Ford Demands More From The LS.
When he was asked the question, you could almost hear Ken Kohrs grind his teeth. The vice president of Ford's large/luxury vehicle center was riding with AI in Lincoln's new 2000 LS sports sedan through the central California hills. God created these smooth, snaking roads for good-handling, powerful automobiles. And the taut, nimble, rear-wheel drive LS was feeling completely at home here.
The LS is a total paradigm shift for Lincoln-Mercury -- the division's first-ever shot across the bow of the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, Mercedes C-Class and Lexus GS. That's why Kohrs grimaced when asked: "Are you bracing yourself for the first time you see an LS with a dealer-installed, fake `leather' roof?."
"Oh, jeez, yes!" he sighs, rolling his eyes. "And gold-plated trim. We know it'll happen, unfortunately. We can't get them away from that stuff."
Kohrs and other top Ford engineers realize the KS is way, way outside Lincoln's traditional product portfolio, but that's its mission -- to launch a "new" Lincoln. It's the marque's first product to offer an advanced electronic stability control sys tem that corrects for both understeer and oversteer, utilizing inputs from a yaw rate sensor and the car's ABS and traction control systems. It's Ford's most aluminum-intensive passenger car, wearing about 400 pounds of the lightweight metal in its powertrain, main chassis crossmembers, major suspension pieces, and hood, deck-lid and front fenders.
Its seven major electronics modules are multiplexed, and the powertrain controller runs on a 32-bit Power PC chip. The car comes standard with a 5-speed automatic featuring SelectShift, an algorithm that allows the driver to make clutchless shifts by tapping the gear lever.
And it's the first Lincoln since 1951 to offer a fully manual gearbox, a 5-speed Getrag that's optional with the 3.0L V-6. Aimed at European buyers, it's expected to grab just 5% of the U.S. sales mix -- perhaps 3,500 units annually, at best. By comparison, BMW's 5-speed manual nets about 10% of U.S. 528i sales, and 40% of 540i sales -- about 5,000 units total.
To change Lincoln's staid passenger car image most associated with granddad's Town Car, and to sell 50,000 to 70,000 cars per year, the LS must conquest a customer base that's decades younger than the white shoes-and-belt bunch that are the marque's core buyers.
"The average Lincoln customer is 65-years-old," report Lincoln-Mercury President Mark Hutchins. "And that number actually came down a bit since we've launched Navigator." He says LS is gunning for 30-to 50-year-olds.
"If we pull the age demographics down 10 years, I'll be delighted -- then we'll be able to do a lot of things," adds Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's group vice president of vehicle development. "That's the reason the LS is the key platform for where we take Lincoln."
Before Ford can establish the LS among the world's best luxury/sports sedans, which it appears to have done, judging by our experience in pre-production models, it faces two considerable challenges, company officials say. The first is getting prospective buyers into a Lincoln dealership. To do this, the car's price/value story will play a key role. While prices were not yet announced when this story was written, they're expected to range from the low $30,000s to low $40,000s.
The competitive pricing stow is quite powerful. Ford claims the 3.0L, 5-speed model will be priced $12,000 under that of a 5-speed BMW 528i. And it claims the 3.9L V-8 automatic version will sticker at nearly $3,000 less than a 6-cylinder Mercedes C280, and about $1,100 under the V-6 Audi A6.
The second big challenge is creating a new mindset among Lincoln's sales force. They now must be able to explain intelligently why, for example, a yaw sensor, aluminum hardware and 32-bit processors make the new LS so good.
"The sales learning curve is very steep," concedes Bob Rewey, Ford's veteran head of sales and marketing.
Observes a Detroit area Lincoln salesman: "If we were getting LS without already having Navigator for a couple of years, we'd be sunk. The SUV at least gave us a younger customer."
It all amounts to re-launching the Lincoln brand for the 21st century. For this, Ford appears serious. In early April, the automaker brought 3,000 Lincoln dealers and their sales and service managers to Treasure Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay. There, Ford spent $6 million to convert an old Navy base into a huge "classroom" to teach the sales force about LS. Each day 600 people were taken through interactive displays devoted to every facet of the product and its marketing.
The LS follows the Jaguar S-Type in Ford's DEW98 program, the midsize, rear-drive sedan project begun in 1994. It's a global platform, sharing major powertrain and chassis underpinnings between the two cars. According to Parry-Jones, the Lincoln and Jag have about 50% similarity, by part number, in their underbodies. Yet the chassis are tuned to vastly differentiate them. Parry-Jones adds that the 2001 Ford Thunderbird, also a DEW derivative and built at the same Wixom, Mich., assembly plant, will share roughly 70% of its underbody components and systems with the KS.
And the DEW platform has plenty of "legs" for other projects; officials hint that it may serve as the foundation for the next Crown Vic/Grand Marquis.
To date, the DEW program has consumed five years. "We had to re-think it twice," Parry-Jones recalls. "To really do the Jaguar and Lincoln right, we deliberately built in more time." About 18 months ago, the S-Type and KS development teams were split off from the basic platform-engineering phase of the program.
DEW had its share of problems. Originally it was to use a GM-supplied THM-series 5-speed automatic. Ford eventually substituted its own, all-new 5-speeder, which engineers say was a development nightmare. "There was a mighty long period where they wouldn't stay together on the dyno," says one who was directly involved with the unit's development in Livonia, Mich. "They kept blowing up, and the program was running late."
But the triumphs far outnumbered the tragedies. The entire program was target-costed, and Kohrs says Jaguar's bringing 50,000 units to the DEW program helped them achieve the LS's alluring price/value quotient.
"We were then able to leverage common crash certification and a major powertrain investment," he recalls. "We also required the DEW team to use a common toolset between Jag and Lincoln." For example, the LS's rear tub stamping is short-blanked by about two inches, but it's still formed on the same dies as the S-Type's tub.
"The discipline of having only one toolset forced the teams to stay and work together, to find common efficiencies," he explains.
Where higher cost design would improve the LS in the customer's eyes, it was used to good effect. The LS's C-pillar-to-roof panel joint is spray-brazed at the Wixom assembly plant. Most competitors in this segment use a much cheaper-to-make ditch joint, covered with a plastic trim strip. But design director Helmuth Schrader felt the hand-finished brazed joint gives a higher quality appearance.
"Obviously, it's costly compared with using a ditch joint," he notes. "But a cleanly-finished joint, we feel, is a necessity in this market.
While many automakers choose welded-on door hinges for lower cost, the LS's are through-bolted for extra strength, says body engineer Darrin Wagner. "Without them, the doors will deflect three to four millimeters above 120 mph," he notes. Insurance companies prefer bolted hinges for repairability, too.
The Continental Teves-supplied AdvanceTrac stability system employs one centrally mounted yaw rate sensor (from Texas Instruments) and a lateral accelerometer, from California-based Systron Donner. The aircraft-spec yaw rate sensor costs Ford $100 per unit, but Parry-Jones claims the high cost is well worth the system capability.
Overall, the KS is not a risk for Ford, but rather a mandate for the Lincoln brand. The product's right. Now it's up to the retailers to keep vinyl roofs off of a real car.
FOR MORE LS INFORMATION
AI was the first magazine to run a detailed feature on the 2000 LS program, in our Sept. '98 issue. For your reference, that story and full LS specifications now appears on our website at www.ai-online.com.
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|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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