Cadillac is betting that a new generation of rear-wheel-drive luxury cars can match BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Last week, General Motors confirmed plans to build an assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., to produce a new family of Cadillacs, code-named Sigma.
GM has asked state air-quality regulators to approve plans for the plant, which will produce 211,000 vehicles a year. GM already has begun to clear a site for the factory but declined to say when production will begin.
Cadillac General Manager John Smith would not say which Cadillacs will be built at the new site.
But Smith confirmed that Cadillac plans to move more of its products onto a rwd platform.
'Among the more discriminating consumers, there is a conscious preference for rear-wheel drive,' he said.
Another example of the new look for Cadillac: The division may abandon some of its traditional nameplates and script badging and switch to alphanumeric designations favored by European and Japanese rivals. Smith confirmed that the division is thinking about 'a new naming nomenclature,' but has not made any decisions.
Here is what is known about Cadillac's plans:
The next-generation Catera, due in 2002, will be the first Sigma product. As Cadillac's entry-level car, it will compete against models in the BMW 3 series and the Mercedes C class. It will be designed and built in North America and sold worldwide.
The next Seville will switch to the Sigma rwd platform. As Cadillac's 'prestige' luxury car, it will compete against the BMW 5 series and the Mercedes E class. It is expected in the 2004 model year.
The DeVille will remain in the lineup as Cadillac's large luxury car. It will continue to be aimed solely at the North American market and could remain front-wheel drive. If so, it may be Cadillac's only fwd car.
The Evoq will be a high-performance roadster, serving as Cadillac's 'halo' car. It will be based on the underpinnings of the next Chevrolet Corvette and will compete against the BMW Z8 and the Mercedes 500SL.
Other plans call for a successor to the Escalade, plus a Cadillac crossover sport wagon that blends the refinement of a sedan with the utility of a truck. The division also is considering a line of high-performance variants of its vehicles. The work is being done under the code-name Blackfin.
NO MORE STATUS QUO
Cadillac offered a glimpse of the Blackfin strategy during the Chicago Auto Show in February, when it unveiled a high-performance version of the Catera with a supercharged engine.
Sigma offers proof that Cadillac is ready to abandon a status-quo product strategy. U.S. sales dropped from 267,000 in 1989 to 170,000 two years ago before rebounding to 187,000 last year.
To continue that climb, GM is spending heavily to create a new family of rwd luxury cars that can be sold around the world.
Lincoln Merrihew, an automotive analyst with DRI-McGraw Hill in Lexington, Mass., says the styling, quality and technical credentials of the new Cadillacs will have to exceed by far anything marketed by the division today.
'The future of Cadillac is hinging on the successful execution of the Sigma platform,' he says. 'The styling and quality is what will create brand equity for the name, which is why the Sigma has to be an out-of-the-park hit.'