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How Lincoln, Buick fine-tune models to satisfy Chinese consumers
Automotive News | 2016/3/11

When the redesigned Lincoln Continental begins rolling off the assembly line this summer in Flat Rock, Mich., most of the output is likely destined for dealerships halfway around the world.

The sedan's long wheelbase and spacious rear seat -- complete with a "chauffeur" button to create even more room to stretch out in the back -- show that Chinese consumers were top of mind during its development. But even more telling about Lincoln's level of commitment to making the Continental a success in China are subtle tweaks that include the feel of the leather seats and even the smell of the cars headed there.

"They have high demands in terms of craftsmanship and fit and finish," said Pei-Wen Hsu, deputy general manager of marketing for Lincoln in China. "By learning from the Chinese consumers, we've been able to refine our offering."

Lincoln is giving the leather in Continentals going to China a tighter feel because it discovered that the thick, plush seats that Americans prefer are seen as sloppy in the eyes of Chinese consumers. And while the cars make their long oceanic voyage, carbon sheets placed inside absorb the chemical smell that draws Americans into new cars but repels Chinese buyers.

"When the car's delivered, we make sure we don't have that strong "new-car smell,'" Hsu said.

Those seemingly minor changes can be critical in the early years of a brand's foray into the world's largest vehicle market. In the past, many automakers setting their sights on China's fast-growing middle and upper class failed to understand cultural nuances that play into car buying there.

The Lincoln Continental's roomy rear seat - which has a "chauffeur" button to create even more room to stretch out in the back - show that pleasing Chinese consumers was a priority during development.

"The Chinese consumer is very discriminating and is not going to tolerate second best," said Michael Dunne, president of Dunne Automotive, an investment advisory firm specializing in Asian car markets. "Before, it would be, "Do we really need to make this adjustment? We sell a lot of this car in the United States, and if it's good enough for the U.S., it's good enough here.'"

While Lincoln is about to send Continentals from Michigan to China, General Motors is preparing to import Buick Envisions and Cadillac CT6 plug-in hybrids from China to the U.S.

For the Envision, the steering calibration, front suspension and brake rotors will change depending on where each vehicle on the line is headed. Chinese customers get 17-inch wheels and a 1.5-liter turbocharged engine, while Americans are given 19-inch wheels and a 2.0-liter turbo.

"The overall vehicle was designed with a lot of commonality that benefits all," Buick spokesman Stuart Fowle wrote in an email, "like making rear passenger room a priority and giving a big focus to durability testing that helps on rough roads in developing countries and makes a stronger, higher quality vehicle for those of us with good roads."

Attention to detail
Tailoring a vehicle for different markets is nothing new, but most often it's done to satisfy regulatory requirements. That's why, for example, only the U.S. version of the Envision can come with roof rails or a trailer hitch -- towing and rooftop cargo are banned in China. And it's why China-bound Continentals will get turn-signal lenses that are different colors from those of cars staying stateside.

BMW, which operates in a broader range of markets than Lincoln, Buick and Cadillac, builds slightly different variations of its vehicles for each market. It offers its 7-series sedan with remote-control parking and laser headlights in Europe but not in the U.S., where laws ban those features.

If buyers want a feature that's legal in their market but not offered because of low interest, BMW gives buyers the ability to customize their vehicles.

"We have ongoing discussions and are always trying to figure out if consumers make a request how we can support it," BMW spokeswoman Rebecca Kiehne said. "We're always trying to make sure that based on customer feedback we offer what consumer demand reflects."

Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz long ago figured out the importance of tighter leather, spacious rear seats and other features that appealed to discerning buyers there, Dunne said. That approach helped them dominate the market, while other foreign brands found it tougher to break in.

In the U.S. luxury market, "if you've got space, a good engine and a good-looking car, you're 95 percent of the way there," Dunne said. "The interior is much less crucial. Not so in China. They're going to expect meticulous attention to detail."

Growing Lincoln
Lincoln is a newcomer to China, opening its first dealerships in late 2014. It sold 11,630 vehicles there in 2015, which executives say is validation of the brand's strategy of waiting to enter the market until it had the right products.

"It's the first time a brand sold 10,000 units in its first full year of operation, a threshold it took Cadillac and Infiniti five years to reach," Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields said in January at the Detroit auto show. "So [we have] meaningful progress and significant momentum -- and most importantly, more growth to come."

Matt VanDyke, director of Global Lincoln, said the brand might consider eventually adding production in China if volumes are large enough to justify doing so. For now, all of its products are exported there from North America.

Lincoln expects to roughly double the number of dealerships it has in China this year, from 33 to 60, as well as its sales there. It's targeting 300,000 global sales by 2020, compared with about 120,000 last year, and its ability to hit that goal hinges primarily on China.

Because the brand's fortunes are so closely tied to China, Lincoln dealers in the U.S. appreciate every little detail that helps it grow there.

"The more sales overall worldwide, the more revenue goes to help Ford and Lincoln fund new products," said Dan Marks, a Lincoln dealer in Libertyville, Ill., and chairman of the Lincoln National Dealer Council, who visited some of the new Lincoln dealerships in China last year. "It makes you excited to be a Lincoln dealer when you see what they're doing over there in China with a clean sheet of paper in a country that size and with that many people."

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