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Ford unveils family-oriented Navigator SUV to boost Lincoln brand

By Deepa Seetharaman

DETROIT, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co on Thursday unveiled a family-oriented version of its Lincoln Navigator, a big, brawny sport-utility vehicle that defined the upscale Lincoln brand during the American SUV boom more than a decade ago.

The 2015 Navigator comes as the No. 2 U.S. automaker tries to redefine Lincoln as a sleeker, more refined brand with upgraded service and new models such as the MKZ mid-sized sedan and upcoming MKC compact crossover.

That effort got off to a slow start last year when a shortage of parts and problems in manufacturing delayed the MKZ's launch. Lincoln sales fell 0.6 percent last year compared with a 7.6 percent rise in the broader U.S. auto market.

But Navigator sales rose 3 percent, and Ford is hoping to build on that with an updated version to attract drivers aged 50 to 55 years - about five to 10 years younger than the average Lincoln buyer.

"What started out as a more single-based, young professional vehicle has transitioned to more of a family-based vehicle," said Andrew Frick, Lincoln's group marketing manager told reporters at the unveiling.

Ford and rivals such as General Motors Co enjoyed wide profit margins on SUVs when the boom began in the late 1990s. Margins on the Navigator, first introduced in 1997, could be as much $15,000, making it one of Ford's most profitable models.

Over the next few years, annual U.S. sales of luxury, full-size SUVs such as the Navigator are likely to grow to about 55,000 vehicles from around 50,000 vehicles at present, Frick said.

The 2015 Navigator seats eight and has new suspension, a smaller, turbo-charged engine and a new front grille.

The grille has the same split-wing design seen on other redesigned Lincoln models, but in a nod to the SUV's past, the grille is stronger and more formal than other redesigned models, said Lincoln chief designer Max Wolff.

"Maybe these have taken up that sort of '60s, '70s very exuberant, almost outlandish kind of American sedan," Wolff said. "That doesn't really survive anymore. These have probably taken its place."

Among present-day Navigator buyers, look, power and capability are more important than factors such as fuel economy, said Elaine Bannon, the 2015 Navigator's chief engineer.