Lincoln previews a sleeker high-tech future with Continental Concept

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The Lincoln Continental debuts at the 2015 NY Auto Show

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All eyes may have been on the Cadillac CT6 at this year's New York Auto Show, but next year the luxury market will likely be more focused on its rival, the new Lincoln Continental. Lincoln previewed the type of "quiet luxury" it has in mind for its forthcoming flagship at this year's NY show. The simply named Continental Concept departs sharply from Lincoln's current design language and promises to bring some past cachet back to the Continental nameplate with a slew of luxury and technology amenities.

If you don't follow the auto industry regularly, you'd be forgiven for thinkning that Ford axed the Lincoln luxury brand along with the mid-level Mercury brand several years ago. The brand has fallen well behind the international competition, and with an uninspired lineup of lettered models with strange, split-wing faces, it feels almost like it's dropped down to fill the void that Mercury left rather than remaining a viable competitor in the luxury market.

Despite having its best year in over half a decade in 2014, with a 16 percent year-over-year sales increase, Lincoln finished eighth among luxury brands in its home US market, selling about 94,500 vehicles. Not only is it light years behind market leaders like BMW, Mercedes and Audi, it's not even playing on the same field as traditional rival Cadillac, which sold more than 170,000 in 2014.

The current state of Ford's luxury brand is a far, sad cry from the Lincoln that stood shoulder to shoulder with the world's most prestigious auto brands back in the 1950s and 60s. The first several generations of the Continental were integral in creating those glory days. The model was originally designed as a one-off for Ford chief Edsel Ford. After a trip to Europe in 1938, Ford tasked designer E.T. "Bob" Gregorie with penning a new car that was "strictly continental." The result was so attractive and popular with onlookers that Ford approved it for production and sent it rolling off the lines in 1940, driven by a 120-hp V12 engine.

In 1955, Ford briefly spun off Continental into its own brand, selling the hand-built Mark II, which stood alongside the likes of Rolls-Royces as the most expensive, premium cars of the era. Owners included Elvis Presley, Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra. The Continental flagship brand didn't last long, but the 1960s brought arguably an even more significant iteration of the Continental. The Lincoln Continental introduced in 1961 became what is still considered the pinnacle of Lincoln design and one of the defining automobiles of the 1960s. It arrived complete with suicide doors, plenty of chrome and a slab-side design motif celebrated for its cool reserve.

Ford is certainly hoping that the new Continental, which revives the name last used in 2002, makes at least some of the splash of those Continental classics. The new flagship sedan may not send Lincoln bounding back to levels of 1960s glory, but it should at least give luxury car buyers a very good reason to work a trip to the Lincoln dealership into their schedule of Mercedes, BMW and Lexus stops.

The face of the Continental Concept gives a much better first impression than anything currently on offer from Lincoln. The split grill that's had way too many years of slack has finally been unified into a more elegant chrome centerpiece at the middle of the Continental concept car's strong, upright front-end. The grille features a large, raised Lincoln Star emblem front and center, along with dimension-filling cutouts shaped like the Lincoln Star. Lincoln's logo is also integrated into the design of the individual lamps inside the LED matrix headlights. The lights feature the latest craze in automotive lighting – laser-assist high beams – for a touch of cutting edge technology.

The Continental Concept's profile feels almost like a design that should be wearing a Bentley logo. Lincoln uses smoothed edges and subtle shapes to make good on its promise of quiet luxury. The belt line flows over gently defined rear fenders and into a tapered rear-end with full-length taillights, quad exhaust tips and a wide, prominent "Lincoln" badge.

"Luxury at its best is about simplifying and quietly exceeding expectations, rather than being the loudest statement on the road," explains Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO. "The Continental Concept showcases the promise of quiet luxury from Lincoln going forward. It also is a strong indication of what’s to come next year as we introduce our new Lincoln Continental full-size luxury sedan."

Our only complaint about this new direction is that Ford's luxury brand spent so many years spitting out one forgettable model after another before finally putting forth a much better effort. We only hope that Lincoln makes few changes in developing the production version. Given that there's nothing particularly crazy or fantastical about the concept car – save perhaps for the busy 21-in concept car wheels and overuse of the Lincoln logo shape – we have to believe that a close-to-concept production Continental is a strong possibility.

The Continental Concept does seem like the right vehicle to reignite some of Lincoln's old cachet in the United States, but Lincoln isn't worried solely about the US. It's hoping that the new sedan can also prove a player in China, where Lincoln is guaranteed a fresh start by virtue of the fact that it just started selling cars there last year.

Lincoln crafted the concept's interior with the Chinese market top of mind. The focus, therefore, isn't so much the "driver-centric cockpit" that is so often a part of concept cars, but instead, the comfortable rear passenger seats, where the owner will be sitting as his chauffeur navigates to the destination of the day. The 30-way seats adjust precisely to each passenger's exact size and shape for a glove-like fit. The passenger-side rear seat is particularly comfortable thanks to its ability to recline when the unoccupied front seat is moved forward at the push of the "chauffeur button."

The rear seats are equipped for both work and leisure. The slide-out tablet tray in the center console covers the former, while the champagne compartment is there for trips that are more relaxing or celebratory in nature. Another feature designed specifically for use by the rear passengers is the SPD SmartGlass tinting roof panel. The passengers control the amount of sunlight that shines through at the poke of a button, and Lincoln says increasing the tint level can drop the cabin temperature by as much as 18° F (10° C) while blocking 99 percent of UV rays. The rear center console-mounted control panel also offers quick access to traditional climate settings and control of the 19-speaker Revel Ultima audio system.

The Continental Concept's cabin is trimmed in premium materials from ceiling to floor. These include Venetian leather seat and door panels, Alcantara seat inserts and armrests, a satin headliner, shearling wool carpet and Rose Gold instrument cluster trim. The Approach Detection system activates interior and exterior lighting to greet the owner as he or she gets close to the car.

The vehicle is powered by a new Lincoln-exclusive 3.0-liter EcoBoost V6. There's no mention of the Continental delivering the level of automated driving that Cadillac is planning, but the Continental does have features like adaptive steering, pre-collision assist with pedestrian detection, enhanced park assist and 360-degree camera monitoring.

It's been quite a while since we were genuinely excited to see a new Lincoln product, but we can't wait for next year's production Continental debut. Stay tuned for more news as the world premiere draws closer.

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