Can Cadillac and Lincoln regain their former glory?
Sixty years ago, Detroit was one of the richest cities in America. The largesse was on display in its magnificent theaters, the mansions of auto-industry czars, and the 18-foot-long luxury sedans cruising Woodward Avenue, many bearing the Cadillac crest or the Lincoln cross.
Racial discord led to the 1967 riots and accelerated the “white flight” movement of citizens and businesses from downtown to the suburbs as auto jobs also moved further afield. Detroit was never the same, and its decline culminated in bankruptcy in 2013. For much of the past two decades, Detroit has been best known for “ruin porn” videos of its disintegrating city center.
But this once-great Midwestern hub is rebuilding with a dizzying array of new corporate startups, taste-making restaurants, sharp bars, and cool hotels—many refurbishing grand old buildings in the process.
The same holds true for Detroit’s iconic luxury brands. There was a time when Cadillac and Lincoln were American status symbols. People pointed when they rolled by. Cadillac sales hit 350,000 in 1978, and Lincoln was the best-selling luxury brand in 1990 with annual sales of 231,660. Once mighty, both suffered precipitous falls as the brands fell victim to cost-cutting, platform commoditization with mainstream parts, and general product planning malaise. Luxury shoppers opted instead for German and Japanese luxury vehicles. Tesla, the electric startup, became a new symbol of American aspiration.
With the power of hindsight, executives at General Motors and Ford Motor Co. accept full blame. They know they starved their brands of the resources and the resolve needed to sustain a portfolio of distinct, world-class products. But like the Motor City where they were founded, Cadillac and Lincoln are trying to rebuild and find some of their former glory. Currently, Lincoln is the challenger brand, with U.S. sales of 103,587 last year compared with Cadillac’s 154,702 (though both are far back in the luxury-car sales race).
Is it possible for either to once again define the soul of American luxury?
Both automakers need success. They have shed the distractions of other luxury brands (Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, Saab, Hummer, Oldsmobile) and placed their bets on single marques. Success is imperative, especially when considering the massive, all-important Chinese market.
If I had a dime for every time a GM or Ford executive promised the resurgence of their luxury brands, I’d be able to afford an Escalade and a Navigator. The latest renewal vows date back to 2014 when each brand had a new man and a new plan—with very different cadences. It’s a little like the famous race between the tortoise and the hare, where the prize is long-term profitability.
Cadillac is the hare. Johan de Nysschen was appointed president of Cadillac in the summer of 2014. The fast-moving, fast-talking de Nysschen had an ambitious product plan and oversaw the previously planned move in 2015 to new headquarters in New York, aptly named Cadillac House. With the blast of the starter’s pistol, the hare took off at a fast pace, rarely looking back. His initial plan was to spend $3 billion USD by 2020 in pursuit of 500,000 global sales annually. A subsequent 10-year, $12 billion USD plan called for the launch of a new vehicle every six months through 2021, to make Cadillac the pre-eminent brand again. Cadillac would add a number of crossovers, entry and top-end sedans, coupes, convertibles, and of course a redesign of the vaunted Escalade.
Ford put engineer Kumar Galhotra in charge of Lincoln, and he overhauled the brand at a tortoise pace by doling out one new vehicle a year over a four-year span, starting with the 2013 MKZ. As impatient shoppers sighed, Galhotra announced plans to add two more vehicles—but skeptics still feared Lincoln would continue to be starved for resources. In the past, Lincolns were little more than rebadged, pricier Fords that quickly fell off affluent buyers’ consideration lists. But Lincoln pledged to spend $2.5 billion USD over five years and grow annual sales to 300,000 by 2020.
Galhotra was as careful and deliberate as the cadence of his plan. It was a long way to the finish line. His one regret today: He wishes Lincoln had redone the Navigator before the Continental. After years of milquetoast offerings, Lincoln had a brand awareness deficit. The Continental paved the way, but the Navigator made people take notice of the new Lincoln.
While Lincoln plodded along, awaiting the platforms, powertrains, and designs it needed for a legitimate product renaissance, Cadillac suffered setbacks. The runaway hare was back within sight. A flagship Cadillac sedan above the CT6 was dropped, along with dreams of more coupes and convertibles. But crossovers to take their place were slow to arrive and lackluster upon arrival. De Nysschen was losing battles in the boardroom on the product front, as well as in his desire to make the brand independent financially.
Meet the new boss
In April 2018 came the announcement that de Nysschen was out. He was replaced by the affable Canadian Steve Carlisle, who had been running GM Canada. But before that, Carlisle had worked in global product planning. That meant he was among the architects of Cadillac’s future (now present) product line. Obviously, “it would be a little inconsistent for me to say all that was crap,” he said.
GM’s brass ordered Cadillac back to Detroit. Rather than report directly to CEO Mary Barra, Carlisle reports to product chief Mark Reuss in an effort to regain product focus and prepare for a flurry of launches and a foray into electric vehicles.
“We are committed to making Cadillac what everyone knows Cadillac is and should be,” Barra said at the start of the year.
Over at Lincoln, Galhotra was promoted in March 2018 to head Ford North America with the sudden departure of Raj Nair over findings of inappropriate behavior. Joy Falotico, a longtime Ford Motor Credit executive, was tapped to take over Lincoln (while also running marketing for Ford). She assumed command at a pivotal time. The lineup has been overhauled with a series of gorgeously styled SUVs with impressive performance. As the new Aviator and Corsair crossovers arrive to hit the meat of the market, “This year’s gonna be a milestone,” Falotico said. “We really do feel the brand momentum.” The battle for American hearts and Chinese wallets is shifting in Lincoln’s direction.
Carlisle said Cadillac’s refined product plan in place at the end of de Nysschen’s tenure remains “virtually 100 percent intact.” The two men have different personalities but the same core goals. Carlisle is calm and soft-spoken, but his every word is measured. He’s not a jump up and down kind of guy. While peers knew when de Nysschen was angry, Carlisle has to tell people when he’s energized. “I developed a habit of announcing when I am excited, just so people know there’s a difference.”
Carlisle is pumped that Cadillac will lead GM into an all-electric future. A pure EV is coming in 2022; a two-row SUV with a claimed range of more than 300 miles (483 km) was teased in January. No hybrids as a way station. Cadillacs will either be combustion engine or pure electric—nothing in between. And they will come fast and furious after 2020. Some will be new nameplates, and some will be electric versions of existing models.
Lincoln is similarly being positioned as the electric leader for Ford. It dovetails with the intent to equate Lincoln with quiet luxury. Ford’s new BEV electric vehicle platform will give birth to an electric crossover in 2020 for the Ford brand, as well as an electric Lincoln. We don’t know which will arrive first.
Cadillac product plan
The XT4 compact SUV joined the lineup in September, and a new vehicle will launch every six months. That includes the XT6 crossover going on sale now, followed by the new CT5 sedan later this year and the smaller CT4 sedan. Both sedans will have a V-Series performance variant. The CT4 and CT5 replace the discontinued ATS and the CTS, which go out of production this year.
But the main event will be the first look at the 2021 Escalade later this year: a vehicle that cannot be ignored and keeps Cadillac visible. Even with its age, the brand sold almost 37,000 of the big boys last year compared with fewer than 18,000 new Navigators. No Escalade EXT or Cadillac pickup is planned.
The CT6 will continue to be produced at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant through January 2020—or longer—and the expectation is it will find a new home at the Lansing Grand River plant when the Hamtramck plant closes. Although a flagship sedan above it was dropped, the 2019 CT6 got a midcycle refresh and added the CT6-V with the Blackwing 550-hp 4.2-liter twin-turbo V-8 engine. The first 275 CT6-Vs sold out in two hours, but Carlisle said he held a few back, so an undetermined number more will become available.
All future sedans could get V-Series upgrades, but crossovers will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Super Cruise hands-free driving technology will roll out to future vehicles starting in 2020. In most cases, it will be added in the second or third model year. That includes Escalade, which won’t have Super Cruise next year at launch.
Lincoln product plan
Lincoln’s conservative plan follows the trends, which means utility vehicles and more electrification. “That’s the two threads of our investment,” Falotico said. Now that the whole lineup has been redone, models will be refreshed and add advanced powertrains, such as the first plug-in hybrid for the Aviator.
Performance sedans must also be maintained, especially for China, where car sales continue to grow. That means the Continental will remain in the lineup despite plummeting North American sales. The 2019 Continental 80th Anniversary Edition with coach doors sold out its limited run of 80 vehicles in 48 hours. That prompted the decision to add a 2020 model with “substantially” more production. The coach-door variant could also be sold in China.
Don’t expect a sports car from Lincoln. “That’s really low volume, niche, and doesn’t really play to the heritage of Lincoln,” Falotico said. “We kinda walk past that and say ‘no.’ We’re gonna play to our strength.”
From her years at Ford Credit, Falotico knows the importance of maintaining strong residual values as luxury vehicles age. She is working to increase retail sales while holding the line on incentives and cutting the number of company cars and fleet sales. In other words, Lincoln is OK with being a smaller-volume player. “Think of it as a luxury boutique versus a luxury mall,” Falotico said. Keeping volumes lower allows the brand to also focus on concierge-like service for its customers.
She won’t be rushed. “The slow and steady pace, don’t let it fool you. It means more profitable.”
Rear drive mandatory?
Part of the excitement around a Cadillac revival was the promise of dedicated rear-wheel-drive platforms to go with the edgy design that started with the 1999 Evoq concept car. But Cadillac is doing more platform sharing with other GM brands now, and that means more front-drive-based crossovers.
Lincoln was criticized in the past for sharing front-wheel-drive platforms with its Ford counterparts. But the new Aviator is the first to use Ford’s new rear-drive architecture, which could be used for future products such as a next-generation Continental. And Lincoln is leading in design, especially with its interiors, whereas Cadillac has lagged behind with plasticky touchpoints and too many shared visuals with mainstream GM vehicles.
If a head-to-head of the new three-row SUVs is a critical part of the race, then Lincoln is gaining ground. The XT6 is front-drive and has a 3.6-liter V-6 that generates 310 hp and 271 lb-ft of torque, but there is no electrification or Super Cruise. Style-wise, you could easily lose it in a mall parking lot. The Aviator is rear-drive, offers a plug-in hybrid with an impressive 450 horsepower and 600 lb-ft of torque, and is stunning to look at inside and out. “The Aviator is truly impressive, and the XT6 isn’t,” said Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis with AutoPacific. “Lincoln put in more effort, and it is enough of a difference that consumers can see it.”
But don’t count Cadillac out just yet. The brand is building a more aggressive and sporty lineup, veering from its traditional positioning to a more crowded space where German carmakers have a stranglehold. And yes, we’ve heard Cadillac executives for decades preach of its future as “the American BMW.” Perhaps they mean it this time.
Lincoln also sees an opening. As Lexus also takes on BMW and Audi, that allows Lincoln to position itself as the brand for luxury comfort, Kim said: “It is a smart niche for Lincoln. Luxury buyers of all ages want comfort.”
What’s in a name?
Both brands adopted new alphanumeric names under past bosses. At Cadillac, de Nysschen renamed the lineup: cars start with CT, crossovers with XT, followed by a number denoting size. Carlisle is keeping it. Shoppers find the numbers helpful, evidently. Ultra-luxe vehicles, priced over $100,000 USD, deserve names. “Special cars should have special names,” he said. “Escalade is a good example; we would never consider calling the Escalade an XT11.” Historic monikers can be pulled off the shelf, but they have to fit. “What kind of car would I put El Dorado on?” And Cadillac will need a naming strategy for its electric vehicles. “That’s a whole new white space.”
Lincoln also went alphanumeric for a number of years but has reversed course and is slowly replacing the confusing alphabet soup with real names with a nautical theme: Navigator, Aviator, Nautilus, and Corsair.
Selective in where they sell
As far as exports, both brands have abandoned any aspirations for Europe and are laser-focused on China. It is now Cadillac’s biggest market, resulting in the addition of a new plant in Shanghai. Lincoln is still in its infancy there. It sold its first car there in 2014 but now has 120 dealers and will add the Aviator to its lineup later this year. Lincoln will build its first vehicles in China later this year, as well, starting with an SUV, to be followed by a second model next year and a third in 2021. Lincoln has learned it needs to update vehicles more frequently for China; the updates can be technology upgrades, adding more electrification, or introducing a special edition.
Are the two brands fundamentally different?
“We’re both clearly American luxury, but we’ve carved out our own space with our product DNA and our services,” Falotico said. “They’re two different looks.”
With so many new products still to come from both Lincoln and Cadillac, this race is far from over. But if they can regain some of their former glory, both win.