* Cadillac luxury brand aspires to become global power
* Future models may include flagship sedan, small crossover
* Some skeptics question the chances of success overseas
By Ben Klayman and Paul Lienert
DETROIT, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Cadillac may double its product lineup over the next four years as part of General Motors Co’s strategy to turn the U.S. luxury brand into a global power, starting late this year with the ELR plug-in hybrid, the upscale sibling of the Chevrolet Volt.
Cadillac is firming up plans to expand its family of cars and crossovers to as many as 10 models by 2016, including potentially a flagship sedan, a small crossover and a small car to take on BMW’s 1-Series, according to two people familiar with the company’s discussions with suppliers.
The new models cannot come soon enough. Cadillac was one of the few premium brands to see U.S. sales fall last year, sliding from fourth to fifth place behind Honda Motor Co’s Acura.
Cadillac executives would not discuss future product plans, but acknowledged their stable of cars, crossovers and SUVs would expand.
“We’re saying it over and over and over that we want Cadillac to be a truly global luxury brand,” Bob Ferguson, vice president of global Cadillac, said in an interview at the Detroit auto show. “We have the core of a very good product set now and we’re working hard at examining the options to make it even better. You can expect a more robust lineup.”
While many analysts laud GM for burnishing Cadillac’s image with some of its best cars in decades - the new ATS was named 2013 North American Car of the Year on Monday - even some of the brand’s fans are skeptical about its chances for global success.
“I’m not convinced Cadillac can pull it off,” said Jim Hall, managing director of consulting firm 2953 Analytics, adding it could take up to 15 years to build the brand in Europe alone.
“They may still be suffering from ‘Lincoln disease’ - the lack of long-term commitment by the parent company,” he added, referring to Ford Motor Co’s struggling luxury brand.
Ferguson said GM is looking closely at the possibility of adding a flagship sedan and a small crossover vehicle that combines the utility of an SUV and the smooth ride of a car.
The U.S. market accounts for three-quarters of Cadillac’s worldwide sales, which totaled about 200,000 in 2011 and 2012. That is down from 241,000 in 2007.
GM is ramping up efforts to boost Cadillac’s presence in China, where it will start building the full-size XTS sedan in about two weeks, but Cadillac remains a low-volume “boutique” brand in Europe.
In China, some consumers are familiar with Cadillac from its days chauffeuring U.S. presidents and were disappointed GM did not reintroduce the brand there with a big flagship sedan, a notion Ferguson acknowledges.
“There is opportunity in China for a bigger vehicle,” he said.
GM also may bring its new ATS compact sedan and the ELR hybrid to China by mid-2014.
To be more competitive in Europe, Ferguson said Cadillac needs to add right-hand-drive vehicles and diesel powertrains.
The sleek 2014 ELR, which GM will begin building late this year at the same Detroit plant that builds the Volt, will go on sale early next year in the United States, with overseas markets to follow later that year.
The luxury coupe will join the XTS, CTS and ATS sedans, Escalade SUV and SRX crossover as the sixth car in Cadillac’s stable. The two-door ELR includes a larger version of the same battery that powers the Volt, offering consumers a modest all-electric driving range before a gasoline engine kicks in.
The ELR, based on the popular Converj concept car shown at the 2009 Detroit auto show, is meant to send a message to the German automakers who have long dominated the global luxury market, even if it will only be a low-volume car that is expected to sell for $60,000 to $70,000.
“I want to kick the Germans’ backsides,” joked Mark Adams, Cadillac’s design chief.
“I’m really motivated by working on a premium brand and attacking territory that has sort of been cordoned off from the rest of the world. The Germans feel that they have got it sewn up and we’re going to attack it.”
Central to GM’s plans to bulk up Cadillac is the development of a new rear-wheel-drive architecture dubbed Omega for full-size and luxury sedans, including a potential rival in 2015 to the BMW 7-Series that might be called the Cadillac LTS, said the sources, who asked not to be identified discussing GM strategy.
Cadillac also is considering whether to expand its stable of luxury crossover vehicles to include a compact five-passenger model aimed at the BMW X1 and a full-size, seven-passenger model aimed at the X5, the sources said.
Cadillac also plans to add an ATS coupe in early 2015, but may have shelved plans for an ATS convertible, the sources said.
Both the ATS and the 2014 CTS are based on the Alpha platform, which can be built in both rear- and all-wheel-drive versions. A smaller Alpha derivative, targeted at the 1-Series and as yet unnamed, is being considered for 2016 or later, the sources said.
Such new vehicles would continue to strengthen Cadillac’s hand.
“Even if Cadillac’s not commanding the same price as the Germans or selling as many cars, people for the first time in decades are saying these are good cars,” said John Casesa, senior managing director with Guggenheim Securities.