Not quite the Bentley we saw when the Lincoln Continental Concept debuted in NY.

Lincoln’s reentry into the premium luxury sedan market begins early next year when Ford Motor Co. takes the wraps – make that the jigsaw camouflage – off of the production version of the 2017 Continental.

While we’ll have to wait to see the final sheet metal, our spies captured some first images of this road-going prototype undergoing testing. One of the biggest questions has been whether the final version will be so nearly as much Bentley-esque as the concept version that made its surprise debut at the New York Auto Show in April.

But from what we can see through the camo, you can spot some major differences between the 2017 Lincoln Continental and the Bentley Flying Spur. So, maybe the U.S. maker will have cut some of its stamping dies, after all.

Compared to the Concept Continental, we see rear fenders that are higher, rear quarter windows that have sharper angles, a front end that is more blunt, headlights that are horizontal and rectangular, and a belt line offering less slope at the rear.

Though in camouflage, the prototype Continental clearly opts for a front-drive powertrain.

(Click Here for a review of the updated 2015 Lincoln Navigator.)

The spy shot appears to answer one of the big questions that surfaced during the New York Auto Show: what sort of drivetrain the new Lincoln would use. As you can spot, the camo’d Continental goes with front-wheel-drive, in line with the old MKS and smaller MKZ models, while the Bentley maintains a traditional rear-drive layout.

That said, we’d be shocked if Lincoln didn’t add an all-wheel-drive option considering that’s a major selling feature, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.

Other observations:

  • The production Continental’s grille appears bolder, with less finesse in its outline and frame;
  • Its wheels offer seven pairs of spokes while the Lincoln show car offers even spacing between multiple spokes;
  • But is there something going on with those heavily concealed door handles? Are they a pop-out type?

What's with the door handles?

As to what we do know about the new 2017 Lincoln Continental, this is far more than just a replacement for the outgoing MKS sedan. It will move Lincoln up-market, in line with rival Cadillac’s new CT6 flagship sedan.

It will be produced at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant where the Continental will roll down the line alongside the Ford Mustang and Fusion models. The Flat Rock plant was originally operated as part of a joint venture between Ford and Mazda Motor Co. But Mazda pulled out several years ago as Ford sold off most of its holdings in the Japanese maker.

(For more on the production plans for the 2017 Lincoln Continental, Click Here.)

The Continental will be the largest and, Ford hopes, most prestigious model in the Lincoln line-up. Observers view it as something of a last-ditch attempt to prove that the brand can directly compete with not only Cadillac but the imports that now dominate the U.S. luxury market, Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz.

The Lincoln Continental at its NY debut.

The 2017 Lincoln Continental not only adopts a dramatically different design language from other recent models the brand has introduced, it also abandons the so-called split-wing grille introduced only a few years ago on the redesigned Lincoln MKZ.

The new flagship also marks a shift away from the controversial naming strategy Lincoln has adopted, using the letters MK in all models but the big Navigator SUV. Company officials have explained that they wanted something distinctive considering the role the new Continental will play – though some observers believe Ford may now walk away from the MK nomenclature.

The new Continental will debut shortly after Cadillac makes its own push back into the premium luxury segment – taking on such stalwarts as the Mercedes S-Class – with the all-new CT6 sedan. The Caddy flagship will offer several powertrain options, though notably no V-8, instead opting for a top-line twin-turbo V-6, as well as a high-power plug-in hybrid, for its performance versions. The Cadillac CT6 will be offered in both rear- and all-wheel configurations.

(For more on the Cadillac CT6, Click Here.)

(Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.)

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