Mark Phelan: General Motors lacks vision for what Cadillac should become

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aril 23, 2018

DETROIT ó Just ask former Cadillac boss Johan de Nysschen.

Most of the vehicles Caddy sells today are as good or better than anything other luxury brands offer. The brand just introduced a breakthrough technology: Super Cruise, a major step toward safe self-driving cars.

Despite that, Cadillacís U.S. sales are unimpressive, declining steadily since before de Nysschen took the helm in mid-2014. The brandís been unable to generate buzz, largely because General Motors repeatedly misread where the market is headed and what luxury buyers want.

Thatís the Cadillac Conundrum: It sells great vehicles, but not in the segments customers crave.

Expect GM to use the leadership change to obscure a more basic problem: a lack of vision for what the brand should become. De Nysschen, who left GM abruptly last week over "philosophical differences," will probably get a lot of the blame.

Heís an easy target. De Nysschen arrived after an undistinguished stint running Nissanís Infiniti luxury brand and was immediately associated with the silly decision to relocate Cadillac HQ to New York, a boondoggle GM committed to before hiring him.

In many ways, de Nysschen was exactly what Cadillac needed, but he mixed with GMís culture like oil and water. The lanky South African was flamboyant, loved the spotlight, stepped on other executivesí toes and talked freely about product plans to obscure the fact that Cadillacís model line was cadaverously thin compared with other global luxury brands.

Still, de Nysschen was a good soldier. He took the heat for years of falling sales, never pointing his finger at the real culprit: product planning decisions made before he was hired that locked Cadillac out of the historic boom in SUV sales.

On top of that, Cadillacís long-lived design theme probably should have been replaced one or two vehicles ago, but instead the vital XT4 compact SUVís recent debut was met with many "looks like the XT5" yawns.

Despite all that, de Nysschen kept the ship afloat. He concentrated on the booming Chinese market rather than the cutthroat sales race in America, and took on the thankless job of selling Cadillac dealers on Project Pinnacle, which changed how Cadillac evaluates and compensates dealers.

After four years on the job, de Nysschen was about to see the fruit of his labors. Instead, GM threw Cadillac back into turmoil by ousting him just before the flood of new vehicles de Nysschen kept promising arrives.

Cadillac will look better this time next year, for reasons that have nothing to do with de Nysschenís departure or new brand boss Steve Carlisleís arrival.

A new version of Cadillacís strongest and most profitable vehicle, the Escalade SUV, arrives in 2019. The brand will finally launch a compact SUV this year, when the XT4 belatedly gets it into one of the marketís hottest segments. A bigger SUV to competes with hotties like the Volvo XC90 and Audi Q7 should debut early in 2019. Itís expected to be called the XT6 or 7.

Donít be fooled, though, the coming bump in sales does not mean GM has remedied the blind spot in Cadillac product planning. The new Escalade, XT4 and three-row XT-whatever will give Cadillac three of a kind, a strong hand but not a winner. Cadillac needs a royal flush, five or more products that anticipate what buyers want, and surprise them with more than they expected.

GM must create an exciting vision for its luxury brand.

Changing brand bosses and moving brand HQ from Detroit to New York ó and soon, I expect, back, a move that will only create more turmoil and waste time ó wonít do that.

Johan de Nysschen was not the problem. Getting rid of him wonít be the answer.