A decade after Cadillac first moved to ditch its image as stodgy purveyor of land yachts,
It has long overshadowed Lincoln, its domestic luxury rival. Now Cadillac wants to crack into the premium market dominated by German heavyweights BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Key to that strategy is Cadillac's introduction Tuesday of a sleeker, more powerful CTS sedan at the New York International Auto Show, a move to better match up its lineup with the Germans.
"The brand is stronger than it has been in decades, and the product portfolio is the most competitive in recent memory," said Tom Libby, an analyst with automotive research firm R.L. Polk & Co.
Cadillac last year sold about 150,000 cars, nearly twice as many as Lincoln, which is just starting to remake its product lineup and its brand. That was about 10,000 more than Audi but still well below the 281,000 sold by BMW, which leads the luxury class.
"Cadillac has gone through a significant evolution," said Mike Wall, an analyst at IHS Automotive.
But the brand continues to struggle in attracting younger buyers. Despite years of marketing sportier vehicles, the average age of a Cadillac buyer is 65, compared with 55 for Mercedes-Benz, 49 for BMW and 48 for Audi, according to Strategic Vision, a San Diego research and consulting firm.
The CTS debut is among the most important in a busy auto show for General Motors. The automaker will also roll out a refreshed Chevrolet Camaro, which it says has been the bestselling sports car in the U.S. for three years, having surpassed its arch-rival, the Ford Mustang. Chevy will also introduce the new rear-wheel-drive SS, a 415-horsepower full-size sedan. Both come on the heels of recent introductions of the 2014 Corvette Stingray and its convertible variant.
Meanwhile, GM's mid-level luxury brand, Buick, unveiled updated versions of the front-wheel-drive Regal and LaCrosse sedans Tuesday ahead of the show.
The new CTS — four inches longer and packing a 420-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 — solves a size problem for Cadillac. It moves the CTS slightly upmarket to take on mid-size sedans such as the Audi A6. Cadillac's recently launched and critically acclaimed ATS sedan has taken over the small sport sedan segment, long defined by the BMW 3-series.
When Cadillac first launched the CTS in 2002, the automaker called the car a "tweener" — between small and mid-size luxury segments but expected to compete in both. GM executives acknowledge they were trying to do too much with the CTS.
"It had to carry a heavy load for us," said Don Butler, Cadillac's vice president of marketing.
The CTS also helped define Cadillac's new design language, rooted in edgy, angular styling the company called Art and Science. The look, controversial when it was launched, has since become the signature of the brand. The CTS also returned Cadillac to the rear-wheel-drive architecture favored by most luxury automakers — and away from front-wheel-drive cruise ships like the full-size DeVille of the era.
The CTS helped shore up declining sales. According to auto information company Edmunds.com, sales had fallen to 172,000 in 2001 but surged to 235,000 by 2005, before the recession dragged down sales for all high-end cars.
Cadillac sales had fallen to 109,000 by 2009 but bounced back to about 150,000 in each of the three years since. The launches of the CTS and ATS sedans could give Cadillac another sales bump this year.
The ATS, also rear-wheel-drive, won the 2013 North American Car of the Year award. The smaller sport sedan has been lauded by critics for its tight handling and 50-50 weight distribution, which have long been hallmarks of 3-series BMWs.
Now Cadillac will have three sedans in the marketplace, each clearly aimed at a different buyer.
The ATS targets driving enthusiasts and shoppers entering the luxury market, moving up from Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys and Chevy Malibus, Butler said.
The new CTS will be positioned as a balance between performance and comfort for buyers accustomed to luxury.
It will go up against the BMW 5-series, Mercedes E-class and the Audi A6. The CTS brings the performance credentials to compete in that class, including a zero-to-60 mph time of just 4.6 seconds.
The front-wheel-drive XTS, with its focus on comfort and spaciousness, is Cadillac's holdout for its aging traditional buyers, the ones who grew up in the Sevilles and DeVilles.
Including the Escalade and SRX sport utility vehicles, the Cadillac lineup will now have a vehicle for almost every segment of the luxury market.
If there is a knock on Caddy, it's reliability. It trails Lexus, Audi, Mercedes and BMW in the latest Consumer Reports brand dependability rankings, though it's the top American nameplate.
The company also still lacks a new flagship — "a big rear-wheel sedan that sells for a hefty price and competes with the top cars from Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Audi and even Lexus," said Libby, the Polk analyst.
Butler assures Cadillac has that segment in mind for further expansion. The automaker is also exploring a small crossover. Butler wouldn't elaborate, but Wall and other analysts believe a big sedan could arrive in the 2015-16 time frame.
For now, Butler is focused on getting the new CTS into the U.S. market and extending Cadillac's global reach.
"We have grand ambitions, and
Cadillac entered the Chinese market in 2006 and now sells about 30,000 vehicles there annually. It just started production of the XTS in China and exports the rest of its line to what has become the world's biggest car market. The SRX sport utility vehicle now accounts for about half of Cadillac's sales in China, but Butler said big sedans are also popular there.
GM has a target of selling 100,000 Cadillacs in China by the end of 2015. Robust sales there would serve as a launching ground for sales in Russia and other global markets, Butler said.
"If you are a luxury brand, you need to have presence globally," Butler said. "We have to prove we can compete with the best of the best with no excuses."