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Autos: Super Solution

Paul A. Eisenstein

Cadillac, the best-selling luxury brand in the United States for nearly three-quarters of a century, is now barely treading water as it tries to compete against Lexus, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. To shake up its image, General Motors’ flagship division has invested $4 billion in product development and a new plant in Lansing, Mich. Over the next several years, that plant and others will be churning out a number of new Cadillac models, including the XLR, a rear-wheel-drive, two-seat convertible, and possibly the Cien, a supercar that would challenge the Ferrari F40 and the McLaren F1.

The makeover began in August at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance with the formal rollout of the 2003 CTS sedan, an entry-level luxury car aimed at the young, hip, and demanding buyers who have all but abandoned Cadillac over the last two decades. By mid-decade, little will remain of the old Cadillac lineup beyond the big DeVille sedan. In addition to the new models, there will be an updated Seville with a new rear-drive platform and a new name: the STS. Cadillac will eliminate its traditional nameplates in favor of Euro-style alpha badges, such as the XLR, which should arrive in showrooms by autumn.

The XLR is the production version of the edgy Evoq, which was unveiled in concept form at the Detroit auto show two years ago. There is a hint of retro in the hard-edged, vertical headlights and taillights, evoking the 1959 Eldorado’s trademark tail fins, but the look is more Blade Runner than American Graffiti.

Cadillac also plans to create a high-performance brand-within-a-brand, along the lines of Mercedes’ AMG. The project, which is still unnamed, will premiere in 2003 with a 325-plus-hp edition of the CTS.

Those are some of Cadillac’s definite plans. The Cien, on the other hand, is still only a possibility. The supercar prototype was also unveiled at Pebble Beach. In keeping with the classic supercar shape, the Cien (the name means 100 in Spanish, in recognition of Cadillac’s 100th anniversary) is low, sleek, and menacing. But it also features some distinct elements from Cadillac’s new Art & Science design theme, including the signature grille, vertical lamps, and angular lines. The doors scissor open, and the rear spoiler is adjustable. Borrowing a bit from Ferrari, the Cien has a transparent cover over its midmounted V-12.

The Cien’s engine, dubbed the Northstar XV12, is a 7.5-liter, normally aspirated powerplant that produces 750 hp and 450 ft lbs of torque.

In current form, it is a high-tech showpiece, boasting a range of advanced features, including variable cam timing and Displacement on Demand. (The latter shuts off the right cylinder bank when power demand is low, so that the XV12 operates as an in-line six, sharply improving fuel economy.) The engine is mated to a sequentially shifted 6-speed manual.

The Cien’s body and chassis are constructed of carbon fiber and composites, keeping them stiff even with the targa roof removed. Inside, you will find plenty more technology, including the latest version of Cadillac’s infrared Night Vision.

Whether Cadillac puts Cien on the street depends on the reception it receives as it makes the rounds of the 2002 auto show circuit.  If it gets the go-ahead, expect a limited run of 100 or so by the end of 2004 at the earliest, probably with a price tag upwards of $250,000.

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