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Cadillac aims high with flashy concept convertible 

The sky’s the limit with the new Cadillac Ciel concept car — or so it might seem with the striking convertible that hints at a future flagship model for the automaker.
Cadillac’s 'Ciel' concept car, shown in prototype form at a show in Carmel, Calif., last week, hints at the brand’s design future.Gm / Wieck

The sky’s the limit with the new Cadillac Ciel concept car — or so it might seem with the striking convertible that hints at the future flagship model under development at the General Motors luxury brand.

It’s been a tough few years for Cadillac, but the once-dominant car brand is intent on regaining the momentum it seemed to have a decade ago. That's when it first introduced the edgy, “Art & Science” design theme meant to differentiate the brand from other luxury nameplates that often have had a tendency to look a bit too much alike.

While the Ciel — which means “sky” in French — has not yet received formal approval, company insiders like GM global design director Ed Welburn are pushing for the prototype, which would position Caddy head-to-head against the best cars offered by luxury segment leaders Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Meanwhile, GM management has already given the go-ahead to a variety of other new Cadillac models that they hope will broaden the brand’s appeal.

“You need a flagship in your portfolio to be successful in the luxury market today,” said Clay Dean, Cadillac’s lead designer.

The Ciel is a hint of what such a car might be. Nearly as long as the big Escalade sport-utility vehicle, the prototype shown in convertible form at last week’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance would likely undergo a number of changes before hitting showrooms. It may first launch in sedan form.

Although the concept offers what Welburn called “a hint of a fin,” Dean’s goal was not to go retro but take the edgy Art & Science theme even more into the future.

The original CTS sedan introduced the styling concept and delivered the first significant bump in demand for the brand in decades. But subsequent products — such as the bigger STS sedan and XLR roadster, which was Caddy’s answer to the classic Mercedes-Benz SL — landed with a thud, leading many to question whether the CTS was a one-shot wonder.

The latest version of that midsize model has again generated good reviews and buyer enthusiasm, and so has a more stylish remake of the SRX crossover. But two strong products can’t carry a brand in today’s luxury market, analysts caution, especially since Cadillac’s lead rivals are undergoing massive product proliferation.

Consider Mercedes. Two decades ago the automaker debated whether to add the small C-Class to its line-up, which then consisted of the mid-luxury E-Class, the big S-Class and the SL roadster. Today, the automaker’s line-up includes the even smaller A- and B-Class offerings, the GLK, the G- and M-Class crossovers, the V-Class van and a long list of sedans and coupes.

“I think they’ve acknowledged they’ve fallen behind,” said Dave Sullivan, an automotive analyst at AutoPacific, referring to Cadillac. “They’re no longer the ‘standard of the world,’ as they’ve long liked to proclaim.”

It’s not that the Detroit brand doesn’t want to regain that image, and new products will be critical to reclaiming the high ground. Alongside the second-generation CTS sedan, Cadillac has added a striking new coupe version, a station wagon and super-high-performance V-Series versions.

Other new vehicles are in the works. Last week, GM officials confirmed they had reversed a previous decision and will now bring the well-reviewed Converj concept to market. The production version of the plug-in hybrid — which will share a powertrain with the mainstream Chevrolet Volt — will be dubbed the ELR.

GM will also add a new small car, tentatively called the ATS, and a replacement for the much-maligned STS that is expected to be marketed as the XTS.

The next CTS, meanwhile, will become slightly larger and more luxurious, taking on products like the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes.

A decision on whether to add Ciel is likely by year’s end, according to Cadillac sources. It would likely take another three years to bring to market what is being referred to internally as the “Omega” vehicle. Few expect to see the over-the-top design of the Ciel — which would be the first production four-door convertible in half a century — but the styling theme, with its signature Cadillac grille, would clearly influence the final product.

Significantly, several company officials stressed that the Omega project is being heavily influenced by potential demand in emerging markets, particularly China, where luxury cars are in high demand. Indeed, that has helped usher in an unlikely turnaround for Caddy’s sibling brand, Buick, which is one of the best-sellers in the booming Asian nation.

Chinese buyers have proved surprisingly picky, in part because many luxury car owners prefer to be chauffeured, so they want plenty of rear seat room and amenities. The CTS was upgraded for Chinese dealers — much as the latest Buick flagship, the Lacrosse, was largely developed to meet the more expansive demands of China’s buyers.

Cadillac has struggled to get into foreign markets in recent decades, particularly Europe, so analyst Sullivan warns “it won’t be easy” to break out of North America in the future. But with a broader array of products, Cadillac officials are hoping they will be better positioned to stand up to the rivals wherever they compete, whether in the home U.S. market, Europe or the new markets that are rapidly becoming the place to be for luxury brands.