Cadillac may build car to challenge costly Mercedes

Cadillac, the prestige car division of General Motors, appears itching to give the West German Mercedes a chase. Robert D. Burger, GM vice-president and Cadillac general manager, says the division ''is looking at a car that could compete in a higher-price bracket.'' Cadillac officials have studied such an idea in the past, but never ''so seriously'' as now, he adds.

While there is speculation that the price for such a car would be as high as that much, he suggests.

Whatever the price, if the prestigious GM car division goes ahead with its plans, the top of the Cadillac lineup will operate in a rarefied market, indeed.

Today the GM luxury division's top-priced vehicle is the Seville with an out-the-door price of $24,000 and up - often $26,000 or more, depending on how option-minded the buyer is. From Oct. 1 through April 10, the division sold 15, 086 Sevilles, up significantly from a year ago.

Cadillac also sells about 1,000 Fleetwood limousines a year with a price tag of $30,000, more or less.

Up to now, Cadillac has been traveling well outside the Mercedes market in which the lowest-priced Mercedes costs about the same as the highly optioned Seville. The Mercedes coupe goes for some $55,000. Thus, seeing the continuing success of the West German carmaker, as well as BMW, in the United States, GM's upscale car division seems poised for a chase.

Mercedes-Benz sells 65,000 or more vehicles a year in the United States.

The Cadillac chief sees three segments in the US luxury market. At the bottom is the near-luxury market with cars priced at just under $12,000. The middle market, in which Cadillac now competes, runs from $12,000 to $25,000 or a little more. The superluxury market starts in the mid-20s and tops out at $160,000 or so with such cars as the Rolls-Royce Corniche and Aston-Martin Lagonda.

What Burger wants for Cadillac is a piece of the market above $25,000. Of course, a person who buys a Mercedes may not consider a Cadillac at any price, a fact the division's general manager readily concedes.

Drumming on the improved-quality theme, the Cadillac boss points to the all-new plants in which the division now builds its cars. Next fall it unveils its new, smaller front-drive Fleetwood and De Ville; and ''in the 1985 model year, we will start building the new Eldorado and resized Seville in the new Detroit plant,'' he says.

''At that time, or maybe before then, we will stop operations in the Clark Street plant, where we have been building cars for more than 60 years.''

Burger denies any plan to ''dump the Cimarron.''

The Cimarron - Cadillac's version of the subcompact General Motors J-car - will continue to play an important role, he says. The Cimarron has significantly more pep in 1983 than it had a year ago. In total, however, the J-cars have been a major disappointment to GM as sales lag far behind expectations.

''Cadillac will have an all-new product line over the next four years - more new products than we've ever brought out in our history - and four new high-technology plants,'' Burger says. ''That's fighting back,'' he insists.

Cadillac, he adds, is in a different position from almost any other car division in the market in which it participates.

''We have a niche, and we're very big in that niche,'' he reports. ''While we will not change the names, our cars in the next few years will be all new.'' Cadillac over the last 13 years has sold between 30 and 33 percent of all new cars in the upscale group.

''In other words,'' says Burger, ''we haven't lost share of the market.''

Besides the front-drive Fleetwood and De Ville, Cadillac will carry over the rear-wheel-drive Brougham ''because the marketplace is turning to larger cars,'' he says.

''We'll phase out our rear-drive cars either at the end of 1984 or '85, depending on the marketplace,'' he adds. ''We may be building in another year 50 ,000 to 80,000 rear-wheel drives - and then that will eventually phase out.''

The 4.1-liter V-8 will continue to be the standard power plant for all Cadillacs except the Fleetwood limousines, which use the 8-6-4 engine, and the Cimarron, which uses a 2-liter ''four.'' Cadillac also offers a 5.7-liter V-8 diesel.

The problematical 8-6-4, which is caught up in litigation, is used in the limousines because it is the biggest engine available to Cadillac and the large limousines require it. ''We plan to continue the 8-6-4 engine in the limousines through 1984,'' Burger declares.

On quality, the Cadillac chief maintains that ''the fit and finish of our cars is comparable to the imports, but we ought to be doing better than that.''

Next fall Cadillac, for example, will use a new and vastly improved paint system on its cars - the next generation of the robotic spray-painting system that has been under test in a GM plant in Georgia.

''The imports did a great job,'' he concedes. ''First of all, they earned it. They built fine automobiles, not only good-looking cars, but cars with good engines in them. So they earned that.

''Now I think, in a sense, we've caught up. But we haven't done the same job in convincing the public that we have.''

As to the size and weight of cars to come, the Cadillac boss says: ''I would estimate the heaviest Cadillacs down the road would be less than 3,600 pounds. You can change the weight dramatically without changing the size by going from a cast-iron block to aluminum, for example.''

For about every 50 pounds taken out of a car, fuel economy increases by up to one-tenth of a mile per gallon.

''I feel the wheelbases and lengths of the next four or five years will set the standard for the next decade,'' Burger concludes.

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