We Spoke To The Lincoln Continental's Chief Engineer About America's All-New Luxury Flagship

Interview

American, not German luxury: The 2017 Lincoln Continental makes its own rules.

Lincoln isn’t a new American brand but, in many ways, we really ought to see it as such. Founded in 1917 and owned by Ford since 1922, Lincoln was intended from the get-go to be Ford’s premium brand. And for many successful years it was. Presidents and various foreign dignitaries were chauffeured in Lincolns, and America’s elite and wealthy loved to buy them. Lincoln, during its heyday, was a grand symbol of prestige, but somewhere along the way it lost itself.

Aside from its cars growing in size to what were essentially land yachts, much like its cross-town competitor, Cadillac, throughout the 1970s and well into the 80s, Lincoln also became synonymous as an old man’s brand. Fast-forward to the 90s and early 2000s, Lincoln continued to survive and the launch of the Navigator in 1998 gave it a much needed jolt of influence and appeal. In fact, Cadillac immediately identified the Navigator as both a threat and an opportunity, so it rushed its first generation Escalade to market. Today, however, it’s the Escalade that’s achieved phenomenal success while the Navigator has been riding on the same platform since 2007. Aside from the Navigator, what other Lincolns have become sales success stories?

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The MKS? It’s a rebadged Ford Taurus. The reskinned Flex/just plain weird looking MKT? The nice but overpriced MKX (a rebadged Edge)? The MKZ, a heavily redone Fusion, is a great mid-size luxury sedan but the competition is tough. The new MKC crossover, however, is very promising. An all-new Navigator, as previewed by the Navigator concept at New York in March, is on the way, too. But Lincoln desperately needs a new flagship, and nothing could be more perfect than a reborn Continental. Speaking with Mike Celentino, chief engineer of the Continental program, I wanted to know as much as I could about the big sedan, what it means for Lincoln, and when can we expect another semi whacked-out Matthew McConaughey commercial.

Development on the new Continental obviously got underway several years ago but, as Celentino points out, his team didn’t see themselves as "working on the next Continental, but rather a new Lincoln flagship sedan." Their research involved some of the old great Continentals and this got everyone excited. "We worked many weekends, galvanizing the team,” Celentino stated proudly. The name choice soon became obvious. Also clear was that this new, truly 21st century Continental wasn’t going to be just a Buick or Acura fighter. “We looked specifically at the (Audi) A6, (BMW) 5 Series, (Cadillac) ATS and CTS, and (Lexus) GS."

Both the A6 and Continental, for example, have around $50k price tags when similarly equipped, but the latter offers a lot more bang for the buck. One example is the Continental’s 19-speaker sound system, compared to the A6’s 10 speakers. "You’re getting a lot of car for the money," Celentino says proudly. "Look at the workmanship inside and out. Wealthy shoppers are smart shoppers. They don’t need luxury but they want it." Speaking of which, will those customers be retirees at some Florida golf community, or younger people still in the prime of their careers? "The average age of Lincoln buyers is 56, and that’s where the Continental is aimed at."

That’s pretty good considering that only a few years ago that number was at 60. Hey, it’s progress and Lincoln hopes to soon attract even younger buyers thanks to the heavily refreshed 2017 MKZ, MKC and the upcoming redesigned Navigator. Lincoln, Celentino further explains, "Is pure American abundance."

“We don’t want tech for tech’s sake, but (the goal) is to make daily tasks easier." Such as? The e-latch door handles, for one thing. I remarked to Celentino they caught my attention immediately when I was on hand for the Continental’s reveal at Detroit last January. Notice how they’re discreetly integrated into the beltline. "I’m glad you brought them up," Celentino says proudly, because they’re e-latch handles, as opposed to regular manual units. They’re part of the whole car entry experience, which also includes signature lamps turning on dynamically as one approaches the door, thanks to a sensor in the key fob. LEDs lighten the door handle, prompting you to open them.

There’s ambient lighting in the foot well, and the 30-way driver’s seat features one cushion for each leg. There’s even a massaging function. "It’s all choreographed." In fact, every single one of these new features were designed in-house, with Lincoln taking out 50 patents in the process. When it comes to power, the 2017 Continental, arriving in dealerships this fall, comes with a 300 hp V6. Buyers can upgrade to a 335-hp V6 as well, and front-wheel-drive is standard. But it’s the top-of-the-line 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 with 400 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, sending power to all four wheels, that’s going to be the talk of the town. This engine is exclusive to Lincoln, delivering power in a more subtle way than, say, a Mercedes E-Class.

That 400 hp, however, "is there when you need it." Lincoln’s approach to luxury is very different than the typical German brands. It’s about building a great driving car that handles beautifully, is both engaging and nimble, yet isn’t for the Nurburgring. It’s the kind of luxury experience many Chinese buyers all appreciate, so it’s no coincidence Lincoln has high expectations for the Continental when it goes on sale in China. A fully equipped "Black Label" Continental will top off at around $69,000, which is fantastic value for this segment. So when will that new McConaughey commercial come out? Celentino only says "stay tuned."

I also inquired about the possibility of a future Continental convertible or, because it’d be awesome, a sedan with suicide doors. Both were available on early ‘60s Continentals, after all. Celentino acknowledged the Lincoln heritage, but wouldn’t comment on future plans, preferring to focus on the upcoming launch first. And that’s a big deal right there. The 2017 Lincoln Continental pushes the technical envelope in many key areas, and we’ll soon see many of its features finding their way to future Lincolns, starting with the beautiful signature grille. "It’s all about building the foundation (for a new Lincoln)," Celentino concludes. "We’re taking a quiet luxury approach for Lincoln, not a German one to driving."

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