Is Ford's Latest Entry a Home Run?

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Lincoln MKZ as the Lincoln MKS. The article has been changed to correct the error. The Fool regrets the error.

Last week's New York Auto Show saw, as always, several major new-model debuts. But while flashy, photogenic cars like Chrysler's new Viper sports car stole the headlines, the really important debuts were a little more below the radar.

While the Viper is iconic, with sales likely to max out at a few thousand a year, it's not exactly going to be a major contributor to Chrysler parent Fiat's (OTC: FIATY.PK) bottom line. But major debuts from Ford (NYS: F) and General Motors (NYS: GM) , along with a subtle-but-significant overhaul of Chrysler's own Ram pickup, are likely to have big impacts when they hit dealers later this year.

Ford's latest attempt at luxury is convincing, sort of
Ford showed off its all-new Lincoln MKZ sedan, the first of seven planned new models that it hopes will revitalize its all-but-moribund luxury marque. Lincoln sales have been practically microscopic since the airport-limo-favorite Town Car ceased production, but Ford has signaled that it's serious about a renaissance of its old premium brand -- and the MKZ is the first production-ready evidence of its commitment.

So how is it? Well, it's not bad. The good news is that it departs from recent Lincoln practice in a big and important way: While it shares basic underpinnings with a more pedestrian Ford model, it doesn't look like that Ford. That's a good thing -- the (often-justified) impression that a Lincoln was just a Ford with more chrome and better leather was probably hurting sales, and it was certainly limiting Ford's ability to command premium prices.

And the bad news? While the MKZ is a good-looking car, it's stylistically not a home run like its mechanical cousin, the upcoming new Ford Fusion. The new Fusion is a daring design that sparked wide discussion and has already won a lot of fans. Meanwhile, the Lincoln looks ... nice.

But the MKZ's design may not need to be striking to accomplish Ford's goals. I continue to think that the MKZ was designed with at least one eye on China, where Ford is working to significantly expand its presence by mid-decade. In that sense, it may be a success -- there's definitely more than a bit of Audi in the MKZ's lines, and Audi is enjoying remarkable success in China at the moment.

Meanwhile, GM's product overhaul continues
Meanwhile, over at General Motors' stand, the Detroit giant unveiled its all-new Chevrolet Impala. This is a sorely needed model: The current Impala, a large sedan that competes (or tries to) with the Ford Taurus and Toyota's (NYS: TM) Avalon, dates to 2005 -- and some of its underpinnings date to the late 1980s, practically the dinosaur era in automotive terms. While the car's recent sales totals haven't been awful, it's believed that many (or most) of those are low-margin sales to rental-car fleets.

The new Impala, though, appears to be a strong entry in a segment that has received more attention as of late, as SUV owners continue to look for more fuel-efficient alternatives. It's built on an up-to-date platform and sports a far more attractive body -- along with a state-of-the-art interior and safety features.

GM's Impala will face stiff competition in this space. Toyota showed its own new Avalon in New York, and while it looks a bit humdrum, it should sell well -- the company's latest new models, the Camry and the Prius c, have both been big hits. And Ford continues to update and hone its big Taurus sedan.

But GM has needed a competitive entry in this segment for a while, and it finally has one. As the General continues its all-hands effort to overhaul its product line, the Impala represents an important step forward -- and another sign that GM's product renaissance is for real.

With U.S. sales stagnant for so long, GM looked to China for new growth -- and it's not the only one. Several American companies are finding strong growth thanks to savvy execution in the world's fastest-growing new markets. Motley Fool analysts have identified three big-name companies that are particularly well-positioned to profit, and you can learn more right now with our new free report: "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World." It's completely free for Fool readers but only for a limited time -- so grab your copy now.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. Follow him on Twitter at@jrosevear.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Ford and General Motors and have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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