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Cadillac's Future at a Crossroads - 2002-01-13


Cadillac is at a crossroads. Once America's leading seller of prestige cars, Cadillac now lags behind competitors from Germany and Japan. VOA's John Birchard reports on a new model that the luxury division of General Motors hopes will begin a new era of prosperity for the brand.

Cadillac tried to compete with Mercedes-Benz and Lexus using the German-designed and built Catera from its Opel division. It did not succeed.

Now, Cadillac brings a brand-new replacement, the CTS, to the $30,000 to $35,000 entry-luxury segment. The brand manager for CTS, Jay Spenchian, says this car is very important, setting the tone for the future of the division. "The combination of the style and dynamics of great performance, the ride-and-handling if you will, if people do not like that, then all they are doing is they are getting more and more flavors of that, so the CTS absolutely is critical," he says. "It has got to bring in new buyers and attract new interest for Cadillac. We think it will, but it is definitely high-stakes poker at this point."

The styling of the CTS is an immediate eye-catcher, aggressive with strong lines and sharp angles. People tend to love it or hate it, but Mr. Spenchian says few are neutral. "This is a boldness that will be very unique and will make Cadillac... it is truly something Cadillac needs to do," he says. "It is what we did when we led in design and we are going to do that again."

The executive editor of Road & Track magazine, Doug Kott, agrees, saying the CTS is impossible to ignore. "I think the shape is quite polarizing, but I think enough people will absolutely love it to make the car a success," he says.

Like the best of its competitors, the CTS is front-engine, rear-wheel drive for vehicle balance and precise handling. Cadillac is proud to point out early testing took place on Germany's difficult and demanding Nurburgring race course.

Power comes from a 3.2 liter V-6 developing 220-horsepower. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard, but for the first time in 50-years Cadillac offers a five-speed manual transmission for a more sporting drive. Jay Spenchian says besides current Cadillac customers, the CTS must appeal to import buyers. "We just have not been relevant. We have not made a car that is small enough for them in this entry-luxury segment and that handles as well as this does and has the kind of performance," he says. "So that is going to be important, but I would say that it is important to get at least half of our buyers from outside of General Motors...people who never experienced General Motors before, because that is going to be critical."

We asked Road & Tracks' Kott if he believes CTS has a chance of competing for the people who currently prefer imports. "I think it has a good chance, because I was pleasantly surprised at how well the car handles," he says. "I know that a lot of people seek out the European marques (brands) for, you know, their sophistication and handling. And Cadillac has really gone to great lengths to make sure this car is competitive in that area."

The folks at Cadillac are acknowledging past mistakes. Mr. Spenchian says the division "learned a lot of lessons" from the Catera's failure to bring new and younger buyers to the brand. Success for the CTS is not guaranteed, but one thing seems certain: it will not fail because it is too bland and conservative.

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