Reinventing Lincoln: Marque looks to Audi, Lexus for lessons on luxury
For any luxury car brand, one indicator of success is whether customers know the mainstream brand to which it is related.

It's better if they don't.

Audi has gone to great lengths — even foregoing the cost savings that come with sharing parts — to erect a firewall between itself and parent Volkswagen.

All 228 Lexus dealerships in the U.S. are exclusive and physically separated from Toyota. The purpose is to keep the two brands distinct in the minds and experiences of buyers.

Ford studied Audi and Lexus closely as it prepared to reinvent Lincoln.

It won't be easy, but it is necessary. The stakes are high. Ford has invested in seven new or upgraded Lincoln vehicles by 2014. Lincoln has concentrated its dealer network in the top 130 metro markets. Dealers have spent significantly to upgrade showrooms and service departments to deliver better customer service.

A successful luxury brand "has to offer something that you can't get from your mainstream brand," said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting.

Ford created the Premier Automotive Group in 1999 to showcase its Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin brands that "offered something Ford didn't have in-house."

That strategy backfired. Ford has since sold all those luxury brands except Lincoln to help pay off debt. In 2010, Ford phased out Mercury. Lincoln is the only channel left to reach upscale consumers.

The priority is to create vehicles "uniquely Ford and uniquely Lincoln," said Derrick Kuzak, Ford's global product development chief.

It starts with the all-new 2013 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ midsize sedans. Their underlying structures are the same. That's about all they have in common, said Kuzak, who revealed both cars in January at the Detroit auto show.

"There isn't a piece of (shared) sheet metal. The glass roof, the interior is all unique," Kuzak said.

Dimensions such as wheelbase and track may be the same, but "the heights are different; overall lengths are different," said Moray Callum, Ford's North American design chief, which means differences in headroom and legroom.

The automaker created a separate Lincoln team and moved the designers and engineers into their own dedicated studio in space carved out of a Ford product-development center.

Fierce independence

Audi's headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany, is hundreds of kilometers from VW's base in Wolfsburg.

"We operate as separate companies," said Filip Brabec, Audi of America's general manager of product planning.

"If we can find synergies and platforms and parts that fit, that's great, but that is not the priority," Brabec said.

The fierce independence means Audi's cost could be higher.