Cadillac debuts 1st of 4 new crossovers

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

In its battle for luxury relevance against Germany’s top automakers, Cadillac has forged some of the best sedans in the world: the 2013 North American Car of the Year ATS, Car & Driver Top 10 pick CTS, and the luxurious cutting-edge CT6.

Yet when the all-new, 2017 XT5 crossover debuts in showroom’s later this month, Cadillac will still boast only one crossover at a time when sport utility vehicles are the hottest vehicles on the planet.

While General Motors and other Detroit automakers have pioneered SUVs — bringing record profits — Cadillac has been conspicuously absent at the party. As a result GM’s luxury automaker has struggled to gain market share.

“When I discussed it with product planning, they looked at me with a bit of puzzlement and said: ‘There is no company in the world with a wider range of crossovers than GM,’ ” recounts Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen, who took over the iconic brand in 2014. “The problem is, that doesn’t include Cadillac.”

With XT5, that is about to change. Cadillac plans four new crossovers (including the XT5) by 2020. Built on an all-new platform that will be the backbone for future product, the mid-size XT5 also replaces the outgoing SRX — Cadillac’s best-selling vehicle — with a new XT nomenclature for SUVs.

Leading the charge is de Nysschen, who is remaking Cadillac within GM as an autonomous brand.

“It’s been the smallest brand in a giant corporation,” said de Nysschen in Los Angeles where the XT5 was being previewed. “Without 100 percent focus on the luxury brand, it tends to get consumed by the needs of the big brands.”

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelly Blue Book, said Cadillac is reversing its 25 percent sales slide in the last decade.

“In recent years it’s been all about putting out fires at GM,” says Brauer. “In that world, Cadillac just doesn’t rank as high. (GM) had to their get most important divisions sorted first. In that race, GMC and Chevy were more important — and they needed leadership for Cadillac.”

De Nysschen has been here before. In 2004 he was given the job making Audi a focused, luxury brand apart from its Volkswagen mother ship.

“There is nobody at Audi who also works on VW,” he says. “They have dedicated resources. They spend their entire working day planning for utter and complete annihilation of the competition.”

“I was one of the original Audi brand warriors,” continues de Nysschen, recalling VW CEO Ferdinand Piech’s shakeup of the company when he took over in the early 1990s. “In the mid-’80s, Audi was like Opel, it was nothing special. Piech ... gave Audi the autonomy it needed and said: ‘Go for it.’ When I came over to the U.S. in 2004, (it) was the last major market to set up the brand separation.”

Since then, Audi’s U.S. sales have more than doubled on the strength of its SUV growth. In 2015 Q3, Q5, and Q7 crossover sales were up 30 percent, leading a record 202,202 in Audi unit sales.

De Nysschen has brought that focus to Cadillac. “(It) explains why we’ve decided to go to New York,” he says “Because the luxury market is different than the mainstream market. Autonomy, move to New York, focus on the luxury market.”

Despite the change in focus and crossover nomenclature, de Nysschen still sees a market for Cadillac’s big, truck-based Escalade ute.

“How does Escalade fit into the master plan at Cadillac in such a way as you don’t end up undermining the very things that have made it so successful?” he asks rhetorically. “We have found a solution. “It will also represent progress in terms on technology and sophistication. We want to ratchet it up because there is room between the XT5 and Escalade for another vehicle. Maybe two.”

With his team now firmly ensconced in the hip SoHo neighborhood of New York City, de Nysschen is bullish on Cadillac’s future.

“In the last 12 months they’ve made massive progress,” he says. “I consider Cadillac on a whole the most underrated brand on the market.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.