Future Curbside Classics: Cadillac BLS – Budget Luxury Sedan? Blingy Little Saab?

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A compact Cadillac sedan and wagon, designed and built in Sweden, sharing a platform with a Saab, available with a diesel, never offered for sale in North America? It sounds incredible, but it’s true. This is the Cadillac BLS.

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Since the 1990s, GM has always had vague notions of expanding Cadillac’s presence in Europe. At first, the main hurdle was a lack of suitable product: V8-powered, front-wheel-drive boats had limited appeal in the European market. The 1998 Seville STS was a cautious step towards an appropriate entry, with a shorter overall length than its predecessor, competent dynamics and right-hand-drive availability.

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photo courtesy of Rudolf Stricker

When the 2000s rolled around, a much larger range of Cadillacs were exported to Europe. Many of the new Art & Science cars, including the CTS, STS and SRX, made the trip across the pond. Unfortunately, a small dealer network – just nine dealers, for example, in the UK – meant sales were meager. To add insult to injury, some Caddys weren’t even available in RHD for the not-insignificant UK market.

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Pitching an American luxury brand was always going to be an uphill struggle in a conservative market like Europe, where the established German brands are dominant. Perhaps it would have been imprudent for GM to spend more money on marketing and distributing Cadillacs in such a market. Still, GM did spend money tooling up a Caddy specifically for the European market; even burgeoning Cadillac market China has yet to receive an entirely new model for themselves, the closest being a revised STS.

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If the BLS looks like it shares hard points with the Saab 9-3, you would be right. The BLS was simply a rebodied 9-3, using the same roof and windows, and manufactured in the same Trollhättan plant. Total development cost was $140 million, invoiced to Saab; an interesting strategy, considering Saab was basically financing a direct rival to one of its two core models.  Exports were limited to a few markets: South Korea, South Africa, Mexico and select Middle Eastern markets.

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Powertrains were carried over from the 9-3. A refined and punchy 1.9 turbodiesel was available in two states of tune: a 150hp/240 ft-lb unit, and an equally efficient twin-turbo unit with 180hp and 295 ft-lbs. These diesels were also available in the Alfa Romeo 159, Fiat Croma and a multitude of Opels. Petrol units consisted of a 2.0 turbo, again in two states of tune (175hp/195 ft-lbs and 210hp/220 ft-lbs) and a flagship 2.8 V6 turbo (250hp, 258 ft-lbs). Each engine was mated to a choice of three transmissions, a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters (five-speed in the 2.0T) or a six-speed manual transmission.

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Although the BLS boasted sharper styling than its Saab counterpart, the suspension was tuned to be softer and more compliant. The flagship 2.8 V6 turbo was hardly the rabid fire-breather one might expect, instead being a comfortable and refined highway cruiser albeit one with a delightfully burbling engine note; 0-60 was accomplished in a shade under 7 seconds. Unfortunately, no BLS was what you could call a compelling steer: torque steer, body roll and indirect steering all conspired to make the BLS less than entertaining to drive.

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The interior was more luxurious than the 9-3, with real wood trim and a center stack design resembling the 2007 SRX. There were still some pain points, namely switchgear and some plastics that fell short of the class standard, but the overall ambience was elevated over its Swedish sibling. The interior was also more spacious than many of its rivals, offering genuine rear seat comfort and a split/fold function for added versatility.

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Critics saw the BLS as no challenge to the established Germans, but praised it as an appealing and stylish alternative with good value for money, striking looks and a comfortable ride. Prices undercut key rivals like the BMW 3-Series; UK-market BLS models generally undercut an equivalent Bimmer by around £2000, and in Germany the BLS diesel was €3000 cheaper than a 3-Series diesel and €3000 more expensive than an Opel Vectra with the same engine. The BLS only carried a slight premium above the 9-3, too. Unfortunately, buyers stayed away in droves: just 3,257 were produced in 2006 and only 2,772 the following year. In 2007, despite the arrival of the handsome wagon, just 282 BLS models were sold in Germany; a dismal figure in a market with annual sales hovering around the 3 million mark.

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For 2008, Cadillac reconfigured the BLS lineup, still offering a large range of engines but only one level of specification, Elegance. Prices rose slightly (around £1500 pounds in the UK market), but thousands of dollars of extra equipment was added. All BLS sedans and wagons came with standard leather trim, heated front seats, a Bose Surround Sound 11-speaker audio system, dual-zone climate control, park assist and StabiliTrak.

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Sales didn’t rise, though, and the writing was on the wall. In 2009, the BLS was axed; 7,365 units had been produced since its launch in 2006. Limited advertising certainly didn’t help the junior Caddy’s European run, a glaring omission considering Cadillac’s niche presence in the market and European consumers’ minuscule awareness of the marque.

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GM echoed the mistakes of crosstown rival Ford in bringing its entry-level executive sedan to market. Ford’s entry, the Jaguar X-Type, used the same platform that underpinned hundreds of thousands of humble Ford Mondeos across the continent. Although the BLS was based on the near-luxury 9-3, the Swede was in turn based heavily on the Opel Vectra, resulting in an acceptable but hardly compelling entry. Furthermore, critics generally agreed a Mondeo was better to drive than a Vectra, and thus probably a better base for a luxury sport sedan.

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Cadillac also wasn’t going up against just the Germans, as there were plenty of other rivals vying for buyers’ attention. Lexus’ IS offered rear-wheel-drive dynamics and Japanese dependability. Alfa’s 159 offered a more compelling brand image with European buyers, as well as breathtaking styling. And of course, the greatest enemy is often the one at home: Saab’s 9-3 competed in the very same segment.

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The BLS had been designed without North American sales being a consideration, so no attempt was made to import it. Despite its larger size, the CTS was already available with MSRPs starting at around $30k. The BLS would have had to undercut that by a few thousand – a challenge given fluctuating exchange rates – to be successful. And if it did sell at such prices, those sales would have likely involved lower profit margins and possibly come at the expense of CTS sales. After all, the BLS’ interior may not have been perfect, but it was vastly better-looking than the first-generation CTS interior and quite roomy for the car’s smaller footprint.

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Axing the BLS was a wise decision. Cadillac realized it wasn’t making any headway in the European market, and the BLS’ underpinnings were fast becoming dated. Additionally, GM’s bankruptcy readjusted priorities. Fighting for market share in an intensely competitive and conservative market with a brand that had yet to establish any real equity in said market was, in the grand scheme of things, hardly important. It was certainly not as important as getting core products like the Chevrolet Cruze to market, or releasing image-building products like the Volt.

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One wonders why GM fashioned such a quick solution to a product gap. Their financial situation was getting precarious, yes, but there were plenty of projects in the works at the time including a new V8 engine, allegedly a suite of Zeta products, and new Saturn and Pontiac models. Why introduce the BLS rather than speed along development of a compact, rear-wheel-drive model like Cadillac’s eventual entry-level executive, the ATS?

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Analyzing many of GM’s product decisions in the early/mid-2000s leaves a lot of similarly unanswered questions. One mustn’t forget, either, the series of decisions GM made that affected Saab. After moderate success in the 1990s and fledgling profitability, GM turned off the R&D spigot and delayed replacements for Saab’s two core products, the 9-3 and 9-5, and mystifyingly tried to plug holes in the lineup with half-baked cars like the 9-2X, 9-7X and the aborted 9-6X (a rebadged Subaru Tribeca, in case you hadn’t heard). The BLS, thus, represents another decision made at the expense of Saab (literally, as they paid for its development) and makes it appear that GM just didn’t know how to manage two luxury brands concurrently. Saab eventually received competitive products – the 9-4X and replacement 9 -5 – but by then it was too late, as Saab was one of several brands put out to pasture during bankruptcy proceedings.

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The BLS, thus, has become a curious footnote. Cadillac now has a consistently compelling lineup, but its European presence has receded. With its financial situation in a better state, perhaps its time to go and put up a fight in Europe again.

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With the ATS, Cadillac has a compact sports sedan that doesn’t have to sell on just style and equipment. One competitive threat has been eliminated in the interim, too: Saab isn’t around to battle with for market share.