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David Kiley

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Cadillac vs. Lincoln: Is The Rivalry Back?

Posted: 01/20/12 01:28 PM ET

With the debut of the Lincoln MKZ concept and the Cadillac ATS at the North American International Auto Show, I see green sprouts of a rekindled rivalry and competition between the two brands that we haven't really seen since the 1960s.

It's been that long since both Caddy and Lincoln both produced attractive, aspirational cars simultaneously and on a consistent basis. And comments from executives lead me to believe a sense of competition between the two brands is already there.

When I asked Caddy marketing chief Don Butler about the rear-drive platform underpinning the ATS, he made a point of telling me that it's not shared with any other General Motors vehicles -- a dig at the MKZ, which shares a platform with the Ford Fusion. I pressed Butler to admit that the ATS platform would be shared with other vehicles (as all are these days); it will, but the ATS is the first GM model to get it.

First the ATS: This car has huge promise to lure new buyers shopping luxury for the first time, as well as existing luxe buyers who may be looking to switch. I have not driven it yet, but the fact that it's rear-drive, has a 50-50 weight balance front to back and a five-link independent rear suspension gives it huge promise. Caddy has unabashedly benchmarked the BMW 3 Series -- but the last generation. (BMW just released an all-new 3 Series that Caddy could not have studied.) But as Butler said, equaling the hardware on the last generation 3 Series is not a bad target at all. True.

Let's concede that Caddy has worked out the hardware on the new ATS. After all, GM's track record on new models the last three or four years has been tremendous. And this car was developed under former vice chairman Bob Lutz, who is still around GM as a consultant.

But the software -- the presentation of the brand in marketing -- needs to move to the next level. Butler says he realizes that. For the last 18 months, marketing has been driven by the idea of "red-blooded American luxury" as a guiding brand statement to those creating the advertising and marketing. "That idea is evolving to a new place this year," Butler says. I guess we will have to stay tuned.

Now for Lincoln: The MKZ concept, which seems pretty close to a production vehicle, is beautiful. I hope it signals a new era for Lincoln in which its vehicles won't look like Fords with chrome, or cars designed for Fred Mertz from "I Love Lucy."

To be fair, there are two Lincolns on the road today that represent the Ford design studio's attempt to fully differentiate Lincolns. But they haven't worked out.

The MKS sedan is a big friendly St. Bernard of a car, well-screwed together, pleasant to drive, but overpriced and utterly without personality. The MKT crossover, which shares a platform with the MKS, Ford Taurus and Ford Flex, looks unique. But the vehicle is ungainly and homely, if very practical for storage and passenger carrying. The car has done so poorly at retail that the new plan is to make it the livery replacement for the now defunct Town Car. Yes, it's the new airport car, and that strategy should doom it even more at retail.

Besides the MKZ, Ford promises six other new and refreshed vehicles by 2014. Cadillac this year gets the new big flagship XTS in addition to the ATS to flank the CTS and SRX.

In 2011, Lincoln sold just 85,643 units, compared to 152,000 for Cadillac. That's a sad decline from Lincoln's 1990 peak of 232,000. But while Lincoln is chasing Cadillac, make no mistake that Cadillac has the German and Asian competitors in mind -- not Lincoln.

Priced lower than the CTS, the ATS is expected to become the top-selling Caddy probably by the end of 2013, according to Butler. That car should push the GM luxury brand pretty close to 200,000 sales.

To be honest, BMW's 248,000 sales in 2011 put the German automaker at a level where only Mercedes and Lexus are going to challenge its luxury leadership for several years to come.

Ford marketing chief Jim Farley knows that. He is smarter than to think he will challenge even Caddy for sales in the next five years, especially with the ATS coming out. Farley is wisely emphasizing a sales and merchandising strategy to achieve steady sales and image improvement.

He says Lincoln dealers are going to model their strategy going forward after boutique hotels, such as those designed by Ian Schrager and Philippe Starck -- The Royalton and Paramount in New York City, the Delano in Miami.

"When you travel, do you want to stay at one of these hotels or at a chain hotel like a Four Seasons or Millennium?" he asked.

I pointed out to Farley that as a frequent business traveler, I like hotels with lots of amenities, great beds and no surprises or disappointments.

"I understand that, but there is a growing number of people who shun the chain experience," he replied. Farley says that Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have become like "big box" retailers."

The idea is for Ford and Lincoln dealers to focus on bespoke accessories, personal kid-glove service and handling. Farley says Lincoln dealers are already masters at customer handling -- better even than those at Lexus, the brand he once ran.

To give him credit, I think Farley is acting like a "Top Chef" contestant who's given just five ingredients to wow his audience, and so has to do well with what he has. If the strategy achieves double-digit growth over the next five years, even from today's small sales base, it will be a success.

Earlier this year, GM CEO Dan Akerson told reporters that someone should sprinkle "holy water over Lincoln," because he considered the brand dead.

In Bill Vlasic's book "Once Upon A Car," about the meltdown of the the auto industry in 2008 and 2009, Farley infamously told the reporter, "Fuck GM."

Yes indeed. The rivalry is back. Let the games begin.

Grand Blvd. is a weekly column about cars from David Kiley. For more of his writing, and everything about cars, head over to AOL Autos.