Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cadillac seeks to regain lost luxury turf

Cadillac seeks to regain lost luxury turf

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Cadillac is betting that it can regain its once-lofty standing with the launch of a series of new products that includes the big XTS sedan that made its debut earlier this month at the annual Los Angeles auto show.

By Paul A. Eisenstein

Once known as the “standard of the world,” Cadillac has been anything but a benchmark for carmakers in recent years as imported brands such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz have dominated the U.S. luxury market.

But now Cadillac is fighting back, betting that it can regain its once-lofty standing with the launch of a series of new products that includes the big XTS sedan that made its debut earlier this month at the annual Los Angeles auto show.

Cadillac will follow up next year with the addition of the compact ATS, and it has more new models on the drawing board.

A few years ago it might have seemed “a stretch” for Cadillac to even imagine a comeback in the U.S., admits Don Butler, general marketing manager for the General Motors division.

In the “new (luxury) world old formulas don’t apply, so we had to start over” with the XTS, a premium luxury sedan that replaces two slow-selling Cadillac models, the STS and DTS, Butler said.

Caddy isn’t the only upscale domestic car brand that’s hoping to convince car show visitors in Los Angeles -- the nation's largest luxury car market -- that it can become relevant again.

At this year’s show, Ford’s Lincoln division showed off updates to two of its own products, the big MKS sedan and MKT crossover. The two 2013 models get revised fascias and grilles, new wheels and modest improvements in performance and fuel economy. They’re also getting the updated version of the MyLincolnTouch systems designed to address recent criticism of the brand’s infotainment technology.

“This is truly marking the beginning” of Lincoln’s design renaissance, said Max Wolff, the brand’s chief designer, although he also hinted that the big news for Lincoln won’t be revealed until January when Detroit plays host to the North American International Auto Show -- generally thought to be the most important show in the auto show calendar.

There, the automaker plans to unveil a concept version of its next-generation Lincoln MKZ, the most popular sedan in its portfolio. The concept vehicle will introduce an all-new “face” for the luxury brand that will abandon Lincoln’s time-tested “waterfall grille” and move to a series of horizontal slats that are almost wing-like in appearance. The show car version will also feature an all-glass roof that will be able to open like a hard-top convertible.

The revised grille will reappear on a production version of the MKZ debuting at the New York auto show next April, although it’s not clear if the glass roof idea will be carried into production.

But the dramatic changes coming to Lincoln underscore the concerns Ford has for the Lincoln division, which has become little more than an also-ran in a market where it once vied with Cadillac for dominance.

Cadillac hasn’t stumbled quite so badly, but it has been struggling in recent years after what appeared to be a significant turnaround early in the new millennium. The maker scored big with the first generation of the compact CTS sedan, which introduced Caddy’s distinctively edgy “art and science” design theme.

In a segment of the car market where manufacturers have traditionally opted for softer designs, the “art and science” design “language” was a bold standout. But after hitting a market home run with the CTS, Cadillac failed to score with the next run of offerings, like the STS, the DTS and the XLR sports coupe.

The products simply fell short of the competition in terms of interior refinement, ride and features, analysts contend.

Cadillac won’t make those mistakes again, insists Mark Reuss, president of GM’s North American operations. The goal, he insists, “is to win in the intensely competitive luxury market, not just compete.”

Besides offering a striking exterior shape and a much more refined interior, the new XTS will introduce Cadillac’s new CUE -- an infotainment system that can be programmed using normal speech rather than requiring users to learn a complex and often confusing series of rigid commands.

These high-tech features have become a critical differentiator in the luxury market, notes Derek Kuzak, Ford’s global product development czar.

Lincoln thought it had a leg up on the competition with the MyLincolnTouch infotainment system, but, underscoring the risks of relying on high technology, the Ford luxury brand was slammed for problems with the touch-sensitive system. Indeed, influential Consumer Reports magazine lifted its sought-after “Recommended Buy” rating from several Lincoln products this year.

The carmaker hopes to win back that endorsement with the updated MyLincolnTouch, and then show that its styling and performance are also relevant with the product offensive it is kicking off in Los Angeles this month.

But both Lincoln and Cadillac won’t have an easy time of it. Even established luxury brands such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes are ramping up their own efforts. Lexus, in particular, is expected to be especially aggressive in the months ahead, hoping to recover the momentum it lost due to product shortages caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March.

And second-tier players such as Audi, and also Nissan’s Infiniti brand, are hoping to gain ground with their own expanding line-ups.

Then there’s the Koreans, and Hyundai in particular.

It scored an unexpected coup a few years back when its first luxury offering, the Genesis sedan, was named North American Car of the Year. The even bigger and more lavish Equus has so far this year handily beaten the company’s sales expectations, and Hyundai’s own new offering at the Los Angeles show, the big Azera, will target entry-luxury buyers who might have gone for more traditional offerings like the Lexus ES350.

Based on initial reviews, Cadillac and Lincoln are gaining visibility and credibility. But whether they can win back luxury car buyers is another matter entirely.

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