When I offered Ford some unsolicited advice regarding its infatuation with ephemeral-tech, I figured that I’d get some spirited feedback on the matter. What I did not expect was to get an angry message from a Ford insider regarding the Lincoln Continental. According to this insider, the kinda-big Lincoln sedan was scheduled to join the Aviator SUV on the new RWD-biased platform that also underpins the upcoming Ford Explorer–but it’s been canceled by a leadership that, according to my correspondent, “is chasing margin at all costs.” Goodbye, Continental.
This being Road & Track rather than Retirement & Tennis, I’d imagine that very few of you will shed a tear about this–and that is a real shame, because the current Continental is precisely one change away from being a high-water mark in American luxury.
“Well, duh,” you might be thinking. “It needs to be on a longitudinal-engine RWD platform, just like two of the three big German sedans, the LS500 and the Genesis G90.” Wrong answer. Sure, back in 1984 it was easy to expose the shortcomings of front-drive luxury sedans; just drive over a pothole and listen for a locomotive-force crash of an overloaded subframe, accompanied by a big shake of the dashboard. That’s no longer the case, as anyone who has ever driven the old Bentley Flying Spur can attest. That car was essentially a front-driver, although the engine was mounted north-south. More recently, the Volvo S90 makes a very strong case for transverse luxury.
No, this isn’t a powertrain issue. In fact, you don’t need to be an engineer, or even an enthusiast, to see the Continental’s big problem. It’s easily expressed in a single number: 201.4. That’s the car’s length, expressed in good old American inches, and, as Marshal Lucky from the film Used Cars would say, that’s too… freakin’… short. The rest of the dimensions are similarly parsimonious. As a result, the not-so-big Lincoln lacks street presence. Since that’s the only reason anybody buys a full-boat luxury car, it’s no wonder that sales have been a bit, ahem, modest.
Cadillac’s CT6 might have a wicked twin-turbo V8 on the way, but it, too, is miniaturized for no good reason. Parked next to an S-Class, it looks positively Cimarron-esque. The CT6 is three inches shorter than the old DTS, which itself was more than a foot shorter than the 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood. My more venerable readers may remember the 204-inch length of the current CT6 as being almost identical to that of the “international-sized” first-generation Seville. Suddenly… it’s 1976!
This stubborn insistence on the part of both Lincoln and Cadillac on mid-sizing their full-sizers would make a lot more sense if pretty much every other prestige vehicle on the market was not in the process of becoming bigger and/or more imposing-looking. The current S-Class is a leviathan, as are its direct competitors. Rolls-Royce is currently fielding the massive Phantom and nearly as massive Ghost, both of which look like they could fit a Silver Shadow in their back seats.
You don’t even need to leave the dealership to see just how small both the Conti and the CT6 are, because both of them are sold cheek-by-jowl with three-ton extended-length SUVs. The Navigator L covers more asphalt than a 1980 Town Car; next to it, the Continental might as well be a retirement-village golf cart. The CT6 is of course dwarfed by the Escalade but it also has to sit next to the front-drive XTS, which handily outsells it because, one suspects, it looks bigger.
There’s something sadly ironic about the fact that Lincoln and Cadillac are absolutely unwilling to sell the one type of product that meshes with their so-called “brand DNA.” It would be like BMW eliminating the 3-Series from the lineup, or Honda canceling the Civic. The average luxury-car buyer is something like 52 years old. That person remembers “Cadillac” and “Lincoln” as purveyors of Iowa-class sedans, but a quick trip to the showroom will turn up nothing of the sort.
A 225-inch Continental, proportioned like a modern S-Class, would knock the luxury-car market on its tailfeathers. The same would be true for a full-sized deVille. Unfortunately, nobody in Detroit has the courage to build a car like that. They’d rather fail with half measures than succeed with a proper effort. The worst part of it is that neither the current Continental nor the CT6 were cheap to develop. Both of them are chock-full of bespoke and expensive technology. And both of them are absolutely brilliant to drive. They’re just too small to make an impression, period, point blank.
I’ll miss the little-limousine Lincoln when it’s gone. When the CT6 follows it into oblivion, the era of the even remotely traditional American luxury sedan will be over for good. At that point, only Tesla will be left to carry the flag–and while the Model S is an undoubtedly impressive device, the shadow it casts is more Chrysler 300 than Fleetwood Brougham.
There’s one play left to make, if anybody at GM or Ford is unwilling to unconditionally surrender the luxury battlefield to Germany and Japan. Take the Navigator or next-gen Escalade. Drop it to the ground, lower the seats, add a long and steeply-raked C-pillar. Style the whole thing after the mid-Seventies Fleetwood or Continental. Stretch it 235 inches bumper to bumper. Make sure you can’t see a Maybach 560 parked on the other side of it. Give it 550 horsepower. Base price of $100,000 minimum.
Such a vehicle would have no trouble matching the modest domestic sales numbers of today’s mini-luxoboats, but it would really shine on the export side. All of that Gulf State business that goes to Bentley and Benz now? It once belonged to Cadillac and Lincoln. It could come back. The Chinese would dig the idea as well. I bet you’d even sell a few in Germany; the last time I was there, I noticed that F-150s and Silverados seemed a lot more common than the “international-sized” Cadillacs.
I’ll close with a quote from an old John Updike book: “If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price.” Good as the Continental and CT6 are, they’re missing that courage, the willingness to be unashamedly super-sized in a world where even Honda sells two-ton trucks. If there’s anything that the Big Two could learn from their final forays into luxury sedans, it’s probably this: Go big or go home. And you know which one they’re going to pick, right?