Saab vs Cadillac – my conclusions

UPDATE: Just as I’ve posted this, Just-Auto have two articles on Cadillac. The first is about a supposed new model line for EuroCaddy (ka-ching $$$) and the other about GM trying to lift Caddy’s UK sales, which tallied less than 400 in 2006.

The articles are subscription only, so i can’t get to them. If anyone can and there’s some relevant details, please let us know in comments. Cheers.

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Background info:

This whole Saab vs Cadillac mini-series was prompted by a Detroit News story about Cadillac’s flagging fortunes in Europe. My argument was that it must be costing GM millions of dollars to try and promote Cadillac in Europe and that that money would be better spent on developing Saab.

Given the Saab are (or were, at least) often referred to as GM’s ‘global premium brand’ my next item in this discussion asked What Is Premium? What does it mean? Are GM really committed to Saab being a premium brand and if so, how does this differ from Cadillac, who have traditionally been GM’s upper-echelon bookend?

Many of you have chimed in with comments and I think that all together, we’ve managed to round out a good case summary. It’s been great for me becuase stuck here in Australia I can only glean my impressions of Cadillac and the European market from the press coverage that I read and the other input provided by people like you.

I have written to Peter De Lorenzo of AutoExtremist.com and invited him to have a look at the discussions and perhaps address the topic on his site. He agreed to take a look at the discussions but whether he chooses to address the issue is completely up to him. I have no idea what his conclusions could be but he’s extremely well connected and widely read. It’ll certainly make for interesting reading if he does cross the subject.

So. What have we come up with?

I’ll break it down into several sections. All these thoughts have come from you in comments, but I won’t be making attributions as it’ll take too long and interrupt the flow. Please accept my thanks to all for your contributions, however…..

The Stand

Where do Saab and Cadillac stand in the European market?

Well, the first thing is that they’re both more likely to be driven out of the showroom by business lessees rather than private owners. Especially the Saab. The Cadillac range in Europe only has one diesel, the BLS, and that’s a possible starter for business customers too.

The majority of people that actually have to purchase their cars new are buying VW’s, Fords and Opels. The big players in the executive class are, of course, the Germans – Audi, BMW and Mercedes. There’s others too, but lets stick with the biggies for now for simplicity’s sake.

In the US, Saab are pitched against the upperclass Japanese makers and perhaps the lower end of the Europeans. In Europe, however, the Japanese are nowhere near as prevalent. It seems to me that Saab are in that vaguely defined entry-level premium class with Volvo, upper-end VWs and base level BMWs and Audis. The 9-3 is pitched at this class and the 9-5 was intended to go against the bigger models from these same brands.

What of Cadillac, however?

There’s little doubt in my mind that the BLS is pitched at the same area, with perhaps more of an upper-end BMW 3-series focus. The various clippings I’ve read in the press all mention BMW as the intended target for Cadillac.

Is this on track?

I don’t know about you, but I tend to think more of the Mercedes luxury end of the spectrum. If the Germans can be characterised in any way I’d pitch them as having BMW and Audi at the sporting end of the premium class and Mercedes at the luxury end. It’s at this Mercedes end that I’d be placing Cadillac. Big barges with huge engines and the promise of foot massaging and milk bathing luxury, however well delivered or otherwise that may be.

The Trouble

This is all well and good in an ideal world. The luxury and the sporting premium customers would never have to clash and everyone would be happy.

The Trouble is that your average European customer doesn’t seem to equate Cadillac solely with the promise of milk baths. They also associate images of excess, brashness and conspicuous, relentless consumption. And none of these are necessarily good.

Add to that the reputedly washy ride (by European standards) and the lack of a diesel variant in the true Cadillacs they’re trying to sell there, and you have all the ingredients for the sales disaster we’re seeing right now.

Saab, on the other hand, have a definite European identity and last year sold in record numbers. They’re seen as progressive. They’re seen as environmentally friendly (which is an issue there). On the downside, they’re also seen as lacking the true quality and sophistication of their German competition – but their main problem is that they’re Not. Seen. Enough.

Saab’s marketing presence is relatively strong in Great Britain and in its native Sweden, but elsewhere in Europe, the feedback I get is that Saab keep a very low profile. Never mind the dollars spent on developing new vehicles for Cadillac, the money spent on Cadillac’s market presence alone could likely send Saab into record territory every year for the next 5 years.

The Struggle

A few people mentioned something that I think has some merit, and that’s the internal struggle for attention and dollars. i.e. Cadillac, with it’s storied past and a 50ft tailfin shadow, carries a lot of currency in the corridors of power at GM.

Saab is the little European kid that’s new in the neighborhood.

Which side of the fence do you think the average American GM board member is going to place themselves on when that debate is raised?

Here in Australia, when you buy a leg of lamb for roasting, it comes with the bone cut in half and folded back to make the package more compact. This has been the practice since time immemorial. Why? Because way back, the average oven had a very small cooking area and the roast could only fit in when it was compact. Despite the average modern oven having a door opening of about 2 square feet or so, the leg is still cut because that’s they way we’ve always done it.

When GM are fighting bankruptcy, trying to save a crucial parts supplier that’s already in bankruptcy, fending off the possibility of a UAW strike as well as the small matter of Toyota stealing their coveted ‘world biggest’ bragging rights – who are they going to turn to in the premium sector?

The familiar US brand undergoing some resurgence or the small European with plenty of potential?

They go with what they know, because that’s the way they’ve always done it.

There’s also the small matter of GM being controlled largely in Detroit. Sure, GM Europe has a lot of sway, but for how long are the guys in Europe going to fight against something that the big bosses really want, when it’s those same big bosses that hold many of the keys to the kingdom?

The Denial

As mentioned earlier, all would be well if Saab and Cadillac had those distinctly sporting and luxurious vehicles to take on the opposition.

But they don’t.

Whilst Saab is recognised as a competent performer in it’s mainstream European markets, Cadillac is largely seen as a marque for footballers only, i.e. heaps of money, little taste and concern for outward displays of ego.

The BLS has been billed as quite a decent car in terms of build quality and value. Which would be great if it wasn’t a Saab and competing directly for the same dollars, which it is.

Cadillac’s other offerings for the Euro market are basically US spec cars shipped over to take advantage of favourable currency exchanges. They’ve been largely ripped by the discerning European motoring press, the latest being Car Magazine’s disembowelment of the Escalade, which in their words “disappoints in every single area”.

The Conclusion

This car-making business is a long term proposition. In the long term, and in an ideal world, there is room for Cadillac and Saab in the same European market.

In the real world, however, I’ll stick with my contention that this EuroCaddy experiment is at best a poorly executed half-thought by a traditional board and at worst, a diversion of massive amounts of funds that would be better spent developing a European brand like Saab to better compete against its natural competitors.

Saab is a brand with a rich heritage and one that still has some currency in the European market that’s mostly positive. A new 9-5 with a German-spanking drivetrain and Scandinavian interior would do wonders for the brand. Similarly, a premium hatch would allow for an entry point to appeal to the younger, progressive and independent buyer (I believe Saab’s average customer age is around 42).

I find it hard to believe that those two new models haven’t been stalled somewhat by the bid to promote Cadillac in Europe.

Here’s to hoping (aren’t I the eternal optimist) that Saab’s development into the future can be true to its traditions and not compromised by GM’s need to leave a ceiling in place for Cadillac to mess up.

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6 Comments

  1. Amen to that!

    I’m thinking more and more that maye Saab shouldn’t try to be premium the way it is today. Premium could easily be something old and conservative, and look what’s happening in California with all the talk for the envronment. What a market for a BioPower 9-3 Cab!

    Maybe Saab should just be different with advanced technology and environmentally friendly. I’m thinking more and more of Saab as the Subaru of Europe.

  2. Swade,

    You’re right on in the assessment that both Cadillac and Saab have history/potential and not much in terms of immediate competition to the Bavarians and Japanese.

    You’re still dodging the bullet in terms of positioning: Car&Driver has ripped apart the Escalade but is all raves about the CTS. Also, Car has never had a good word to say about Saab (except for the 9-3 convertible). To compare apples and apples, compare the CTS and the 9-3.

    The Arts and Science theme from the Cadillac Sixteen concept has really rejuvenated the brand in the same way they are attempting to do so with the Aero X and Saab. Nobody in the US considering a G35 or 3 series would have considered a Cadillac in 2003, but they do now. Right now, they do not consider the 9-3 either, but who knows, after the reskin and Epsilon II things could be different???

  3. Once again we have a well thought out and eloquent comment piece from Swade.

    Excellent reading.

    I do believe that the USA-centric approach to running Saab is detrimental to the marque.

    Carl-Peter Forster is indicating that exciting things are happening at Saab and to be patient. That’s all well and good. Back in 2000 Peter Augustsson said that Saab would be launching five new concepts in the next five years.

    We had:
    2000 Saab 9-X
    2001 Saab 9-3X
    2002 Michael Mauer quits and leaves for Porsche.

    Unfortunately I do not see a way out for Saab whilst GM comes to Europe to flog a dead horse called Cadillac.

    400 Cadillac sales in UK on 2006. Way to go, GM!

  4. Saab is NOT a premium brand and the fact the GM flounders and mettles in its development (hiding plug in hybrids for there own Detroit revel of the VOLT!) shows that the acqusition is purely technological based and an attempt on positioning with Ford-Volvo-Jaquar-AM-LR etc..
    My 2006 Saab has nothing more than what any common car has on the road, ESP, ABS, heated seats etc…still missing bluetooth and phone audio integration in N.A. but at least the Toyota Corolla offers standard in N.A. Saab does not have the multitude of options that the germans offer which positions the brand much lower down the food chain. Saab is just is a safely engineer car (except the lack of bluetooth) that is occupant and globally friendly designed buy a bunch of really smart Swedes that a bunch of Americans want to claim as there own. My dealers although pleasent do not treat me any different than a Saturn customer, no WiFi in the waiting room, loaners are hard to get and they more than often are a Saturn Ion. Imagine if a S class owner took his car in for service and they lent him/her a Smart Car for the day, same difference? Rant done!

  5. Nice text Swade. I definitely agree with most of it.

    Cadillac can’t match the image of SAAB in Europe even in a decade from now. Here caddies are perceived as no-brain styled cars for American football players. No sane person around here buys a caddy, no matter what options may it have.

    On the other hand, SAAB in EU is perceived as uber-cool car from Sweden. I’m afraid that EU and US have different perception about “premium”. SAAB is the car of choice for HM The King of Sweden which is the definitive answer to SAABs “premiumness”. Over here we do think that SAAB is a premium brand, which we do not take for granted when it comes to Cadillac. Its not a question of how many options do you have on a car. Its the brand itself. Europeans care about brands history and do not give a &*^$ about iPod plugs or BT. The Lexus story would never succeeded in EU, you can’t just decide to make premium cars, you must have the premium background. You can even notice the BMW/Audi/Merc arrogance in the US marketing campaigns, where they don’t see Lexus, Acura, Infiniti as competition at all.

    What I’d really like to see is GM managing SAAB as premium EURO brand, we like styling, we like posh grills and badges with royal warrants. Here people would rather drive an used Audi than a new VW, or they’d pick BMW with no options compared to fully loaded VW.

    In EU SAAB is premium, Cadillac is just another ugly American car.

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