Premium cars that subscribe to a set of uniquely American criteria of what it means to be luxurious, comfortable, and desirable have been dead for decades. They died by their own hand, stabbed by an opera light and suffocated in vinyl. The 2017 Lincoln Continental, however, may just be resurrecting the idea, and it may have a real future.
“Quiet Luxury” is Lincoln’s new motto, one that helps understand the goals of their reborn Continental. The motto sounds oddly funereal or perhaps like an expensive convalescent/rehab center, but there was once a time when every maker of expensive American cars would have understood this concept implicitly.
The idea Lincoln is trying to get at is the old American luxury standard, once employed by Cadillac, Chrysler/Imperial, Lincoln, and to lesser extents, Buick, Oldsmobile, Mercury, and maybe even AMC if you’re willing to get a little drunk before thinking about it too hard.
It’s a set of criteria that includes couch-like seating comfort, every passenger-coddling environmental gadget available, status-conveying design and detailing, and a ride and handling profile that emphasizes languid power and comfort over handling.
American premium cars have not really aspired to these ideals since the 1990s. Since then, Cadillac has shifted to German-style high performance and Lincoln, well... Lincoln didn’t do a whole lot for a good while. You could argue that these goals were passed to luxury SUVs like the Escalade and the Navigator, and that’s generally true, though those have defined their own separate niche from the original American luxury sedan.
American premium cars since about the 2000s have used European templates, especially BMW, as their inspiration. Handling and performance became more important, and the cars became leaner, more lithe and significantly more capable than their vinyl-topped ancestors.
The result is cars like the Cadillac CTS-V, for example: a 640 horsepower, 200 MPH-capable beast that’s as at home on a track as it is taking your ass out for lobsters. It’s an impressive car, by any standard.
Still, even if it’s impressive, does it make sense? Almost nobody who buys one will come close to tapping what the car is capable of, and since when did everyone who wants a premium car become such amazing drivers?
When I brought up the question asking if this new idea of premium really made sense for most buyers, I got one of the most irritated responses from a PR person ever. I exaggerated about it a bit in my stories for an attempt at humor, but the core of that was true: Cadillac seems insecure and maybe a little ashamed of the cars they made in the past, and they don’t seem interested in re-visiting it in any context.
If we’re really, even self-deprecatingly honest, the truth is most potential buyers of luxury sedans don’t know or care that much about track driving. But they want that potential, I guess, because modern luxury is about excess and having things you may never really use, like obscene performance.
The old American luxury idea eventually slipped into an absurd explosion of scrollwork, chrome, brothel-inspired interiors, and cloud-soft suspensions, but they had a reasonable fundamental idea: there are people who want a car to insulate them from the experience of driving, and they’re willing to pay for it.
Think about how these cars were once advertised and sold. The only engine note anyone talked about was total silence, and the only feel for the road was a slight, not unpleasant murmuring under your ass.
Now Lincoln seems set to revive this idea with the new Continental and “Quiet Luxury”, and while some may cynically claim it’s because they can’t compete performance-wise, I think it’s actually a pretty savvy decision, and one that may have more longevity than a performance-oriented luxury car.
I’m not saying this because I want it to be that way. A quiet, luxurious car is about as far from what I’m interested in, car-wise, but if you look at the coming future of autonomous cars, Lincoln’s hushed comfort makes much more sense than trying to make BMW-like performance cars.
I think Lincoln’s defibrillation of old, quiet, plush American luxury is happening for two reasons: one, because the all-important Chinese market loves this kind of thing, and two, because Ford can see a time when driving feel and performance on a premium sedan don’t matter at all. Because a robot is driving.
Those old American premium ideals of fast, understated power and lots of creature comforts are exactly what a premium autonomous car will need to be. The CST-V-style premium cars will become niche products for those of us who still get a thrill from taking a turn just a little faster than what is sensible. For everyone else, a driverless Lincoln will ferry them to the opera or dogfight or whatever in potent, luxuriant ease.
So, sure, right at this very moment, that new Lincoln Continental and its Quiet Luxury feels a little underwhelming, sure. But that’s only because we still have to actually drive it. Before long, that part will be out of the equation, and Lincoln will find themselves in a better position than they’ve been in years.
That’s when they bring back opera windows.
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