I’ve been kicking around in the retail-car business 36 years and just celebrated my 65th birthday. It is hard to believe my Medicare card came in the mail.
More than 5,000 pins on my map and 5 million frequent-flier miles later, it’s fair to say I’ve been there, done that and seen most of it.
From experience, I can tell you it’s about to get really good again for some auto brands that have been struggling.
Can Detroit regain the hearts and minds of the upscale, educated and affluent buyer by offering product, sales environment, dealership experience and service on par with Mercedes-Benz,, Audi and Lexus?
Apparently Sergio Marchionne has other priorities with the non-luxury direction he’s taking- . There are no visible signs Chrysler aspires to jump into the luxury market in the foreseeable future.
On the other hand,’ Cadillac and ’s Lincoln brands are seriously positioning themselves to get in the game. It has been a long time since I’ve heard anything described as “The Cadillac” of its kind.
Cadillac and Lincoln need to focus on four things to regain a big chunk of American luxury market share. They are:
- Dealer commitment.
- Auto maker commitment.
- Quality, styling and performance of the product.
- Winning over the upscale buyer.
The last item is the biggest obstacle. Some affluent consumers have a snobbish prejudice against domestic luxury cars. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. Right now, the timing could not be better to reverse those sentiments and win back those customers.
The premium smaller-car market will soar over the next decade, as prospective buyers seek performance, efficiency, upgraded accessories and smart styling in a smaller package.
What we’ll see is a clean slate, because all auto makers, the Germans and Japanese included, must totally reinvent and redesign products to compete in this sector.
American luxury brands have a realistic shot to occupy a seat at the table, maybe even sit at the head of it.
Cadillac has made significant advances in image, perception, prestige and engineering. At the recent Detroit auto show, it introduced the new ATS to compete against the3 Series, a universal target for all other luxury auto makers.
The ATS is a great-looking car, even though I hate the idea of identifying American cars by letters rather than names. I have said that repeatedly aboutand GM. Stop trying to be so much like the other guys. Have your own identity.
After writing a skeptical WardsAuto column about Lincoln, Jim Farley, Ford vice president-global marketing, invited me to visit the Lincoln product-development “laboratory” in Dearborn, MI.
I was given a guided tour by Max Wolff, an edgy designer who formerly worked for Cadillac. He showed me the working Lincoln concept products beyond 2015.
Say what you will, these guys are serious about regaining a world-class luxury-quality-performance image and recognized status. A refreshed ’13 MKZ midsize sedan debuts this spring.
At the Detroit auto show, Lincoln showed a concept MKZ that could go into production. It’s a show-stopper. I can tell you, it’s only the beginning.
That said, I still have serious issues and reservations about the financial commitment Lincoln and Cadillac are asking of their dealers, considering the under-performance of the franchises in the past decade.
Both manufacturers need to sell the dealers on the integrity of their commitment and financially step up with the dealers for facility upgrades and education in a new culture.
Dealership cappuccino machines and Wi-Fi lounges do not sell cars. Inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears, know-it-all field representatives performing heavy-handed inspections will only serve to alienate dealers.
Some dealers already are skeptical because of the auto makers’ checkered past of failing to follow through with what they start.
On the other hand, I would urge Cadillac and Lincoln dealers to get on board and make a commitment with the manufacturers. There really are only two choices in my world with anything I do or ask others to do: “Are you in or are you out?”
Jim Ziegler, president of Ziegler Supersystems, is a trainer, commentator and public speaker on dealership issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.