Is the Lincoln Continental a Real Audi Rival?

An iconic nameplate returns at Detroit. But is it enough?

In the Tall Orders department, may we present the Lincoln Continental, an American sedan tasked with unseating  luxury champs like the middleweight Mercedes E-Class also unveiled at Detroit’s auto show.

The broad-shouldered Continental concept, a surprise arrival last year in New York, gave Lincoln its biggest design buzz in ages, despite designer Luc Donckerwolke’s huff that the Ford had cribbed its exterior from his Bentleys. This Continental seems a touch watered down in production trim—more rounded-off, less glamorous inside—but it’s also miles better than the perfunctory, Ford-sideshow sedans that Lincoln has patronized customers with.

There’s good stuff here, including Lincoln doing its damnedest to hide its common Ford roots in the CD4 platform that also supports the front-wheel-drive Fusion.

The Continental’s wheelbase and track are both expanded, and Ford slightly rejiggered the dash-to-axle ratio to suggest rear-wheel-drive proportions. The result is a broad, sturdy stance that conveys maturity and taste in a flagship sedan. The grille, its mesh rendered in a Lincoln logo that’s also seen on the reworked 2017 MKZ sedan, looks in the appropriate tax bracket. It is, however, bracketed in headlamps that look like Ford hand-me-downs, despite nifty “ice cube” LED elements. Door handles fare better, bowing outward from a strip of brightwork trim, extending their soft-opening electronic latch button toward your hand. In optional guise, the doors power-cinch shut.

Standing alongside his new baby onstage, David Woodhouse, Lincoln’s design director, noted how the Continental’s planted stance and silhouette greatly improved upon models such as the MKS sedan.

“That car’s tail seemed about a foot higher in the air,” Woodhouse said.

Inside, the first impression of the new Continental is good, not great: It’s richer than an Acura or Infiniti, and closing in on Lexus, but still no threat to the eye-pop trifecta of design, materials and craftsmanship in an Audi or Mercedes.

Seats seem a high point, including lovely “Perfect Position” front chairs that earned Lincoln 50 patents; the 30-way adjustments include separate controls for left and right thigh extenders. Rear seats recline, bisected by a passenger control panel on the folding armrest. A merely six-speed automatic transmission contrasts with the seven, eight or nine speeds of competitors, controlled via pushbuttons on the Conti’s dash.

Optional Black Label treatments boost interior perceptions closer to the concept model’s, in Chalet, Thoroughbred and Rhapsody color schemes. Chalet, with its ivory seats and contrasting coffee-brown stitching, has a pleasing Range Rover vibe. Rhapsody mimics the decadent, blue-cave pleasure of the concept Continental, only with less chrome and more silver-mesh trim.

The Lincoln Continental gets one exclusive new engine, a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6 sans the Ford Ecoboost title, with 400 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. That version is offered in AWD only when the Lincoln goes on sale in fall. There’s also a pair of sixes, a 2.7-liter turbo and a naturally aspirated 3.7-liter, offered with either front- or AWD. Those AWD models get a torque-vectoring rear end.

As with every 2017 Ford or Lincoln equipped with the Sync 3 infotainment system, the Continental integrates Apple Car Play and Android Auto. The Lincoln offers 360-degree camera views, will park itself, and can brake autonomously for cars or pedestrians. But it doesn’t incorporate the automated steering moves found on some new Mercedes, Audis, BMWs or Volvos.

Asked what Lincoln needs to stand out in the marketplace, Woodhouse said the brand will follow its new watchword of “Quiet Luxury,” favoring comfort, serenity and sanctuary over smoking-hot performance.

“Some of those [German] luxury cars seem to be in the business of scaring people,” with overt, aggressive faces and designs, Woodhouse said. “We’re going to be more about beauty and elegance.”