Cadillac v. Lincoln: who will win the American Luxury Auto Race?

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Cadillac has lost his Motown mojo. Lincoln finds his own.

This reversal of luck for Detroit dueling luxury brands is one of the most surprising developments in cars. In the 70s, 80s and 90s, these former industrial heavyweights were more like punch fighters than the Germans and then Lexus stole their customers. But Cadillac had held up well lately: he had great success in China, launched well-known sports sedans fighting in Germany, such as the 640 PS CTS-V, and won the baller set with his striking Escalade SUV. The brand was booming.

2020 Cadillac XT5 Premium Luxury. Photo courtesy of Cadillac

Cadillac again loses market share due to a series of missteps. Caddy was late at the crossover SUV party and now wants to catch up – but with the new XT4, XT5 and XT6 models that seem like a bad flashback for General Motors. Her uninspired styling and mediocre performance are unlikely to stand out in a highly competitive class. A hasty move from Cadillac headquarters to SoHo, New York, was a costly distraction and cost the job of Johan de Nysschen, the high-profile manager who had previously led Audi's spectacular rise in America. (Cadillac is now back in the GM group in Detroit). Cadillac even manages to deface a rare bright spot: the semi-autonomous Super Cruise system is superior to Tesla's highly acclaimed AutoPilot in a number of important ways, including an infrared driver surveillance camera and geofenced, lidar-mapped operation (which Tesla lacks). This ensures that the drivers pay attention and keep an eye on the road, even when the car is driving on highways. But Cadillac made its Super Cruise debut with a Lame Duck CT6 sedan that is phasing out of production and mysteriously slow to use on more popular models.

Lamborghini Huracán EVO. Photo courtesy of Lamborghini
Lamborghini Huracán EVO. Photo courtesy of Lamborghini

Then there's Lincoln. Interestingly, Lincoln was created by the same auto pioneer who co-founded Cadillac in 1902, Henry Leland. He resigned from Cadillac in 1917 and founded Lincoln – named after the first president he voted for – to build Liberty aircraft engines during World War I. Ford plucked the company out of post-war bankruptcy in 1922 and built it into a power plant.

If you prefer a European or Asian luxury model, you'll be forgiven for not keeping up with Lincoln. It's been almost 60 years since President Kennedy was murdered in his sleek, bespoke 1961 Lincoln Continental sedan, and the news hasn't gotten much better since then. Lincoln's became a sad testament to "badge engineering," one of the dirtiest words in car design. They were lightly camouflaged Fords with poor quality leather and other cosmetic enhancements. As with Cadillac, who suffered from his own disgrace – including the infamous Cimarron sedan based in Chevy Cavalier – not all was Lincoln's fault. Ford was an absent parent company that lacked the luxury offspring of the investment it needed to build legitimate luxury cars. It didn't help that Lincoln's latest products were littered with unforgettable alphanumeric names like MKX and MKC that even auto journalists couldn't keep up with.

2020 Lincoln Aviator. Photo courtesy of Lincoln

But this seems to be a crucial moment for Lincoln. The current Continental and other sedans are doomed to fail, as is Ford, which drops every traditional four-door car apart from the venerable Mustang. But the brand is finally doing what it could have been doing all the time: playing its American way instead of running away from it. These include boldly streamlined outsides and shamelessly soft, sparkling cabins that would suit the suits of mad Men, Lincoln's Cosseting Top Line seats offer 30 different motorized adjustment options, from massage functions to separate pillow extensions for the left and right thighs. Models such as the medium-sized Aviator SUV only lack the Scotch carafe.

This eye-catching Aviator benefits from a classic rear-wheel drive platform (with additional all-wheel drive) and a motor that is mounted lengthways instead of sideways as in front-wheel drive models. This gives the Lincoln a sense of movement and elegant proportionality that is rare in bulky vehicles family SUVs. And where Cadillac's medium-sized XT5 competitor is content with a V-6 with 310 HP and naturally aspirated engine, the Lincoln gets a creamy V-6 with 400 HP and two turbochargers, the most powerful standard engine in its class. A plug-in hybrid version brings this to 494 hp.

SUV 2020 Jeep Gladiator Overland. Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
SUV 2020 Jeep Gladiator Overland. Photo courtesy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Since it's a brand that has been on vacation for essentially three decades, Lincoln is struggling to lure younger, import-promoting buyers to retailers. The strategy of conquering a niche that is separate from the Germans therefore seems wise, especially when practical SUVs dominate global sales. This niche is more about old school lightness, comfort and technology than sporty performance.

As a performance junkie, it pains me to say that, but most people don't buy luxury SUVs to drive through corners. Instead, they attach great importance to space, pampering and the latest technical and security features. A prestigious emblem helps – ask Mercedes-Benz or BMW – but Lincoln knows that it will take time and competitive products to restore its sluggish reputation.

2020 Lincoln Corsair. Photo courtesy of Lincoln

The latest addition is the Corsair, a compact SUV that is as quiet as a typical Mercedes and full of technology. An optional system eliminates the need for a conventional ignition key, and drivers can lock, unlock, remote start the vehicle using a smartphone, or share security codes to help family or friends do the same. And while the Corsair shares its platform with the mainstream Ford Escape, most people would never guess from the appealing design or interior, just as Audi brilliantly managed to hide the common Volkswagen roots of its cars.

The names of these new Lincolns are also more impressive: Navigator, Nautilus, Aviator, Corsair, instead of a confusing tangle of letters. And where Cadillac continues to sway on the electric front, Lincoln is working on an all-electric SUV based on the Ford Mustang Mach E, one of the breakout hits at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show.

porsche
porsche

Lincoln's comeback offer is by no means certain, but the early signs are promising. Thanks to the new models, Lincoln sales increased nearly 12 percent in the third quarter of 2019, while Ford brand sales decreased 5.4 percent. The brand, which was named after our 16th US President, was on the right track for about 110,000 sales this year. That is a fraction of the approximately 350,000 cars that Mercedes-Benz will drive and behind Cadillacs around 155,000 sales. However, Cadillac's share of the US luxury market continues to decline. And by finding a door that his dithering competitor has left wide open – with more and more distinctive SUVs than Cadillac – Lincoln seems to have the leap against his rival in Detroit in 2020.

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