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Cars: Caddy's Comeback

Once the venerable "standard of the world," Cadillac fights back with a move upmarket.
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

As the lights dim, silence sweeps across the old opera house. Rumors have been working their way through the automotive inner circle for weeks and now, everyone seems to be holding their breath, waiting for the moment of truth.

The "standard of the world." There's no modesty in that motto, nor room for further exaggeration. For much of the last century, Cadillac could rightly claim that title. It introduced the technology, delivered the designs and racked up the sales. But its halcyon days are over. It no longer sets the benchmark that others follow. Its sales have slipped precipitously, and its traditional buyer base is rapidly dying off. Without something radical, Cadillac will become little more than an icon of the past.

Slowly, a single light begins to shine from the side of the stage. There's not much to see at first, just a silhouette behind a scrim, turning and teasing, like a sheet-metal Sally Rand doing an automotive fan dance.

With the launch of the CTS sedan last year, Cadillac introduced its controversial, knife-edged "Art & Science" design theme. It's a striking -- and decidedly risky -- shift in direction for a brand that's spent the last several decades unsuccessfully trying to play it safe. CTS is just the first in a procession of new products coming to market as part of a $6 billion makeover of the wounded automaker. The question is whether Cadillac can reach forward into the past to again become the automotive king of the hill.

Suddenly, the scrim lifts, the spotlights glare, and the big car drives straight towards the audience, which responds with a collective gasp.

Sultry, sensuous -- and completely over the top -- the Sixteen isn't your ordinary Cadillac. It celebrates the automaker's post-war golden era, when it was the biggest and baddest brand on the block. Measuring nearly 20 feet, nose to tail, Sixteen dwarfs even the big Caddy Escalade SUV. The sedan's name derives from the equally massive, 13.6-liter V-16 under the hood. At 1,000 horsepower, it makes even the most powerful Ferrari seem anemic.

"Our dream was to make a car that embodied everything that once made Cadillac the standard of the world," declares General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. Since the former Marine fighter pilot arrived at GM nearly two years ago, Cadillac has become his obsession, and for good reason. "If you can't fix your flagship brand," he cautions, "you won't get anything right."

Sixteen's rollout as a show car at the recent Detroit auto show was particularly well timed, considering the sudden explosion in the ultraluxury segment. There's the new Phantom from Rolls-Royce, Bentley's Continental GT, and two versions of the mammoth Maybach from DaimlerChrysler. Collectively, they've redesigned the concept of rolling affluence.

Can Caddy compete in this new world order? Sixteen "represents our vision of Cadillac's move upmarket," notes Lutz. But moving up-market is just the least of the challenges Caddy faces.


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