul of its core lineup to invigorate sales in the U.S. and grow the brand rapidly in China. It follows the MKZ in 2013, the MKC last year and the MKX in the third quarter. Ford last year said it would spend more than $2.5 billion to transform Lincoln, adding two more nameplates by 2020, beyond the Continental.
The Continental name dates to the 1930s, when it was developed as a one-off vehicle for Edsel Ford. It reached its pinnacle of styling and popularity in the 1960s but had lost most of its prestige -- and customer base -- by the time Ford discontinued it in 2002 after nine generations.
VanDyke said the Continental name still has positive connotations in the U.S. as well as China, where people know it from American movies and associate it with high society.