Back in Business: 2015 Lincoln Continental Concept, part 2

In the first part of this review, we spent time dissecting the exterior design of the new Lincoln Continental, and found that it was a surefooted step forward for the brand: it introduces a new design language, brings back classic proportions, and aims for the core of the luxury market, German import brands included. From its rich paint colour, all the way to its subtle but opulent trim, the Continental does speak to the canons of the segment. But what about its interior accomodations? That is what we are going to see in this second part, to find out if the American icon can once again best the toughest competition.

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“She wore blue velvet…”

In the past few years, Lincoln concepts had followed a general trend found throughout the industry and which probably originally came from a shift in industrial and consumer design at large: in the age of minimalist furniture and Apple products, concept cars were often presented in neutral colours (beige, taupe, champagne) in order to showcase the details of their lines, and interiors were more often than not a bright mix of white leather, polished chromes and light woods. More daring colour combinations were reserved for halo cars and style statements, to convey sportiness and youthfulness.

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In 2013, the MKC Concept’s interior was presented in immaculate white, inside and out.

With the Continental, as we’ve seen, Lincoln went against the current and chose a dark, rich shade of navy blue which probably did not work to show off every line but did convey a strong yet reassuring feeling of opulence. At that point, we could have expected the interior to be more conventional, with white leather and pale essences of wood contrasting with the exterior and offering the driver am airy, relaxing, soothing space in which to seek refuge from the hectic and violet world outside. After all, from the outside, the Continental is a strong, confident and unapologetic upper class sedan.

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In 2006, the MKS Concept (Lincoln’s last full-size production-ready concept) was channeling a different emotion.

Instead, it turned out to be quite the opposite! The exterior paint colour is also invited inside by way of a rich, colour-keyed interior treatment which plays on materials and textures to bring volume to an otherwise entirely blue cockpit. In fact, this might be where designers most dipped into Lincoln’s rich history – while the outside is all new, the inside brings back lots of memories of Lincoln interiors from the 1960s and 1970s. Actually, the brand offered colour-keyed interiors all the way until the mid-to-late 1990s, especially on the Town Car, and it took the full-size sedan’s dramatic redesign in 1998 to bid goodbye to this classic American feature.

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Back in 1979, the Continental was also available in blue-on-blue-on-blue, and looked all the better for it.

When people think of American luxury sedans of the 1970s -particularly Continentals-, they probably think of what was fashionable then and indeed none of those period-specific details are to be found here in the new Concept: no tufted cushions, no “loose pillow” designs, no intricate brocade fabrics. That is why this interior is probably more of a direct heir to the sobriety and timeless elegance of the 1961 Continental. It is much closer to what made 1950s furniture-making such a classic of interior design.

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Back in 1975, the Continental’s blue interior was decked out in full 1970s fashion.

Here throughout the 2015 Continental’s roomy cabin, thick and supple Rhapsody Blue “Venetian” leather mixes with rich-looking Alcantara-brand suede inserts, the way older Conties mixed and matched tricot and vinyl, leather and velours; actually, the newly introduced Venetian leather was specifically developed for Lincoln’s incoming Black Label trim by Eagle Ottawa, supplier of German and British luxury car makers. And according to Lincoln, only 1% of rawhides worldwide meet the quality control levels selected for its cars – which probably is not too far from the stringent standards set by Bentley or Rolls Royce for their leather, which is famously sourced from farms without barbwire fences to avoid any scarring.

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But back in 1966, the classic Continental’s Madrigal blue interior offered tasteful yet rich accomodations, much like the 2015 Continental Rhapsody blue interior.

Even the roof pillars and headliner are covered in colour-coded “satin” material, and elaborate real French seams abound, emphasizing that the interior is really made of a collection of hand-crafted pieces put together by experts rather than a mass-produced affair. It is all in all the best of both worlds: it has the taste and soul of an interior from the 1960s, but with the level of precision and craftsmanship you can expect from a modern day automobile!

Whether you like to drive it yourself…

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Up front, the cockpit looks particularly production-ready. Overall, it carries the functional design language we already know from the MKC and MKX, and which builds on general ideas first laid-out in the MKZ – again, as such there is not much of a “retro” feel in the instrument panel or center console, but more of a classic treatment of a modern idea. The gauge cluster is digital, but features the look of conventional analog gauges which can assuredly be customized to display any kind of information, not unlike the units found in the Mercedes S-Class or Jaguar XJ. If anything, the LCD display appears particularly current, with the only apparant fantasy being a wavy background which probably does wonders to showcase the large screen’s resolution. An interesting Easter Egg? While the main infotainment screen is turned off and displays only the Continental logo, the gauge cluster shows in official press pictures that “Come Fly With Me” is playing – a classic song recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1957. Here’s a neat way to channel Old Blue Eyes’ street cred, from one American icon to another! For the official presentation video, Lincoln chose “Take Five”, another classic, performed in 1959 by Dave Brubeck’s Quartet.

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Given its stature and proportions, the Continental says limousine rather than sports car. Still, its exclusive V6 engine should provide enough get-up-and-go to keep the owner happy and still make it a driver’s car. To underline that, the gauge cluster is highlighted by rose gold trim – and it is the only piece of the interior to receive that treatment. The rest of the cockpit is accented by bright chrome trim which takes a darker, almost smoked tint as it reflects the upholstery’s rich blue hue. This is particularly noticeable on the steering wheel, which adds piano black inserts around the redundant controls, as well as a large chrome insert which hugs the bottom half of the wheel, the same way rim horns used to in the Continentals of old. Even control stalks give up plastic to adopt a shiny chrome finish.

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The center stack is, for its part, pure current Lincoln. As made necessary on other models due to customer feedback, the stop/start button leaves the touch-sensitive transmission selector to find its place next to the steering wheel, on the side of the console, next to the instrument cluster. Touch-sensitive sliders for the volume and fan speed, as introduced on the MKZ, seem gone for good too as the HVAC returns to a classic arrangement of buttons and knobs under the infotainment screen – in passing, by the time the Continental is released, the latter should be powered not by the current MyLincoln Touch but by Lincoln’s version of SYNC3 which is developped by BlackBerry’s QNX on an all-new architecture.

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Finally, the seats are also by themselves a point of interest: once again, despite the Continental’s luxury credentials, they seem to offer an awful lot of lateral support thanks to a “petal” design that reminds us of what Renault and other Italian designers adopted as their signature look during the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, with 30-way power adjustments, the seats do seem fully articulated, including thigh extensions and inflatable lumbar supports.

…or expect to be chauffeured around.

As welcoming as the interior can be to the driver and front passenger, what really caught the attention of the media was the way the rear seats were arranged – while it could have been expected for a car in the Continental’s segment to offer traditional yet luxurious accommodations, Lincoln once again went the extra mile and set its sights directly on cars like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, BMW 7-series and Audi A8 limousines.

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First of all, the Continental welcomes its passengers in twin bucket seats rather than a traditional rear bench. Not only do they offer the same level of comfort as the front seats, but the right-side rear passenger seat also reclines, and the driver can use a “chauffeur function” to electrically move the front passenger seat forward in order to free up more legroom. How is that for exclusivity? Reading lights mounted on the C-pillar also allow passengers to read comfortably, but we do notice the lack of privacy: thanks to the lithe C-pillar and flowing roofline, rear passengers are not hidden from view by thick sail panels, the way they may be in traditional limousines. Maybe we can expect the rear-quarter window to be covered by a curtain should this interior package make it to production?

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The other distinctive feature of the Continental’s interior is the flow-through console, which really brings the Continental up against specialty German and British limousines: it can store a bottle of Champagne and two glasses, which when in use rest securely between the two seats. Of course, redundant climate and infotainment controls are also available, and individual tray tables come out of the rear console – but they are not just your usual tray tables, as they incorporate an LCD screen. Lincoln does not expand on which use that screen can receive but it could surely be used with a portable DVD player or with the in-car entertainment system, along with individual headphone support incorporated in the rear armrest controls. Either way, the Continental would in that form definitely give traditional limousines a run for their money… or that of their affluent customers!

Could it be a Black Label edition?

Needless to say, there is definitely a gap between the interior accommodations of the current MKS and that of this new Continental, especially when it comes to the rear seats. In fact, the new Continental even goes way beyond what was offered in the late Town Car’s limousine and livery packages. So, are we looking at what Lincoln wants the standard Continental to be, or is it a special Black Label edition?

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In fact, Lincoln is spending a lot of time and resources building the Black Label brand across the line-up: even though the release of that new, exclusive trim level has been slightly delayed, each vehicle will be available in a handful of custom designed interior and exterior treatments, select dealers have been chosen to offer the level of customer service attached to those special Lincolns, and the brand is building a social media campaign associating its new programme to lifestyle gurus (architects, interior designers, musicians, etc). You would consequently think that the Black Label brand would benefit from the huge splash made by the Continental on the autoshow circuit and in the media – and yet the new Contie was not advertised as a Black Label vehicle.

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And yet, we cannot help but notice how it fits the Black Label specifications: it sports the same, exclusive leather upholstery which Lincoln told us would only be available on Black Label vehicles; it showcases the Revel Ultima audio system, which is standard only on Black Label cars, with its 19 speakers and beautiful drilled aluminium speaker grilles (which would not seem out of place on a top-shelf Mercedes-Benz); and it obviously has very exclusive rear seat accommodations, including handmade leather briefcases mounted on the front seatbacks, above the map pockets, and which are said to contain “exclusive travel accessories” for passengers on the go.

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Also, we mentioned it earlier, there is quite a gap in luxury contents between the current and outgoing MKS and this Continental Concept. It is consequently likely that the standard Continental will come in more “pedestrian” versions, with the limousine ultimately wearing the Black Label name and price tag once it is available to order.

Conclusion:

Inside and out, Lincoln says the Continental displays the brand’s new philosophy – “quiet luxury”. Indeed, it appears to be all around a very tastefully designed car, subtle and contemporary, yet showing strong hints of the past Continentals’ idea of what American luxury should be (which paraphrases not one, but two of Lincoln’s past marketing campaigns). Inside in particular, it is production-ready and offers the best of what the competition can provide, but it is also loud enough to make a strong statement: if the Town Car was anybody and everybody’s limousine, this new Continental is not. It has personality, and will most likely shake up the full-size luxury segment.

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