By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Hello, I must be going. I spent half the day at the New York International Auto Show fielding congratulations - and questions - about HOTMotors. Many were taken aback by the Big Shutdown of Autoextremist.com and the prospects of our rogue automotive enterprise. A few weren’t buying it in the least, however – remembering my last April Fool’s column featuring Fu-King Motors - so enough about that. I am here and Autoextremist.com continues to live on, at least for now.
The New York show was livelier than past iterations there’s no doubt. I wouldn’t go as far as some in the automotive media who heaped unending praise on it, however, suggesting it was a threat to Detroit’s prominence on the auto show calendar. It was a worthy show, let’s leave it at that. And it’s definitely not a phone-it-in for the world’s auto manufacturers, as in years past, which is a very good thing. (We have left some images and commentary from the show in this week’s “On The Table” in case you want to go back for another look -WG.)
The Porsche Boxster Spyder was scrumptious but as is Porsche’s wont, extremely pricey. The new Honda Civic received gushing praise from the media, which was a bit over the top - okay, make that a lot over the top – because in the flesh it came off more like a custom one-off built for the SEMA show. What’s important about the new Civic – perhaps more than even the car itself – is that it allegedly represents a fundamental shift away from Honda’s recent moribund thinking and a return to the philosophy of building desirable cars with not only a point of view, but that are actually fun to drive. What a concept, right? We look forward to driving - and experiencing - real evidence of Honda’s enlightenment.
The new Chevrolet Malibu looked terrific, with GM hoping to return to the mid-size fray with a competitive entry that has real staying power in the most cutthroat segment in the business. We’ll see what the consumer public has to say about that. The new Nissan Maxima is, well, it is what it is. I basically have nothing good to say about it. And I even have less to say about the new Lexus RX, which is hideous and pathetic. But they’ll probably sell the shit out of ‘em as I commented in “On The Table.”
One good thing about the New York show is that the luxury automakers are given prominence, and they rarely disappoint. This year the Range Rover SVAutobiography – for around $200,000 – was simply over the top as the manufacturer tries to get a jump on the upcoming SUVs from Bentley and Rolls Royce. And of course the McLaren display featured the stunning 570S, which made enthusiasts clamor for a closer look. Me included.
The Range Rover SVAutobiography.
The rear cabin of the Range Rover SVAutobiography was a sight to behold.
The new McLaren 570S.
Oh, and one more thing before I get into the meat of this column. Memo to FCA/Alfa Romeo: Showing some of your gorgeous cars and racers from your past doesn’t impart a sense of gravitas and historical context for the brand, it just emphasizes how your modern stuff – yes, even the 4C - can’t hold a candle to your history.
And now, on to Cadillac and Lincoln.
Notice I didn’t say Cadillac vs. Lincoln, because these two classic American luxury brands might as well be occupying separate solar systems at this point. Cadillac has been on a path of reinvention since the turn of the century, while Lincoln suffered through such a long period of neglect within the Ford Empire that it’s just now gathering its bearings and figuring out where it wants to go.
GM is ladling on yet another round of big-time, multimillion-dollar financing for its luxury brand, and Johan de Nysschen – the former Audi executive with a formidable track record - is aggressively marshaling his troops for the long battle ahead. Everything is new at Cadillac, from the team of people in place and the marketing point of view to - and most important - the products being offered now and in the works.
Cadillac made it clear that it’s still carrying a bit of the American luxury chip on its shoulder in New York. What do I mean by that? Cadillac is forever striving for respectability and street cred in the luxury-performance car arena, measuring itself against Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz at every turn. It is a natural desire and the GM luxury division has hammered this point home relentlessly with its superbly crafted V-Series offerings. And now it’s taking the fight to its competitors with the new Cadillac Touring 6 (CT6).
The underlying theme of the lavish CT6 intro underlined GM’s desire for respect in the luxury-performance car arena. The assembled executives and the attendant Cadillac PR minions hammered this point home relentlessly, talking up the CT6’s array of aluminum castings and other metals and how they’ve been seamlessly blended into a desirable whole, insisting that they’ve raised the luxury car art. That is a serious boast indeed. The other point made about the CT6 is that it is first and foremost a driver’s machine, a distinction that was also made over and over last week.
First of all, I found the design of the Cadillac CT6 to be restrained, but almost too much so. In fact one of GM’s chief designers told me that “restraint” was the operative word used when executing the CT6 design. I’m all for restraint over garish and stupid – see the front ends of the Lexus RX and Nissan Maxima in “On The Table” if you need examples of the latter – but remember this is the car company that has unveiled two of the most exceptional concepts in this business over the last four years, the Ciel and the Elmiraj (below).
(Images from GM Design)
Not that the CT6 is a slouch by any measure, but in comparison to those dramatically rendered concepts it comes up short. Although I will say that the CT6 continues Cadillac’s notable run of beautifully executed interiors, which is indeed impressive. The CT6 also adheres to the etched-in-stone Germanic product design philosophy in that its look echoes other models in the Cadillac lineup, like the ATS and current CTS. But to me, the CT6 errs too far on the conservative side, foregoing design reach for design predictability.
Perhaps we’ll have to wait for the next big Cadillac - the rumored entry that will go toe-to-toe with the Mercedes-Benz S-Class – to see a production car that properly echoes the Ciel and the Elmiraj. I certainly hope so. Let me put it this way: If that upcoming new flagship machine doesn’t bring forward the presence and sheer sense of design-leading style projected by those aforementioned concepts, then Cadillac will have squandered a massive opportunity.
As for the new Lincoln Continental Concept, the majority of comments I heard at the show suggested that it was much better looking in person than what the photos indicated. And it is. Too bad Bentley chief designer Luc Donckerwolke didn’t get that memo (I commented on his juvenile pettiness in “On The Table”). In fact, the new Lincoln Continental was much better in person, so much so that it was interesting how it veered into the territory of design reach, as opposed to the more conservative path that Cadillac chose for the CT6.
But to be fair, unlike the CT6 - which is a production car - the Continental is a concept, and there’s a huge difference. Design houses tweak concepts in myriad ways so that they’ll show off better on the stand, and there are things about the Continental – which appears to project a modified front-wheel-drive architecture as opposed to the CT6 – that will not translate accurately in production.
In that respect the production reality of the CT6 execution is certainly noteworthy. It’s tasteful, restrained and very much within context of the brand. But even though the "restraint" in the Cadillac design is understandable - given the Big Picture of things and Cadillac’s obsession with emulating the accepted German design cadence - I actually think the design of the Continental is much closer to going in the right direction, in that it projects a more distinctive, expressive point of view (see images of the Cadillac and Lincoln in “On The Table” -WG).
As much as the CT6 and the new Continental give hope for the future upward trajectory of America’s two luxury brands, the Ugly Reality, Part I for both Cadillac and Lincoln is that they have ceded 25 years of product and image leadership to Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz (and to a lesser extent, Lexus). The two American luxury standard bearers may actually have a shot at dethroning Lexus, but the image gap we’re talking about between the American and German luxury brands is almost insurmountable.
In effect, Cadillac and Lincoln are Tier 2 luxury brands, and that’s a bitter pill for the stewards of these brands to swallow. There’s no doubt that the future profitability of these two brands lies in the Chinese market, where they’ll be better able to jettison any residual baggage and craft an image suited to the tastes of the Chinese luxury buyer, but here in this market it’s a different story altogether.
In Cadillac’s case, the brand is desperate to be taken seriously – especially in technical terms - when it comes to competing in the luxury-performance arena (even though the division’s current profitability is almost completely derived from selling Escalades). But Cadillac’s quest to be taken seriously – at least technically - will be lost on 99 percent of the luxury segment intenders in the U.S. market, because when compared to the German nameplates, the Cadillac brand image just isn’t strong enough to sway those intenders to The Other Side.
As for Lincoln, it’s a different story altogether. With the Lincoln brain trust mindful of the realities facing the brand, they’re trying not to bite off more than they can chew, because not only is their product cadence lagging behind Cadillac, they’ve made a conscious decision not to try to one-up the Germans on any level. Instead, they’re focusing on the following watchwords for the brand: “Elegant, effortlessly powerful and serene.” Which, come to think about it, are descriptive words that harken back nicely to the iconic Lincolns of the 60s.
The Ugly Reality, Part II for Cadillac and Lincoln is they they’re competing in a vacuum of their own making. You don’t sit by for 25 years ceding chunks of market share and two generations of buyers to the imports and then expect to flip a switch and become a force to be reckoned with in the luxury market overnight.
Cadillac has been figuratively beating its head against the wall for going on seventeen years now and what do they have to show for it? A brace of noteworthy reviews for its V-Series machines, two breathtaking, show-stopping concepts, profitability propelled by King Kong SUVs and now yet another “all-new” Cadillac entry in the CT6. It could be another seventeen years before we really know if Johan de Nysschen’s maneuverings had the desired impact.
And Lincoln? The reinvention of this brand is just getting started and to say it’s a work in progress is being charitable. The design of the new Continental Concept shows promise, and if it’s a glimpse into the future design direction for the brand I will be cautiously optimistic, with emphasis on that word cautiously.
But after all of the orchestrated hand-wringing, the Ugly Reality, Part III for Cadillac and Lincoln is that since the automobile business is all about fashion – and make no mistake, it most definitely is – and the luxury segment is the most image conscious part of the business, then competing in the luxury arena is an image play, pure and simple. And right now, Cadillac and Lincoln - in terms of brand image – are on the outside looking in. And they’re looking at years, not quarters, but years before they will be able to even noticeably move the needle.
Crafting brand images for these two iconic American luxury cars – brand images that have genuine staying power in the luxury arena - is the toughest assignment in this business right now and for the foreseeable future.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.