In the Lincoln Timeline, we’ll revisit model years past and see how they relate to previous and subsequent ones.
Today, to start us off, we’ll go eleven model years back to 2003. This happens to be a particularly interesting year because it saw the reboot of Cadillac, marked the centennial of the parent Ford Motor Company and represented a pause in Lincoln’s own product development.
Ten years ago, the landscape was pretty much as we know it today in terms of competitors. From across the oceans, the Big Three had to battle against German brands dominating the top-tier of the market (specialty cars excluded) and Japanese luxury brands occupying the middle-tier.
Lincoln’s placement on the market vis-a-vis its German competitors had always been difficult to establish, but that particular year it’s safe to say that there was no head-to-head competition. Still, for what interested Lincoln’s sales team, BMW was already on top of the mid-to-full-size game and fielded a new 5-series in July of 2003; it turned out to be an impressive one, too. It had also renewed its full-size 7-series the year before though its Bangle-ific styling turned out to be a very controversial move that left the stately Town Car a chance among its traditional customer base. The Mercedes-Benz and Audi line-ups were mostly carry-overs and still offered strong but pricey alternatives to American luxury.
Competition from Japan was probably Lincoln’s biggest problem back then as Acura, Infiniti and Lexus offered expansive line-ups, aggressive pricing/equipment ratios and benefited from their mother brands’ reputation for reliability. Although Lexus carried over most of its line-up for 2003, Infiniti introduced a new and rapidly popular midsize range (the G35) and Acura prepared the renewal of its core models with a new TSX and a new TL expected for the 2004 model year. In one word, competition was fierce.
In America, Cadillac was of course the best enemy.
And what a year it was for them. In 2003, Cadillac effectively started its reboot with the first-generation Cadillac CTS which brought to the dealership’s floor the “Arts and Science” design language first seen on concept-cars such as the 1999 Evoq, 2002 Cien and 2003 Sixteen. It also offered tauter suspension tuning, a daring interior and basically a new message to the Cadillac customer and the import buyer as well. From then on, Cadillac went on a product offensive that hasn’t actually stopped yet.
2003 marked the centennial of the Ford Motor Company as we know it today. Celebrations matched the importance of the achievement: enthusiasts were treated to a number of official as well as private publications, buyers got extra value with a series of “Centennial” special editions across the 2003 line-up and the Ford GT-40 Concept had been revealed to an enthusiastic crowd at the 2002 Detroit Auto Show as the company’s special birthday present.
Among all that celebration, Lincoln was a little lost. Pulled out of the Premier Automotive Group (PAG, Ford’s luxury arm) and brought back to the FoMoCo fold in 2002 along with Mercury, it had some trouble establishing its position on the market and its relation to Ford’s standard line and Mercury’s entry-level portfolio. As turned out to be the case at Chrysler for instance, there always comes a time where every division of a same group fights for volume with the standard lines going upmarket and the premium or luxury ones going downmarket to capture more sales. Was that the reason behind Lincoln-Mercury leaving PAG? Question for another time.
Lincoln, for 2003
Now, let’s dive into what Lincoln had to offer for 2003!
First off, the ones we lost. Our year basically marked the first time Lincoln dealers didn’t have a Continental sedan for sale since 1958 (excluding the 1981 product shake-up as this was a year of transition). Although there had been a hint of a replacement at the 2002 Detroit Auto Show with the presentation of the stunning Continental Concept, a production model never materialized. Actually, as it turned out, Lincoln would have no car to field against the ever-so-popular 5-series, E-Class and other mid/full-size luxury sedans until the release of the 2009 Lincoln MKS.
Speaking of concepts, the star of Lincoln stands on the 2003 auto show circuit was the Navicross, which was for all intents and purposes a rugged version of the aforementioned Continental Concept. Now the packaging of that concept-car (a luxury off-road four-door) was very interesting because it showed that the management of Lincoln was aware of a number of trends: first, the limits of the “gentrification” of pick-up trucks after the failure of the Blackwood (actually retired for 2003), the growing interest of the public for crossover-like vehicles (although it was then mostly about SUV or wagon lookalikes) and the response of customers and journalists for a strong Lincoln design language.
Lincoln also refreshed its remaining sedans for 2003. The LS sports sedan received a few adjustments in styling, equipment and mechanical upgrades to both the V6 and the V8 to improve its standing against the BMW 3/5-series and other imports. Given the initial reserves of journalists and buyers to the LS’s tame identity and the contrast around the release of the Cadillac CTS, this mild refresh (which actually turned out to be the last for a car that bowed out at the end of the 2006 model year) surely proved a missed opportunity for Lincoln.
More significant was the refresh of the Town Car, which eschewed its rounded 1998 styling for a more formal appearance. Gone where the rather European “New Edge” design cues at the front, with its shaved rounded grille and stretched headlights: for 2003, American luxury was back with a large and classic waterfall grille, upright rectangular headlamps and a hood ornament. Again, considering the growing competition from Cadillac and foreign makes alike, this last update to a car that was finally retired in 2011 turned out to be a missed opportunity as Lincoln then still had a firm grip on the traditional luxury buyer and on the livery market.
Finally, two all-new models were introduced in 2003 and, unsurprisingly, they both were luxury SUVs. Given that Lincoln had pretty much established that lucrative market, it’s only fair that it would dedicate its resources to maintaining its position of leadership. Actually, the king of the segment, the Navigator and its platform-mate the Ford Expedition were all new for 2003. Refined and unapologetic, it distinguished itself from the plebeian Expedition with an exclusive interior styled after Lincoln’s latest concept-cars. Featuring a dual cockpit design harkening back to the 1961 Continental, retro-looking gauges and hidden infotainment, it truly set the tone for this ever-growing segment as well as other Lincolns to come.
We mentioned it before, the ultra-luxury pick-up truck Blackwood was retired for 2003 after failing to find its target and while Lincoln was busy rethinking the possibility of a luxury-lined workhorse, it decided to explore the other end of the market with the Aviator mid-size luxury SUV. Based on the standard Explorer platform and styled inside and out as a true companion to the Navigator, it offered the same amenities as its big brother in a more city-friendly package and was priced to go against standard lines’ full-size SUVS.
For 2003, Lincoln’s portfolio highlights the brand’s strengths and weaknesses for that year. While it remains at the forefront of the SUV craze with an all-new Navigator that would become (for better and for worse) an icon of the era in just a few years, the competition heats up on the sedan front as Lincoln marks a pause between the end of the Continental line, the carrying over of the LS and the development of its two-model replacement.
In a way, for 2003, as it drive into the last years of the “Old”, pre-Mullaly Ford, and faces the market out of PAG’s (oft-problematic) strategy, Lincoln seems in between phases and waiting to shift into a higher gear.