August 24, 2011
A tale of two American luxury brands: Where they are and where they need to go.
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 8/22, 2:00 p.m.) Detroit. America’s two luxury contenders are at different places in their corporate lives at the moment. The short story is that Cadillac is in the mature growth stage of a decade-plus push to reinvent itself. And Lincoln, while not exactly starting over entirely, has pressed the reset button to such an extent that it might as well be.
Notice I didn’t say Lincoln vs. Cadillac. Any hoary notion that these two luxury contenders will battle each other in the market is long gone. With Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus being the premier players in the U.S. luxury segment, and Hyundai getting closer to becoming a player in it by the day, any thought that Lincoln and Cadillac will end up in a quaint battle of some kind is silly and an exercise in irrelevant nostalgia.
Of the two domestic luxury players, Cadillac certainly has the upper hand at the moment. Embarking on a long journey to gain back credibility and respect, Cadillac abandoned its “Vogue tires and vinyl top” persona for good with the commitment to its contemporary “art and science” design language that surfaced more than a decade ago. And with this new “face” of Cadillac that emerged on cars, crossovers and SUVs, Cadillac’s presence on the streets and byways of America changed with it.
Not content to stop there, however, the True Believers at GM wanted more, and thus Cadillac’s foray into world-class luxury-performance respectability with its growing array of “V-series” cars, a move that was fraught with peril but has turned out to be a pleasant surprise, with each “V-series” model being more impressive than the one that came before.
But the honchos at GM charged with nourishing the Cadillac brand image are growing restless. They know that the V-series cars are impressive and they can continue to do them in their sleep, but they’re aching to become a complete luxury-performance player like their chief rivals, especially their German counterparts.
That’s why you’ll be seeing the new “ATS” lineup of more compact luxury cars making its debut and a slightly larger CTS, so Cadillac’s market entries better match-up against the 3 and 5 Series models from BMW. And that’s why the Cadillac XTS, the long-overdue larger sedan from Cadillac, is on its way too.
But Cadillac isn’t stopping there.
The True Believers in product development and design at GM (as well as the marketing players who intermittently get it) are focusing on what’s next. And what’s next for Cadillac was teased last week at Pebble Beach during the annual week-long car orgy that just keeps getting better and more over-the-top with each passing year.
The Cadillac Ciel concept (below) foreshadows the design direction for the “uber” Cadillac that has long been rumored and is now slated for production reality in 2014 or thereabouts. Most likely powered by a twin-turbocharged 3.6L V-6 with a hybrid system using lithium-ion battery technology like this concept, the new Cadillac will first make its debut as a sedan in the $100,000+ range, but don’t be surprised if a luxury-performance roadster similar to the Ciel concept follows 12 to 18 months later.
(Photos courtesy of Cadillac/GM)
Is Cadillac ready for this? That’s the billion dollar question. Careers are made or vanquished with such pivotal decisions in this business every year and no one knows for sure. Is it possible? Certainly. GM’s True Believers have demonstrated convincingly with cars like the CTS-V Coupe and the Corvette Z06 and ZR1 that they are more than capable of excellence when they put their collective minds to it.
But with a full plate of small, medium and full-size luxury cars on the docket, I would be content to see Cadillac refine, hone and polish the aggressive new lineup they have first – which is The Plan, I’m assuming – before they attack the super-premium segment.
But then again this business has become a swirling maelstrom of “what have you done lately” and these manufacturers are only as good as their last bit of product news, so the pressure on Cadillac will be intense. And the reveal of the Ciel at Pebble Beach takes on a greater significance because it is consistent with GM Design’s strategy of late as far as “telegraphing” what’s on the horizon.
It’s also very much a stake in the ground for the True Believers in product development, because they now know that the design troops are up to the challenge, and that they must deliver a technical package that meets or exceeds the expectations established by the gorgeous sheet metal rendered in the Ciel, as well as being up to the task of competing with the more established players who have been churning out excellence for years.
So Cadillac is very much a work in progress. An established player reenergized of late in the luxury-performance segment, but one that is at a pivotal juncture in its renaissance. Will Cadillac get better and solidify its place in the segment, or will they lose focus and implode while trying to bite off more than it can chew? We shall see.
And what about Lincoln?
The other historic American luxury brand has been languishing for too long in a limbo of Town Cars for the livery trade combined with minimal re-skins of existing Ford products, as well as being lost in a corporate fog – at least at the dealer level – when it came to being saddled with the Dearborn-based automaker’s indecision on Mercury. And after years of meandering in the wilderness of largely self-induced mistakes that tarnished its legacy, Lincoln has finally hit rock bottom.
But after jettisoning Mercury, Ford operatives have finally finished the house cleaning necessary to focus on Lincoln. Sometimes it takes having nothing to lose in order to make something special happen, and Lincoln has arrived at that point right now. By that I mean the brand has only one way to go and now that Ford has committed to Lincoln’s revival there is a new energy and buzz surrounding the brand that hasn’t been seen since, well, it’s too long to even contemplate.
Are they starting over completely in terms of product technology? Absolutely not. Far from it, in fact. The current MKX points to where Lincoln is at the moment, but it also hints at where it’s going too, with an array of driving and communications technology that’s impressive, and even more so when you get behind the wheel.
But Ford executives are also painfully aware that the current MKX, MKS and MKZ are mere placeholders in the overall scheme of things. And while committing to resurrect Lincoln, Ford executives knew that if they half-assed it Lincoln would never get off of the mat, which is why they’re creating basically an all-new, self-contained organization that’s completely focused on all aspects of the brand, including design, engineering, marketing, public relations and the ever-crucial dealer experience.
This is not just the reinvention and resurrection of Lincoln - it’s an entirely new car company coming together almost completely under the radar. Well, almost anyway. Ford operatives have quietly been taking various media representatives “under the tent” of late so that they may understand just how complete the transformation of Lincoln really is. And of course in the midst of this, media-types have been given more than a glimpse of the first shot in Lincoln’s product transformation, the all-new MKZ, which is a sensational-looking car that very much establishes the new look of Lincoln.
But is it enough? I do know that the question of what Lincoln wants to be when it grows up is still very much in flux down in Dearborn. Some insiders think that Lincoln should be content to go after Lexus, and some think that the brand should be an American-ized version of Audi. Fortunately no one down there appears to be clamoring to go after the “out-German the Germans” space that Cadillac is all about of late, as I think that would be a huge mistake.
No, I sense that the executives charged with the rejuvenation of Lincoln understand that they need to go their own way and that any sort of “me-too” thinking in this segment could prove to be mediocre for them, if not fatal. Which means if Lincoln operatives in all of the disciplines can brew up a cocktail of just the right ingredients, I believe Lincoln not only has a legitimate shot at respectability, it has all the potential to become a solid player in the luxury segment again.
This tale of two American luxury brands is a complex and fluid one. Cadillac understands who it is, but wants to be better and wants more. Much more. Lincoln on the other hand understands the worthy parts of its heritage but wants to re-imagine itself with a mixture of avant-garde design and forward-thinking technology for the brave new automotive world that exists today
Ultimately its about credibility, respectability and prestige.
And the proof, as always, will be in the product.
As well it should be.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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