Lincoln is winning the battle against Cadillac
A limited run of 80 units, honoring Continental’s 80th anniversary, will be produced for the 2019 model year, each personalized with a unique badge.
For nearly a decade, a great experiment of sorts has been taking place involving America's two struggling luxury brands, Cadillac and Lincoln.
Seeking to regain their places as stylish, desirable, trend-setting — and profitable — luxury brands, Cadillac and Lincoln have received billions to invest in new products, but each has taken a different path as they rebuild.
At General Motors, Cadillac has been given exclusive platforms and powertrains in an effort to create vehicles that are markedly distinct from lower-priced Buicks and Chevrolets. Cadillac's interiors did not receive the same attention.
At Ford, Lincoln's vehicles have remained tethered to Ford platforms and powertrains. Sure, there's been an all-wheel-drive system here, more power there and a few other minor tweaks, but no unique architectures or powertrains that haven't filtered up from an existing Ford or, after debuting in a Lincoln, down to a Ford vehicle.
When all this was rolling out around 2012, I knew who the winner would be: Cadillac. I couldn't see tech-savvy luxury buyers paying a premium for a warmed-over Ford when they could get exclusive hardware developed specifically for Cadillac.
I was dead wrong. Here's why.
Lincoln has been smarter than Cadillac in several ways. I don't know how Lincoln product development planners developed their strategy, but it has proven the right one: Somehow, Lincoln's research showed that the luxury customers it was targeting simply don't care if the ball joints, shocks, power steering rack and differential are identical to those in work-a-day Fords.
What those customers really care about are the things they see, feel, touch and smell. So, instead of more horsepower, Lincoln poured its resources into designing interiors that are nothing short of exquisite. Nautilus, Aviator, Navigator and Continental interiors don't just have outstanding, attractive designs, but also high-quality materials that give them a very bespoke, hand-crafted look.
The new Lincoln Aviator is the best execution yet and can stake a legitimate claim to having an interior every bit as attractive and special as a Mercedes that costs $100,000 more. The Aviator even smells great inside.
I also don’t know if Lincoln executives listened to consumers and were influenced by media carping, but the brand started restoring names to its vehicles, leaving the tired, confusing and overused letter/number naming convention by the side of the road where it belongs.
I am reminded of what Robert Parker, Lincoln's head of marketing, sales and service, told my colleague Michael Martinez 14 months ago: "When we launched the Continental, I think we underestimated how much affinity there was not only for the name but the fact that people like to associate names with cars."
He continued: "This kind of connection consumers have, especially to American brands and names, we felt like is something Lincoln could own. It's something we've owned in the past."
Cadillac's wrong bets
Meanwhile, Cadillac made some wrong bets.
First — and worst — is the huge investment in cars when the market was shifting to crossovers and SUVs. To be fair, Cadillac isn't the only brand to miss this trend. Jaguar is another luxury brand on the ropes that has suffered badly because of this shift.
But the signs were there for all at GM to see.
Cadillac's biggest hit for the last decade has been the Escalade. Once Cadillac knew there was a market for a Cadillac that wasn't a sedan, coupe or luxury grand touring car, the brand should have poured money into creating a lineup of world-class crossovers and/or SUVs. Instead, we got a series of high performance sedans, such as the ATS-V and CTS-V, most of which were expected to out-German the Germans.
On Sunday, Cadillac introduced the XT6 in Detroit and it didn't take long for automotive media to start comparing it with competitive vehicles. As with the smaller XT4, it looks like Cadillac has missed again. Compared with the Lincoln Nautilus, the XT6's 3.6-liter V-6 engine is well down on power, 310 hp vs. Lincoln's 400. And while most buyers may not care that the engine in the XT6 is basically the same as GMC Acadia, they'd probably like a little extra performance for the brand premium they are being asked to pay to own the Cadillac.
From the photos, the XT6's interior looks well executed, but it doesn't have that custom-made look like the one in the Lincoln Aviator.
After seeing the XT6, Motor Trend's Jonny Lieberman wrote: "I'm worried about Cadillac. Not only is the design of the new XT6 nowhere near as good as the Escalade or the soon to be killed off CT6, it's positively fuddy duddy compared to its crosstown rival, the new Lincoln Aviator." Lieberman also points out the XT6 doesn't offer a hybrid and Cadillac's impressive Super Cruise system is not (yet?) available.
"Super Cruise, the only thing Cadillac's been praised for as of late, is not available, That's stupid," he writes. "Why on earth is a brand's best tech not in its newest product? On what planet does that make sense? And then there's the name. Caddy — you fired de Nysschen, so why stick with the horrible naming conventions? Look up — resurgent Lincoln has figured it out."
U.S. sales and market share for both brands were down in 2018. But there's starting to be some real buzz behind the Lincoln brand. Cadillac not so much.
Here's my one hope for Cadillac getting it right in the future. Mark Reuss is now in charge of the brand. A GM insider complained to me on Sunday that GM's marketing department is where good ideas, passion and common sense dies in the creation, execution and selling of GM's vehicles.
Reuss, now president of GM, has the power to now change that.