DETROIT -- Surging sales in China are giving Cadillac's U.S. business a luxury it lacked during previous attempts to regain its former luster: time.
The contrast between Cadillac's performance in its two primary markets last year was stark. U.S. sales fell 3 percent, while deliveries in China rose 46 percent, pushing global volume to a 30-year high.
The U.S. still accounts for just more than half of the brand's global volume, but Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen said China, where its annual sales have surpassed 100,000 vehicles, could become its top market within three years.
"We are moving Cadillac from having this very strong U.S.-centric focus to having a global focus," de Nysschen said in an interview. "The time will come when we will sell more Cadillacs in China than here."
That globalization lets de Nysschen bridge the gap between today's sedan-heavy lineup and several long-awaited crossovers with less pressure than most in a similar position would face. The first of those vehicles isn't expected until mid-2018.
"I never consider that we have breathing room," he said. "I would describe it as it gives my team some flexibility."
Cadillac's U.S. dealers, though, can't afford to be so patient. Many are excited about de Nysschen's vision for the brand but anxious about weathering the next 18 months with no major product launches to draw customers into their showrooms.
"We're in the retail business. We live and breathe month to month and weekend to weekend," said Bill Wallace, owner of Wallace Cadillac in Stuart, Fla. "There is a lot of product out there on the horizon, but nothing very soon."
De Nysschen said Cadillac's U.S. sales, after hitting a four-year low in 2016, will grow this year.
Midyear launches of the CT6 sedan and XT5 crossover made for a tough first half in 2016, and he said full availability of those nameplates will help going forward. From July through December, Cadillac's U.S. sales rose 2.6 percent.
But de Nysschen projects CT6 sales, which averaged 1,200 a month in the second half of last year, to rise little from that level. And the XT5 -- already the brand's top seller, beating the ATS, CTS and XTS combined last month -- is Cadillac's sole crossover at a time when light trucks now account for about 60 percent of U.S. industry sales.
Industry sources have said Cadillac has three more crossovers coming, with a compact XT3 expected to arrive first. De Nysschen confirmed only that the brand has additional crossovers under development and said there's no way to launch them sooner.
"The majority of our portfolio is exposed to downdraft, while we can't really capitalize adequately on all the opportunities that exist with the swing of demand into crossovers," he said. "Now, this will be remedied, of course, over time as we expand our portfolio, but in the meantime it is our reality."
For dealers, that reality comes as Cadillac makes big changes to the standards they must meet and the payments they get for complying. Project Pinnacle, which starts April 1, demands more investment in staff training, customer amenities and separation from any other General Motors brands at the same store. Some dealers have complained of having to dedicate more of their resources to Cadillac while its lineup is in limbo.
Will Churchill, chairman of the Cadillac National Dealer Council, said the timing means Pinnacle can be a lifeline for dealerships as they await more products. The program is designed to improve dealership profitability at Cadillac, whose retail network "is not the healthiest of the luxury brands," he said.
"We just have to maximize the opportunities that are presented in front of us," said Churchill, dealer principal of Frank Kent Cadillac in Fort Worth, Texas, "which is why Pinnacle plays a very important role for the next year and a half."
De Nysschen, who came to Cadillac from Infiniti in 2014, said dealers can earn more under Pinnacle than they now get from the factory. Cadillac is spending $800 million on the program over its first three years, he said, with any unearned funds being distributed among the dealerships that complied with the standards assigned to them.
Despite the rapid growth in China, Cadillac is committed to revitalizing itself here, de Nysschen said. Even after China becomes larger in terms of sales, he said the U.S. will still generate more profits for the brand because of China's requirement that foreign automakers partner with locally based manufacturers in order to do business there.
"Whatever you make in China, you share," he said. "The U.S. will remain more important for a very long time.