(first posted 12/17/2015)
Dear General Motors,
Many of your business decisions during the 1980s and 1990s, at least in North America, were questionable at best. However, by the 2000s and even as you skated towards bankruptcy, you seemed to be getting your act together. Still, you made one of your most bone-headed product launches of the 2000s with this: the 2006 Cadillac DTS.
The 2000s were perhaps your most creative time since the 1960s. In the ’60s, you prided yourself on engineering experimentation: the Rope-Drive Tempest, rear-engine Corvair, Unitized Power Package Toronado/Eldorado. None of those really amounted to much but damn it, you tried anyway.
After a disastrous 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s saw you implement rampant cost-cutting to restore your ailing fiscal health. By the 2000s though, you realised product was what was really important. Boy, did you have a lot of interesting product! Not all of it was a success, but you did it anyway. Chevrolet received the HHR SS, SSR, Trailblazer SS and Malibu Maxx. Pontiac and Saturn had the Kappa roadsters. You stuffed 5.3 V8s in your front-wheel-drive family sedans.
But Cadillac was where you really seemed to have it together. A daring new design language, a capable rear-wheel-drive platform not shared with any other division, a luxury roadster, a crossover… Just looking at the lineup, you could practically hear the average buyer age dropping. You called it a Breakthrough, and while it wasn’t perfect, it shook up a brand that was becoming too stodgy.
DTS photos courtesy of Brendan Saur
And then you launched this in 2006. You just couldn’t let go of your regular, elderly buyers that were, despite their loyal patronage, killing your luxury brand. You had the oldest buyers in the business and people knew it! Cadillac had become synonymous with “old man’s car”.
Cadillac’s razor-edged new design language could scarcely hide the 2000 DeVille body. It seemed ill at ease with the DeVille’s front-wheel-drive proportions and lengthy front overhang. It arguably looked even more of an old man’s car, a throwback to the 1970s, because it seemed chunkier and less graceful than the DeVille.
The interior was tidied up and was more elegant than the DeVille’s, but it looked much like the related Buick Lucerne’s. You know, the Lucerne that started a good $16k lower than the DTS. And the Lucerne’s interior looked like the W-Body Chevy Impala, which had an opening MSRP of just $20k. Whoops!
Dynamically, the DTS was a monument to the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. A four-speed automatic transmission, albeit a smooth-shifting one, when rivals were using 5, 6 and 7-speed automatics. A creamy smooth and now more reliable Northstar V8 with 275 hp and 295 ft-lbs, when rivals were getting that kind of power out of V6s. Front-wheel-drive, when most rivals had abandoned it.
Critics were somewhat impressed with the DTS’ dynamics. It had a traditional Cadillac ride but didn’t completely embarrass itself in aggressive driving. The DTS Performance even came with a higher-output version of the Northstar, inexplicably detuned from DeVille DTS levels, with 292 hp and 288 ft-lbs. The Performance also came with Magnetic Ride Control, one of GM’s greatest engineering accomplishments of the past few decades, that ensured a surprisingly good ride/handling balance for such a big boat.
The DTS’ size was one of its most pleasing attributes, as it made for a roomy interior that could even be equipped with one of the passenger car market’s last offerings of front bench seats. It was a big, comfortable cruiser, like Cadillacs of yore. And that was why it needed to die.
Variety is the spice of life. Cars like the DTS can be immensely pleasing to drive. Not every car needs to be able to carve corners on the Nürburgring. Bench seats have their benefits. All of these arguments are utterly sound, and have many proponents. But Cadillac was trying to cultivate a new image, and the DTS acted as a homing beacon in Cadillac showrooms for the same-old, old buyers that had become regulars. And this stodgy old sedan sat next to cars like the CTS-V and XLR-V.
Some malign Cadillac’s German-beating aspirations. They point to recent sales declines and say this strategy isn’t working, and that Cadillac should just offer plush, all-American luxury in the vein of their offerings of years ago. Within your ranks, General Motors, I’m sure there are a few executives who still think this. Their fathers probably bought a new Coupe de Ville every couple of years and cruised along comfortably, knowing they had it made because every successful man aspired to own a Cadillac someday. Nothing said success like a Cadillac.
Those executives of yours need to get with the times. The market moved on, and myriad poor products of yours in the 1980s helped shepherd those buyers to the German brands and Lexus. You must have known this when you introduced cars like the Seville STS and Catera. You couldn’t sustain yourself on your old consumer base.
To those executives of yours who think Cadillac should return to cruiser-dom, remember this: the DTS didn’t even sell that well. In 2006, there were 58,224 DTS sedans sold, considerably down from DeVille figures just a few years before. Sales fell around 50% for 2008, and then another 50% or so the year after, with the DTS selling in paltry volumes until it was finally killed after 2011.
The DTS-replacing, front-wheel-drive XTS of 2013 is a comfortable cruiser, too, with a huge trunk. It’s a bit narrower, yes, but it is still spacious. It still rides comfortably, but has a V6 as powerful as the old Northstar and an optional twin-turbo V6 and all-wheel-drive. There’s a tech-laden interior miles ahead of the old DTS cabin, with high-quality materials and excellent build quality. Despite its FWD and lack of a V8, it’s a modern-day Sedan de Ville. And it doesn’t really sell. Despite having a segment almost entirely to itself – the main rivals are pretty much just the Lincoln MKS and Acura RLX – it was outsold by the CTS in 2014, a trend that will probably continue. Besides, with the new CT6 coming on board for 2016, the XTS likely doesn’t have much time left.
General Motors, you probably worry sometimes how long it will take for Cadillac to be considered by luxury car buyers as being on the same level as BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It will take time and money, but by offering world-class dynamics, high levels of quality and distinctive styling, I’m sure you will get there. As a Cadillac fan, I earnestly hope you will get there. But you can’t let something like the DTS happen again. If you fire someone because they are a bad fit for the company, you don’t let them keep coming in to work for several years, making sales calls and using your break room.
The DTS stuck around until 2011! When it finally left, this was what was in the showroom next to it.
When it finally left, the only four-speed automatic transmissions left were in low-end Corollas and a handful of GM products. Even Chevy’s bread-and-butter compact and mid-size offerings had ditched their 4ATs.
The DTS just sat in your showrooms, dated and stodgy, eroding Cadillac’s credibility and slowing the march of progress to a younger, more affluent consumer base. A competent offering but poor fit in 2006 became an embarrassing relic in 2011, and it had the opposite of a halo effect on the brand.
The most frustrating part? You had a better car sitting right under your noses. And you may have been bleeding cash by 2006 – all those niche offerings developed during the decade probably didn’t help – but you actually invested money in tooling up a version of the STS for the Chinese market that would have been a vastly better fit for the Cadillac lineup.
I’ve spoken before about how the STS combined competitive handling with a smooth, Cadillac ride. I also mentioned the Chinese-market SLS, with a 5 inch longer wheelbase and a redesigned interior. Launched in 2007, the SLS was redesigned to address Chinese luxury car buyers’ desire for more luxurious and more spacious rear-seat accommodation.
Lavishly decorated with Pommele Sapelle wood trim and leather surfacing, the SLS cabin was a dramatic improvement over the starker STS cabin.
Rear seats were available with heating, ventilation and massaging functions.
Rumor has it, GM, that you had a Zeta-based Cadillac flagship in the works alongside a new V8 engine (the Ultra), but you had to deep-six both because of your impending bankruptcy. The DTS, thus, was just a placeholder. You know what would have been a better placeholder? The Chinese SLS. A mid/late-2000s Cadillac sedan lineup of CTS, STS and SLS would have been a three-pronged assault on the Germans. It wouldn’t have been perfect – after all, the STS sold about as well as the DTS – but it would not have set back the clock on Cadillac’s renaissance.
But you didn’t think about that, GM. You sold the DTS. For six years. This is the kind of offering you used to sell far too many of: the “great used car”. This car surely only appealed to regular Cadillac buyers, because who else would have spent $40-50k on one when you could have gotten the almost identical Buick Lucerne for cheaper, or a better car from another company? You made a lot of poor product decisions in the 2000s, especially investing in niche products at the expense of your core models. But the Cadillac DTS may be your poorest decision of the decade.