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Cadillac Propelled by ‘Slade Star Power

Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant showed up at the mysterious party at an abandoned bank on South Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles, as did Leonardo DiCaprio and Rosanna and Patricia Arquette. They and a few hundred other guests had been lured by the vaguely worded invitation from one of L.A.'s premier celebrity-party organizers: “Jeffrey Best and Cadillac present Club EXT.”

It sounded like the opening of a new nightclub, with a typical guest list of trendsetters and buzz-generators. Staff were dressed all in black. Rock music pulsated through the darkness. Partygoers danced in cages on platforms.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 12, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 366 words Type of Material: Correction
Cadillac Escalade -- A Nov. 24 Business section article on the Cadillac Escalade reported that Laker basketball player Kobe Bryant attended a January 2001 party hosted by Cadillac. In fact, Bryant did not attend the party and has no marketing or endorsement relationship with Cadillac.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 123 words Type of Material: Correction
Cadillac Escalade -- An article in the Nov. 24 Business section on the Cadillac Escalade reported that Laker basketball player Kobe Bryant attended a January 2001 party hosted by Cadillac. In fact, Bryant did not attend the party and has no marketing or endorsement relationship with Cadillac.

But the guest of honor at the January 2001 bash, greeting visitors as they entered, stood still: It was a Cadillac Escalade EXT, the pickup truck version of the $50,000 Escalade sport utility vehicle.

The truck was being shown publicly for the first time, a day before it was unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The party was part of a plan to help Cadillac, the General Motors Corp. luxury brand popular mainly with the retired golf set, capture that elusive hipness factor and appeal to the under-60 crowd -- and if possible even to thirtysomethings.

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On their way out of the party, guests were given black T-shirts bearing the Cadillac wreath and crest. Before long, people wearing the T-shirts began showing up in trendy L.A. fitness clubs -- a home run for GM marketers, bringing more cachet to Cadillac than any multimillion-dollar ad campaign could.

Thus did Cadillac break through to members of the finicky “in” crowd who are meticulous about where they live and what they wear -- and drive -- and who can afford the gas-gulping truck that gets 12 to 15 miles per gallon.

Before long, Jennifer Lopez was singing about her “‘Slade” in “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.” The Escalade also worked its way into lyrics of songs by rappers Nelly (“Then I slide up in an Escalade, inside it’s like an Ice Capade”), South Park Mexican, Lox, E40, Tela and 112. The hulking SUV appeared in music videos by recording artists Ludacris and Usher. In the music video “Can’t Deny It,” featuring Fabolous and Nate Dogg, the Escalade is the star of the clip, with slow, panning shots caressing the truck’s angular panels.

On television, the Escalade is featured on “JAG” and “The Bernie Mac Show.” Craig Bullock, who goes by the name DJ Homicide of the group Sugar Ray, showed off four gigantic speakers in the back of his ‘Slade on the MTV show “Cribs,” which looks at the homes and possessions of the rich and famous.

On the big screen, the Escalade was one of the cars Nicholas Cage had to steal in “Gone in 60 Seconds,” and an Escalade figures prominently in the sequel of “The Matrix.”

“You can’t buy buzz, but you can create it,” said Susan Docherty, the Escalade’s marketing manager. “This market is not about what older people think, but what younger people do.”

That young people suddenly are finding a Cadillac cool is a remarkable turn for a division that in recent years has fallen from being the top-selling luxury brand in the U.S. to fourth place. The truck seems to be everywhere in the pop-culture landscape, and its popularity has taken on a life of its own that goes beyond what Cadillac had hoped or planned for.

“It’s the car of Muhammad Ali, Elvis, kings and queens, and U.S. presidents,” said Cadillac General Manager Mark LaNeve.

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Auto industry observers say celebrities caught on because of the Escalade’s size, opulence and in-your-face look. “The Escalade has a mystique. It ... just reeks of testosterone,” said automotive analyst Rebecca Lindland of consulting firm DRI- WEFA. “It’s big and tough. But it has all these creature comforts.”

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The Luxury SUV

Ford Motor Co. was first to enter the full-size luxury SUV market with the Lincoln Navigator, essentially a variant of the Ford Expedition that was launched in the fall of 1997. Cadillac followed in 1998 with the first-generation Escalade, basically a gussied-up Chevy Tahoe.

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Sales of the Escalade edged out those of the Navigator last year, 31,816 to 31,759. Through the first 10 months of this year, the Escalade has pushed even further ahead, with 40,665 sold against 24,923 Navigators. (Those are good numbers for a colossal SUV, though still far short of the more mainstream equivalents sold by Chevrolet and Ford, which sell well over 100,000 a year.)

The key to the Escalade’s appeal, some say, is that it combines the 98-year-old brand’s past glory with state-of-the-art power and technology.

“Cadillac was always what you associate with dominating the freeways,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley who teaches a class called Automobiles and American Society. “Look at the ’59 Cadillac with all those fins. The spirit of the ’59 Cadillac breathes somewhere in the Escalade.”

For a long time, Cadillac had lost that spirit. Considered a world-class product from the 1930s into the 1960s, Cadillac symbolized the pinnacle of achievement for an automobile owner, a reward for a career well done. Its cars had more power and gadgetry than most of the world’s premier coaches, from its pioneering air conditioning to power steering. But in the 1970s, gasoline shortages, tightening emissions standards and the rising popularity of Japanese imports dulled Cadillac’s luster.

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“By the early 1980s they had lost all the magic,” said Jim Hossack of consulting firm AutoPacific in Tustin.

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High-Powered Misfires

Among the models rolled out in the ‘80s that failed to catch on were the under-powered Cimarron, a cousin of the Chevy Cavalier, and the Allante two-seater with its Italian-built body.

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In the 1990s, the German-built Cadillac Catera was intended to woo younger buyers with a smaller, less expensive car. But it was ridiculed for being a luxury lightweight and for its TV commercials featuring an animated duck.

Another misfire was Cadillac’s move from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive, while other luxury manufacturers stuck to rear-wheel drive, generally preferred for high-end sedans.

“These were terrible, egregious errors,” Hossack said. “Meanwhile, Mercedes and BMW were making bigger, better cars.”

Even Toyota Motor Corp., known more for reliability than prestige, surpassed Cadillac, which was the bestselling luxury brand in the U.S. for decades through 1997. Toyota’s Lexus division has been the nation’s bestselling luxury marque since 1999.

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Cadillac has fared especially poorly in California, where Lexus, Honda Motor Co.'s Acura, DaimlerChysler’s Mercedes-Benz and BMW are the vehicles that many people aspire to. For the West Coast crowd, “Cadillac wasn’t anything they’d consider,” said Chris Tucker, general sales manager of the Casa de Cadillac dealership in Sherman Oaks.

But the Escalade has helped reverse the slide, selling well in California and helping reduce the average age of Cadillac’s customers. The average buyer of the first-generation Escalade, which came out in the fall of 1998, was 50 years old and earned about $125,000 a year, compared with Cadillac’s overall average age of 62 and annual salary of $100,000.

The latest Escalade has brought the age of its average buyer to about 48 with an income of $171,000, while for Cadillac overall the average buyer now is 61 and still earns $100,000 a year, according to GM’s profiling.

Best of all for Cadillac, Escalade’s popularity is migrating from celebrity haunts to the suburbs. Tucker said soccer moms come in for Escalades to carry the kids around. Dads like it, too.

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Ed Woodsome, an L.A. attorney in his early 50s, compared the Navigator, Range Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser with several GM models and settled on the Escalade. “We felt Cadillac offered the best combination of value and performance,” he said. Woodsome has added an aftermarket grille and fancy wheels, and his boys, ages 12 and 4, love the truck as much as he does.

Chief among the Escalade’s attributes are its dimensions, and for the giants of the NBA, size does matter. The Escalade counts Shaquille O’Neal of the Lakers, Jason Richardson of the Golden State Warriors and Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry of the Chicago Bulls as owners.

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Extraordinary Escalades

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Chris Mills, a 6-foot, 7-inch forward for the Golden State Warriors, is known in the NBA as the go-to guy if you want to spend some major bucks to get your car really, really souped up. Mills is co-owner of 310 Motoring, a West L.A. customizing shop where NBA players such as Gary Payton of the Seattle SuperSonics, Penny Hardaway of the Phoenix Suns and Lindsey Hunter of the Toronto Raptors go to give their wheels a mega-makeover.

“We’ve done from the standard to the extraordinary,” co-owner Raul Becerril said.

Standard treatment includes tuning the suspension and exhaust systems and maybe putting in a killer audio system.

The extraordinary involves installing alligator or ostrich interiors and supercharging the engine from the regulation 345 horsepower to as many as 600 horses. There’s also lots of wood that can be put in, and as many as six TV screens. Throw in a complete exterior paint job to match the new interior color scheme, and you can spend twice as much as the $50,000 the Escalade cost in the first place.

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Yet it’s not just athletes who have embraced the Escalade. Legions of Hollywood celebs have hopped into the truck du jour as well, from actors Ben Affleck, Martin Lawrence, Whoopi Goldberg and Adam Sandler to recording artists Whitney Houston, Snoop Dogg and Queen Latifah -- who made headlines last week after she was pulled over in North Hollywood in her 2003 Escalade and arrested when she flunked a sobriety test.

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Careful Marketing

GM didn’t offer any financial inducements to celebrities, who frequently request longtime loaners or free samples of hot cars. Instead, Cadillac put on a few events in New York and L.A., including the downtown soiree and a GQ party in March at the Sunset Room on Sunset Boulevard, where GM used Escalades to ferry guests around.

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“You don’t need to do a ton of [events] when you think that these are the people setting the trends, said marketing manager Docherty. “You just need to get to them.”

Cadillac planned its marketing carefully, trying to strike the right chord with potential customers. It has kept track of Escalade awareness through surveys such as one in April by Zandl Group. The New York market research firm found that the Escalade was the top model that boys ages 13 to 17 said they wanted to own.

The Escalade may be the hot vehicle of the moment, but most trends peter out.

Indeed, the ‘Slade soon may get competition from another GM division that has just come out with another monster vehicle: the Hummer H2. The over-the-top truck, designed with input from Arnold Schwarzenegger and also priced at about $50,000, went on sale this summer. And 310 Motoring already has some H2s lined up for customization.

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