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A test drive converts a Cadillac skeptic

The Cadillac ATS with a turbo 4 cylinder engine: A surprise to drive for one skeptic. Photo credit: BILL TRUETT

There’s one last item to address before we close the book on my recent column about General Motors’ latest efforts to reposition Cadillac.

Thanks to central Florida Cadillac dealer Alan Starling, we tested my theory that a good way to obliterate Cadillac’s lingering dinosaur brand image is simply to let people drive the cars.

In a previous column, I mentioned that my brother’s mental image of what Cadillac is today is probably a lot like many of the brand’s target buyers -- not aligned with reality.

That may be a common situation for brands in transition, but it is a huge problem that is costing Cadillac lost U.S. sales in a growing market and casting doubt on Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen’s early efforts to retool it.

Today’s Cadillacs are fast, high-tech, athletic, comfortable, handsome and well-made, not the massive land yachts of the past.

Starling offered to let my brother test drive any Cadillac in the lineup for a week -- no strings attached. We both wanted to see if someone completely disinterested in Cadillac and predisposed to tune out Cadillac’s advertising would feel not just differently about the brand after some hands-on exposure but would even consider buying one.

The advice I gave to my brother: Please pick a car you can afford and that fits your needs. That meant the CTS-V -- perhaps Cadillac’s best shot at winning over import buyers -- wouldn’t be chosen.

My brother picked up a black ATS 2.0 sedan from Starling Chevrolet-Cadillac in DeLand last Monday. And his Facebook entries were interesting.

On the first day of his test, a photo of the ATS’ Brembo brakes appeared and a photo of the interior, with the caption: “A nice place to spend time.”

After the test was over, my brother, 42, wrote: “Had a Cadillac ATS with the turbo 4 cylinder engine this past week, and it really surprised me. Prior to driving the car the thought of owning a Cadillac had never crossed my mind. But after, it is definitely in the mix.

“The engine moved the car effortlessly and the transmission was pretty responsive. The interior was a very nice place to spend time and I think I would end up loving the CUE system given more time. The traffic info the navigation system showed was super cool.”

He likes the ATS better than the 2014 Lexus IS 250 his wife purchased last year.

One of his friends saw the photo of the ATS and wrote “geezer” underneath it, but others were generally supportive.

Wrote another friend: “I am not at all surprised that you liked it. Cadillac is building some nice cars these days. Their lineup is getting better every year. That platform that ATS is on is a great one, too.”

Cadillac has to figure out how to be a young person’s brand.

I remain more convinced than ever that Cadillac isn’t going to buy its way out of its current predicament with expensive advertising campaigns. It is going to take some kind of expensive, labor-intensive, direct-marketing strategy that gets BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Lexus drivers into Cadillacs so they can see for themselves that Cadillac is not what they think it is.

Realistic sticker prices combined with one-to-one marketing, where Cadillac dealers are empowered to take it to the people like Starling did with my brother, is perhaps the best way to retire Cadillac’s considerable brand baggage.

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