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They're Back: Cadillac and Lincoln Unveil New Luxury Sedans

Cadillac and Lincoln begin the battle to rebuild their once-lofty roles in the high-line automotive market.
Image: Ford Motor Co. unveils the Lincoln Continental concept car at an event ahead of the New York International Auto Show in New York
Ford Motor Co. unveils the Lincoln Continental concept car at an event ahead of the New York International Auto Show in New York March 30, 2015. BRENDAN MCDERMID / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Luxury automakers have unleashed a flood of new products at shows around the world in recent months. And the season will wrap up with the unveiling of such new models as the popular Lexus RX crossover, as well as the $205,000 Range Rover SVAutobiography at the New York Auto Show this week.

But two of Detroit’s luxury brands -- Cadillac and Lincoln -- are likely to capture much of the spotlight in the Big Apple as they roll out new flagships they hope will begin the process of rebuilding their once-lofty roles in the high-line automotive market.

Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln brand has been giving a select group of journalists a sneak peek at the new Continental sedan ahead of the N.Y. Auto Show’s two-day media event. Cadillac has been only a wee bit more secretive about its own new flagship, dubbed the CT6.

“Each of these makers is in a different stage of identifying themselves and who they think their target customers are,” says David Sullivan, a senior analyst with market research firm AutoPacific Inc.

Cadillac and Lincoln largely dominated the luxury market in the post-war years, but a series of ill-conceived moves and poorly executed products began eating away at their preeminence as the new millennium approached. Today, says Sullivan, “they’re little more than farm teams” compared to “major league” players such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz and, to a lesser degree, Toyota’s Lexus division.

Cadillac began rebuilding itself a decade ago with products like the original CTS sedan. Lincoln, however, continued to lose direction -– and momentum -- notes Sullivan, because former CEO Alan Mullaly “wasn’t onboard.” But his successor, Mark Fields, has begun providing much-needed resources to Lincoln, as the launch of the Continental is meant to illustrate.

“Each of these makers is in a different stage of identifying themselves and who they think their target customers are.”

Technically, it’s a concept vehicle, but “the concept is a pretty strong hint of what the production vehicle will look like” when it rolls into showrooms next year, said Lincoln President Kumar Galhotra during a Sunday night interview.

The choice of the Continental nameplate is significant for several reasons. It breaks from the alpha nomenclature used for other Lincoln vehicles such as the smaller MKZ sedan and MKC crossover. And it harkens back to the original Continental designed for Edsel Ford, the founder of the brand, in 1939. For the next six decades, Continental was the most luxurious model in its line-up.

As for Cadillac, the CT6 fills much the same premium luxury niche, and is meant to go head-to-head with the likes of the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7-Series. Among other things, it will offer a 400-horsepower twin-turbo V-6, and is expected to add a high-performance V-Series model that could push into the 600-hp range.

That’s where Cadillac and Lincoln, who long seemed intent on duplicating each others’ moves, now differ. The new Lincoln Continental is being billed as “elegant,” rather than “aggressive” luxury, according to Galhotra.

Different approaches

The two makers have very different approaches, according to Stephanie Brinley, an analyst with consulting firm IHS Automotive. Both are targeting very unique experiences, something she said is becoming one of the differentiators in the luxury market.

But she also cautions that it will be a challenge for Cadillac and Lincoln to get back on the radar of U.S. buyers. That’s such a serious challenge that Caddy President Johan de Nysschen has begun to move his management team to a new headquarters in New York City, where, he hopes, to be more in tune with American luxury buyers.

Ironically, says Brinley, it’s likely that China will determine the long-term viability of the two U.S. luxury brands. Lincoln only began selling cars there last year, while Cadillac is still ramping up a presence in what is expected to soon become the world’s largest luxury car market. The two new flagships coming to New York are expected to play well in the Chinese market, where a sizable number of luxury car buyers like to be chauffeured.

Senior executives at both Cadillac and Lincoln acknowledge it will take time to rebuild. Cadillac sold about 244,000 cars in North America in 2005, a peak for the new millennium. That slipped to 181,000 last year, though it began building volume in China. Lincoln sales plunged from 128,000 to 101,000 during the same period, with China only now coming on stream. The two brands combined barely sold as many vehicles as BMW did in North America last year.

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