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The V-series of high-performance cars, including the CTS-V coupe proves what Cadillac is capable of designing and engineering. (General Motors)
The V-series of high-performance cars, including the CTS-V coupe proves what Cadillac is capable of designing and engineering. (General Motors)

Brand development

Cadillac shows plenty of promise. Will it deliver? Add to ...

The 2013 Cadillac CTS-V coupe is a 555-horsepower, intercooled and supercharged beast of a performance car and it hints at all the promise in the world for General Motors’ 110-year-old premium brand. The thing is, though, Cadillac has been largely about promise, unrealized promise, for more than a decade.

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So here in the summer of 2012, Cadillac needs to start delivering in a big and sustained way – delivering on the promise, or should I say promises. Even now, I take with a large grain of salt these widespread reports about GM CEO Dan Akerson’s declared goal of quadrupling annual Cadillac sales in China to more than 150,000 units by 2018. When GM’s North American president, Mark Reuss, tells trade journal Automotive News that the upcoming ATS sports sedan will “win” against the BMW 3-Series, I suppress a yawn and recall the first-generation Cadillac CTS was also supposed to win against the 3, using a “bigger-and-better-for-the-same-money” formula that never fulfilled its promise.

And I was reminded of past Cadillac bosses when Don Butler, Cadillac’s marketing general manager, stood in front of the 2013 XTS at last spring’s New York auto show and said, "I have the easiest job in the world. I just need to get people to try the product." Four years ago, Jim Taylor, then the Cadillac marketing boss, talked about the competitiveness of Cadillac models, about the need for Cadillac to “re-emerge as a solid prestige competitor,” and how his team was feverishly at work creating a model to compete below the CTS – something along the lines of the ATS, which is finally heading to showrooms some five years later.

Or I can go back even further, to the summer of 2004 when another former Cadillac general manager, this one Mark LaNeve, talked about Cadillac’s "product-driven renaissance." He said Cadillac and GM “made a big bet with a new design and that our engineers could deliver world-class vehicles. That's starting to pay off for us, but we fully realize we have a lot to do.”

The fact is, Cadillac has had plenty to do since it went into reinvention and renaissance mode in late 1997. Back then, GM’s design chief at the time, Wayne Cherry, joined with yet another Cadillac general manager, John Smith, in a well-publicized effort to set an entirely new direction for Caddy. Avant-garde styling and advanced technology were to be the essence of every new Cadillac. The then-tagline: "Art & Science."

You see, when you’ve covered this car business for 25 years like I have, you have a memory and you’ve witnessed the history. General managers come and go, but I’ve been here, notebook in hand, documenting the promises. Without question there has been progress and thankfully we have not seen anything as egregious as, say, the 1982 Cadillac Cimarron. That rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier economy almost did for Cadillac what the Aztec achieved for Pontiac.

Cadillac is, in fact, building high-quality vehicles now – finishing third overall in the latest three-year J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study. The point is, we’re not seeing any more 1987-1993 Allantes with all its endless quality woes. Cadillac has a direction and things are moving ahead from a solid enough foundation. Quality aside, the SRX crossover has been a solid hit because of its looks and functionality, and before that the Escalade giant SUV was the automotive bling for a long list of celebrities.

Most recently, the V-series of high-performance cars, including this wonderfully awesome CTS-V coupe ($72,600 base) with the rumbling V-8 and massive grip in the corners, proves what Cadillac is capable of designing and engineering. From a performance perspective, this Caddy coupe can take on the best Mercedes-Benz AMG SLs and the hottest 6-Series Ms from BMW and do so at something like half the price. There is substance at the current Cadillac.

Nonetheless, Cadillac has a track record and it’s one that leaves a realist feeling slightly gun-shy to repeat the latest Cadillac plans and hopes and dreams. But we’ll do it anyway, if for no other reason than the XTS large sedan ($48,995-$64,975), which has just begun arriving in dealer showrooms. Good car.

That said, when Pat Fallon, chairman of Fallon Worldwide, the Minneapolis agency that produces Cadillac's creative work, tells Automotive News that Cadillac is in the “front end of some massive change” and that the brand is really in the early stages of “what we consider to be a relaunch," I am reminded of all those past Cadillac renaissance stories written by me and by others, over and over and over again, spanning more than the last decade.

What’s clear today is that many of those within GM, from CEO Akerson to North American president Reuss to Butler and down the line, want to see Cadillac emerge as a world-class luxury brand. There is without a doubt talk within GM of a large flagship sedan aimed at the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series. Such a car would be good for the brand’s image. Will GM devote the resources to make it happen?

A redesigned CTS sedan is, however, surely coming soon and, rather than straddle the line between, say, BMW’s 5-Series and 3-Series, Cadillac seems poised to focus the next CTS squarely against the 5 from BMW and the E-Class from Mercedes.

"I'm a fan of going right at those segments and beating them in segment," Reuss told Automotive News, adding Caddy’s lineup will be bolstered within the next year by a redesigned Escalade and a plug-in hybrid coupe dubbed the ELR – the latter using technology first seen in the Chevrolet Volt. Reuss also said Caddy might get a new crossover that’s larger than the SRX, but smaller than the Escalade. Given the ATS is aimed at “winning” against the 3-Series, it would make sense for Cadillac to have an ATS convertible or coupe. And Reuss hinted at the possibility of a crossover smaller than the SRX, too.

An expanded Cadillac lineup would juice sales. So what’s possible for Caddy? The brand’s best year was 1978 when it led the luxury segment in North America with sales of 350,000 vehicles. As just-auto.com recently noted, IHS Automotive reports that Cadillac sold about 200,000 cars and SUVs last year. There is room to grow.

So yes, there is plenty of promise at Cadillac. The question is, Will Cadillac deliver on that promise this time around?

jcato@globeandmail.com

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