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Cadillac Hopes Roadster Will Rev Up Younger Buyers

August 30, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Cadillac, trailing competitors such as Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz in the growing--and growing younger--luxury market, plans to fight back with a series of cars and trucks based on an edgy concept car called the Evoq.

The first entry in the field will be a redesign of the Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle, but the star of Caddy's stable is a two-seat, retractable hardtop roadster scheduled for public release in 2002.

It is coming just in time, analysts say.

"Cadillac's competition isn't really Lexus and Mercedes-Benz; it's the Cadillac Casket Co. in downtown Detroit," said Brett Smith, senior researcher at the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Although General Motors Corp.'s luxury division seems to be on the right track with several of its upcoming vehicles, Smith said, "there is a strong concern: Can Cadillac make converts after losing a generation to the Europeans and Japanese?"

Cadillac has been fighting the rapid aging of its customer base by loading its big cars with high-tech instrumentation and wireless telecommunications, information and entertainment systems. But it still lacks something to attract the under-50 crowd to its cars--even after the much-hyped, but thus far unspectacular, introduction of "the Cadillac that zigs," the Catera, in 1996 as a '97 model.

"That's largely because [Cadillac] has such fantastic competition," Smith said. "Lexus, Audi, Mercedes--they all make spectacular cars with reputations as drivers' vehicles, and that's something Caddy has not been able to achieve. They are going to have to rebuild their lineup and their image, and that's not going to be easy."

Cadillac's general manager, Michael J. O'Malley, won't argue.

"If you look at how we stack up to competitors, we still have a ways to go," he said earlier this month at the introduction of the new roadster and Escalade SUV before the Pebble Beach Concourse d'Elegance, a classic auto show near Monterey that pulls exactly the diverse crowd of moneyed automotive enthusiasts Cadillac wants to woo back into the fold.

The company's once-seeming stranglehold on the luxury market has all but been erased by competitors from Europe and Japan and, most recently, by archrival Lincoln, Ford Motor Co.'s domestic luxury brand and part of a Ford Premier Auto Group that also incudes Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo Cars.

Where Cadillac owned 51% of the U.S. luxury car market at its peak in 1976, competition and GM's own sluggish response to changing customer tastes have cut that share to just 13% so far this year.

DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus both outsold Cadillac last year. And though the margins have narrowed to just a few thousand vehicles, Lincoln and Mercedes are ahead of Caddy through July of this year.

All are fighting for dominance in a worldwide luxury car and truck market with an estimated demand of 4 million vehicles a year.

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GM hopes that a sports car with all that Caddy technology--plus a big engine, muscular body and a flip top by the same German firm that did the smoothly operating fold-away hardtop for Mercedes-Benz's SLK230--will do the trick.

"They've been trying to get younger buyers, particularly people in the 'dot-com' crowd, and we're seeing a renaissance of the sports car, so bringing out the Evoq as a production model roadster is a very good idea," said Jacques da Costa, senior manager of product research as J.D. Power & Associates, the Agoura Hills automotive market research firm.

The last Cadillac roadster, the Allante, left the market in 1993 after disappointing buyers who found that its sleek, Italian-styled body couldn't make up for less-than-sporty ride and handling.

Cadillac says it probably won't call the new roadster the Evoq because people have too hard a time wrapping their tongues around the word. For now, the official designation is simply "luxury roadster."

It will be introduced in August 2002 as a 2003 model, said Jay Spenchian, brand manager for the luxury roadster and its stablemate, the Catera.

The Catera, a sports sedan that has been a lackluster performer for Caddy, also is getting a new body for the 2003 model year. Its design, in fact, was the basis for the Evoq roadster concept. Spenchian said the new Catera, which has not been shown publicly, will "be close" to a four-door version of the roadster.

Two other members of the Caddy family--a rear-wheel-drive Seville and the 2002 version of the Yukon-derived Escalade--also will share the angular styling cues introduced on the Evoq concept.

The novel idea of a Cadillac truck is attracting some younger buyers who like the idea of hauling ski boats, horse trailers or just the kids and groceries in Cadillac luxury. Fully 30% of Escalade buyers are under 35, said Cadillac spokesman Mike Albano. In addition to its new shape, the Escalade gets an exclusive 6.0-liter, 345-horsepower V-8 engine and electronic stability control.

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