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Cadillac reloaded: 'Matrix' role merely adds to the buzz

By John McCormick / Autos Insider

Cadillac's CTS sedan is badly shot up in the much-anticipated new Matrix movie -- The Matrix Reloaded -- debuting in theaters today, but the car is drilling the competition in the real world.

Specifically requested by the film's directors, the CTS leads a vivid car chase sequence in which the heroes try to outrun machine-gun toting opponents. The "product placement" in such a hip movie is a coup for General Motors Corp.'s luxury car division.

But even more important is the impact CTS is having on Cadillac's fortunes in the luxury segment. The Lansing-built sedan pulled in 38,000 buyers in 2002 -- more than GM expected - and is selling even better so far this year. "To have a model perform strongly in its second year is a really good sign," says Mark LaNeve, Cadillac general manager, who notes the CTS is now second only to BMW's Three Series in the entry-level luxury sedan market.

LaNeve expects Cadillac to gather more momentum later this year as the 2004 XLR, a new two-seat flagship roadster, and the 2004 SRX, a mid-sized sport utility vehicle, join the clan.

Based on the same Sigma architecture as the CTS, the SRX enters the fastest growing segment of the luxury market, says vehicle line executive Jim Taylor. While there are a handful of contenders today, led by the Lexus RX330, BMW X5 and Acura MDX, the sector will have 18 entries by 2005.

Priced at $37,995 for the V6 version and $46,300 for the 320 hp V8, the SRX has a number of advantages over the competition, says product manager Nancy Martinelli. "We offer more powerful engines than most rivals, some of which don't have a V8 at all. We also make a third row seat optional and give a choice of rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, when some other manufacturers only offer all-wheel drive."

Cadillac expects to sell at least 35,000 SRXs annually starting this fall. The yearly sales forecast for the XLR roadster is a more modest 5,000 vehicles, but as a design and technology flagship, it is expected to create a sophisticated halo over the brand image, competing for the first time with luxury market icons like the Mercedes-Benz SL.

With a retractable hardtop and the latest generation 320 hp rear-drive Northstar V8 with variable valve timing, the $72,600 XLR is loaded with advanced features. However, chief engineer Dave Leone stresses the car's technology is designed to be easy to use, unlike some ultra-luxury rivals.

Filling out Cadillac's product blitz this year are the first of a high performance V Series, the 400 hp CTS V, an armored version of the DeVille sedan and a fourth variation of the full-size Escalade SUV. With 20-inch wheels and an upgraded interior, the ESV Platinum "will be the boss of the SUV crowd," says LaNeve, who credits the Escalade for kicking off the Cadillac revitalization. "It is the best selling vehicle in the luxury market and is helping to lower our average buyer age significantly."

Cadillac will keep up the pressure on rivals next year with the next generation STS sedan, based on the same rear-drive architecture as the CTS. "We are not just doing two or three new cars and then going back to business as usual," says LaNeve. "This is truly a renaissance for Cadillac."

The marque's revival has caught the attention of prime European competitors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. But despite am impressive showing in the J.D. Power quality survey, LaNeve admits his brand has still to convince the public that its quality is superior to the German marques. "The reality is that our quality is better but the consumer perception is that we are not as good."

In terms of image and desirability, LaNeve expects Cadillac's dynamic new design and performance attributes to help the brand overhaul Lexus, before it does its European rivals.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Insider and can be reached at [email protected]
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