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Restoring the lustre of an American auto icon

Once the icon of American automotive luxury, style and performance, Cadillac had fallen on hard times by the late 1990s.

In 1998, Cadillac was displaced as the top-selling luxury car brand in North America after leading the segment since 1950.

As recently as the fall of 2001, Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of Cadillac's parent company, General Motors, was bluntly saying, "If you look at [Cadillac] buyers today, they're falling off the end of the demographic table."

To reverse the sales slide and attract younger buyers, Cadillac has launched three striking new models in the last 18 months: The CTS, SRX and XLR. There has also been the CTS-V higher-performance sedan and a new Canadian-built, V-6 engine for the CTS, as well.

And coming this fall is the replacement for the discontinued Seville, the STS. Cadillac, it seems, is no longer stumbling.

But stumble is the perfect word to describe what it did from the early 1980s into the late '90s:

The 1982 Cadillac Cimarron was a rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier economy car; the convertible Allante, offered from 1987-93, was plagued by quality woes; the 1992 Seville was a large front-wheel-drive sedan competing against sexier rear-drive sedans; and the 1997 Catera lacked the style, performance and road manners to be a legitimate rival to the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

By late 1997, GM design chief Wayne Cherry and then-Cadillac general manager John Smith took a bold step. They chose to have Cadillac reclaim its reputation for avant-garde styling and combine it with the latest technology. Today, Cadillac uses the tagline "Art & Science" to describe its new products.

With that vision in place, GM set about loading up the product pipeline. The hard work and bold steps appear to be paying off. Last year, Cadillac sold more than 200,000 vehicles in North America, the division's best performance in years and a long way from the 170,000 or so sold in 1996.

For 2004, sales are tracking even better. Cadillac still has a long way to go before it matches its record sales of 350,813 in 1978, but overall the division is healthy and heading in the right direction.

"This is a product-driven renaissance," Cadillac general manager Mark LaNeve said at this year's New York Auto Show. "We made a big bet with a new design and that our engineers could deliver world-class vehicles. That's starting to pay off for us, but we fully realize we have a lot to do. We must execute the plan over time and with the next generation of vehicles."

Cadillac's next challenge is to launch an all-new 2005 STS high-performance luxury sedan this fall. That will be followed early next year by an updated version of its best-selling car, the DeVille.

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