No. 1013
September 11, 2019
 

About The UjianNasional

Peter M. DeLorenzo has been immersed in all things automotive since childhood. Privileged to be an up-close-and-personal witness to the glory days of the U.S. auto industry, DeLorenzo combines that historical legacy with his own 22-year career in automotive marketing and advertising to bring unmatched industry perspectives to the Internet with UjianNasional.com, which was founded on June 1, 1999. DeLorenzo is known for his incendiary commentaries and laser-accurate analysis of the automobile business, as well as racing and the business of motorsports. Author. Commentator. Influencer. The Consigliere. Minister of the High-Octane Truth. DeLorenzo is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.

DeLorenzo's latest book is Witch Hunt (Octane Press  witchhuntbook.com). It is available on Amazon in both hardcover and Kindle formats, as well as on iBookstore. DeLorenzo is also the author of The United States of Toyota.

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Tuesday
Mar192019

TAKING THE PULSE OF THE CADILLAC THING.

By Peter M. DeLorenzo 

Detroit. That the automobile business is unlike any other is duly noted. It’s humbling, all-consuming, never-ending and relentlessly grueling. No quarter is asked and none is given, and the business chews people up and spits them out with impunity. The highs are notoriously fleeting, and the lows are gut-wrenching and linger to an excruciating degree. But then again, as Hyman Roth, the mob boss in The Godfather Part II, memorably said, “This is the business we’ve chosen.”

Cadillac, GM’s luxury division, has occupied my thoughts a lot over the almost two decades of producing UjianNasional.com. I’ve written many, many columns about Cadillac over the years, and the surprising thing for me is that the subject never gets old.

Much of that has to do with the fact that Cadillac has a glorious history and remains one of the greatest brand names in the automobile industry. The stature of the Cadillac name has transcended the car itself and gone on to represent a sign of prestige and quality for many products, with the phrase “The Cadillac of…” still resonating even today, although the automotive landscape has irrevocably changed. 

It could be argued that Cadillac never recovered from the onslaught of the German marques – Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz – in the U.S. luxury market. This coincided with the era when American cars in general were perceived as not being cool, and the lure of the German brands was almost too much for consumers to resist. (It didn’t help matters that Cadillac’s product lineup was woefully obsolete at that point.) The German onslaught was followed by the emergence of Toyota’s luxury show horse – Lexus – the brand that redefined the concept of automotive service and won the hearts and minds of many American car buyers. And Cadillac was subsequently left behind, no longer top of mind except for its most ardent brand loyalists.

But despite all of that Cadillac is still present and accounted for, and it still sells a lot of vehicles in the U.S. and in China, the world’s largest automotive market. That the brand remains an enigma is no secret – blessed with so much historical context and burdened with so much potential yet saddled with a promise that always seems to be somewhere down the road. It’s the “It won’t be long now!” syndrome writ large. That’s why Cadillac always seems to be churning, tossed around in the Sea of Indecision headed to the Straits of What Could Be.

The current state of Cadillac is really no different from the last decade – it remains a kaleidoscope of mixed messages and emotions. On the one hand, Cadillac has some excellent new products on the ground and in the pipeline; on the other, the constant hand-wringing over the soul of the company seems to rear its head at the least opportune times. 

Take the new badging plan for its vehicles, for instance. Emphasizing torque over engine displacement seems perfectly logical, at least at first. After all, if Cadillac is going to be GM’s lead EV brand, communicating a vehicle’s torque first makes sense. But this just in: The Cadillac EV push is still well down the road, so communicating this now seems to be premature, at best. And the more you get into it, the more convoluted it gets. 

I’m not going to get into the various permutations of this badging strategy, because it’s beyond tedious and it quickly falls apart. I appreciate Cadillac’s brain trust wanting to get out front with this strategy, but all it manages to accomplish now is to confuse people. (I realize that talking to yourselves and internal rationalizing is a cottage industry in this town, but, really? This is where they wanted to come out with this?)

And the other thing it does is to remind people that the Cadillac naming strategy for its vehicles is glaringly lacking. I get that traditional Cadillac names mean nothing to a lot of people, particularly in China, but the alphanumeric regimen that Cadillac is clinging to seems tired and forced.

What about the new Cadillac names – Ciel, Elmiraj, Escala – that debuted on some of the industry’s finest concepts of the last decade? They are perfectly “Cadillac authentic” and would go a long way toward eliminating the ongoing nameplate confusion. Cadillac needs to rethink its naming/badging strategy, like yesterday, as in, why can’t the Escalade be the foundation for an all-new naming strategy?

But that’s not the only confusion festering in Cadillac showrooms. To me, Cadillac’s pricing strategy has been fraught with peril and an albatross around the brand’s neck for almost a decade now. It started from a good place, ironically enough. The True Believers in GM Engineering, Design and Product Development were – and are – justifiably proud of the work they’ve been doing on behalf of Cadillac. The “V” cars are sensational and the overall dynamic performance of their vehicle offerings is indeed impressive. So, to the key people guiding the division it was perfectly logical to think that charging “all of the money” for its products made sense.

Except in the real world at the dealer level, that didn’t work at all, because as good as the new Cadillacs were, consumers just mentally weren’t ready yet and couldn’t get there. The fundamental issue was that consumers didn’t perceive that Cadillac was equal to the German machines and couldn’t justify paying for them, no matter how good the fanboy reviews were.

But that external, customer-focused issue was just one dimension to the ongoing Cadillac pricing mess. The other dimension to the problem was the internal difficulties being caused by overly optimistic pricing pushed by Cadillac marketing, evidenced by the train wreck occurring on dealer lots with the ATS bumping right up against the CTS in price. And that problem was magnified exponentially when the highly-touted CT6 sedan made its debut priced right on the nose with a fairly loaded BMW 5 Series. Well, as they say in the south, “that dog just wouldn’t hunt.” And it was disastrous. Loaded CT6 models started showing up on dealer lots priced at $75,000 and above. And needless to say, German car intenders weren’t amused or convinced, and the CT6 was damn near dead in the water in a matter of months.

Has this pricing situation been rectified by the “new” Cadillac? Apparently not. I just took delivery of a Cadillac XT4 AWD Sport to drive for a week (we will have a review up in “On the Table” soon -WG). Now granted, this is an absolutely loaded XT4 that stickers for $57,135 – with a jaw-dropping $14,345 in options. But this just in: the last time I checked you will be able to get the new XT6 AWD Sport for $58,090 (the base for the XT6 is $53,690 for the FWD model). So, a cursory review would suggest that Cadillac is still hamstrung by an untenable pricing strategy. And, as we like to say around here, that’s a giant bowl of Not Good. (I will say this, however, my initial impression of the XT4 is quite positive.)

And finally, the latest news from Cadillac is the new CT5 sedan. Now, for those who think that the passenger car market is dead, think again. There are plenty of people who want to drive cars, which is why Toyota and Honda are not walking away from building them. So, the fact that Cadillac isn’t abandoning building cars is a very good thing in my book. The CT5 shows promise, too, at least on paper, because it is built on an update of GM/Cadillac’s superb RWD/AWD “Alpha” vehicle architecture. The machine will feature a standard 2.0-liter Turbo and an available Twin-Turbo V6, each paired to a 10-speed automatic.

That’s all well and good, but the look of the new CT5 is shaping up to be problematic, to be charitable. Things start off well enough with a front end (below) heavily influenced by the striking Escala concept. And Cadillac PR minions were quick to provide a “go to” shot of that front end (shown below) in all of its Escala-esque glory. If you just went by this angle your propensity to strongly consider one would be high, because it’s beautiful and enticing. But unfortunately for Cadillac – and GM Design – that’s only about an eighth of the car.

(Cadillac images)

The profile of the new CT5 is where the wheels come off. A quick perusal of the shape is derivative, at best. It’s almost as if GM designers decided to channel the Nissan Maxima for inspiration, which is unfortunate and offensive enough, but the detailing on the C-pillar is simply tragic. Why? There is simply nothing “premium” about it, as in, yikes. Andrew Smith, the executive director of global design for Cadillac, was quoted as saying, “Boring sedans are dead. I think awesome sedans are going to be around for a while.” I would wholeheartedly agree with that statement except what does that say about derivative sedans with profiles that don’t even remotely look like a Cadillac, but rather a mainstream rental car? Things apparently have gone downhill in a hurry for GM Design since the days of the CTS Coupe and the ELR, haven’t they?  

Looking beyond the front end, from this angle the CT5 looks like a Chevrolet Cruze hatchback. That’s not very good, is it?

The toned-down C-pillar here is more benign, but still, how far has GM Design fallen? And with a design legacy so storied, how can this be happening?

So, in summary, needless to say, Cadillac has its challenges. But the brand has actual worth and genuine value as an acknowledged purveyor of American luxury. The powers that be seem to get sidetracked and lose focus too frequently, and the lack of consistency has seriously injured the brand, but still, with a rich historical legacy that other car companies would kill for, Cadillac has a treasure trove of positives that it can work with going forward. And a few superlatives too.

In short, I believe the Cadillac Thing is slightly more than alive, and on its way to being seriously well, if they don’t suffer any more setbacks.

Dynamically the new Cadillacs are truly excellent, they’re extremely composed and fun to drive. And for me that’s huge and shouldn’t be taken lightly, because so many automakers get it wrong. And when GM Design gets it right, a Cadillac’s “presence” on the road is worth noting and unmistakable. (The new Escalade is going to be certifiably hot, for instance.) 

That said, the margin for error in this business has been reduced to a couple of millimeters. Cadillac’s pricing mistakes are capable of killing momentum for the brand before their products are even able to get started in the market. And that’s simply inexcusable.

Speaking of which, GM Design has to grow a set and get back to doing what GM Design used to do best, and that is to set the tone for the entire industry by creating eye-catching and emotionally compelling designs. And in particular, Cadillac should be leading the way.

As for the marketing and advertising, I can't leave today without mentioning Cadillac's advertising work of late. I found the ads on the Oscar broadcast to be weak and barely of interest. And the new CT5 Internet effort is a challenge, as in a challenge to hold my interest. Cadillac's marketing and advertising work has to be every bit as good – if not better – than the products they're promoting. That's certainly not a given these days – especially when you see some of the schlock work being presented by other automotive advertisers – but it's essential for the long-term success of the Cadillac brand. Cadillac marketers only have to ask themselves two questions as far as I'm concerned: 1. Why Cadillac? And 2. Why should I care?

Despite the challenges I’ve laid out, the Cadillac Thing has a better than even chance of survival, because Mark Reuss and Steve Carlisle and the assembled Cadillac troops understand that it’s fundamentally about the product. And that it always has been and always will be about the product.

And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.

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