Cadillac fights new luxury-car competitors - and its own image

Once the most visible and prestigious symbol of American automotive opulence, the Cadillac crest has become quite tarnished in recent years. Searching for a formula to restore its former standing, Cadillac is resorting to a mixture of tradition, technology, and European styling. But it is not yet clear if the division can attract a new customer base among the increasingly affluent baby-boom generation, which has, to a large degree, forsaken Cadillac and its domestic competition in favor of European imports.

Cadillac's problems are often overstated. Indeed, the General Motors luxury car division sold a near-record 304,057 cars last year, triple its nearest European luxury rival.

But the sheer growth in the luxury market diminishes that figure, especially when it is compared with the record growth of Cadillac's competition. A decade ago, Cadillac essentially owned the luxury car market, with 48 percent of the profitable segment's sales. Last year, that fell to 34.1 percent. And during the first six months of 1987, the share was only 30.5 percent.

Cadillac's sales during the January-to-June period were only 127,142, down from 146,735 during the first six months of 1986.

``The problem with Cadillac is that it has not kept up with the changing demographics and preferences of the consumers who buy luxury cars,'' says Chris Cedergren, senior automotive analyst at J.D. Power and Associates, a California market research firm.

``To them, Cadillac is an old person's car,'' Mr. Cedergren says. ``Their definition of a luxury car is much different from their parents' and grandparents'. To them, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Audi best represent the image of a luxury car.'' The typical Cadillac buyer is about 65 years old, he notes.

Where are the buyers of the future going to come from? Cadillac is having trouble figuring that out. It thought it had the key when it significantly downsized two of its most popular models, the Eldorado and Seville, for the 1986 model year. Instead, their sales plunged.

During the first half of the year, Cadillac sold 10,365 Eldorados, compared with 34,521 of the larger, older model sold during the first half of 1985. Seville's sales are down about 25 percent.

``The big problem is that Cadillac's new cars look too much like all the other General Motors cars,'' auto analyst Maryann Keller contends. Ironically, she and other analysts say, the new cars turned off older buyers but failed to turn on the baby-boomers.

John O. Grettenberger, Cadillac general manager, agrees. ``That's a lesson we've learned well,'' he says; ``cookie-cutter cars are out.''

This fall, he notes, Cadillac will introduce a newly restyled - and significantly lengthened - Eldorado. And major changes are coming for other models.

But the most substantial change in the Cadillac look is the new Allant'e, a $54,000 two-seater that is a marriage of American manufacturing and European design. The Allant'e was styled by Sergio Pininfarina, the legendary Italian auto designer who has also put his mark on the Ferrari and other high-ticket European automobiles. Mr. Pininfarina's Turin factory builds the bodies for the Allant'e, which are then loaded on specially equipped Boeing 747s and flown to Detroit, where they are mated to a chassis built in the United States.

``I can tell you, I'm really glad we have the European influence,'' Mr. Grettenberger says, ``because the car is going up against almost exclusively European competitors.'' Grettenberger admits it might have been impossible to persuade American buyers to shell out $54,000 for a completely US-made car.

After the car's debut last January, initial sales were brisk, as wealthy auto enthusiasts rushed out to buy the latest novelty. (It should be noted that Cadillac intends to sell a maximum of only 8,000 Allant'es a year.) But Grettenberger frets that the real test of Allant'e will not come until next spring.

Cadillac, however, could be hurt by a rival from another GM division, the two-seat Reatta, which Oldsmobile plans to introduce in the 1989 model year. And the domestic competition is not standing still, either. Later this year, Chrysler will unveil a $30,000 two-seater built by its Italian subsidiary, Maserati. Ford is also working on a luxury two-seater.

Not all of Cadillac's plans for a revival are styling oriented. ``Power trains are going to play a big role in our future,'' Grettenberger says. This fall the division will offer buyers a new, more powerful V-8 in the Eldorado, Seville, DeVille, and Fleetwood models.

And Cadillac is working on an even more muscular - and exclusive - V-8. It is also considering the introduction of a V-12, the type of engine now found only on the most prestigious of European touring machines, such as Jaguar. The V-12 is being developed in cooperation with Lotus, the British racing manufacturer purchased by GM last year.

Can Cadillac regain its former dominance of the luxury segment? Analyst Keller says the changes under way should help the division ``stabilize its market.'' But now, she says, with even the Japanese introducing luxury models, it will be almost impossible for Cadillac to get back the market share it held in the 1970s, ``because the luxury market is where everyone is trying to sell their cars.''

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