Motoring: Gavin Green's column

Is there any hope for the Yanks? Cadillac has sussed the road to riches in Europe - you've got to get the styling right

AMERICAN LUXURY cars have as much success in Europe as US foreign policy has in Iraq. The Yank manufacturers make various Tough Guy noises about how we Europeans will fall over ourselves to get behind the wheel of the latest Cadillac/Lincoln/Chrysler/Glitz-mobile. And then, when sales start, the showrooms tend to be as quiet as Santa's workshops in early January.

Cadillac is the latest to get a bloody nose. Its new Seville has recently hit Europe's streets, to a string of indifferent reviews and overwhelming public apathy. If O J Simpson was retried, the European reaction could be hardly be more listless.

Chrysler has marketed various saloons here, since it decided to "do" Europe. But the only models we Europeans like are Jeeps, and the big Voyager people carriers. The latter has even won a convert in Tony Blair, who has always been a sucker for American kit. Look at all that Polo gear his kids wear.

Lincoln, part of Ford, is the next to sally forth across the Atlantic. Its latest model, the LS, is due to hit European showrooms in the autumn. In America, Lincoln is famous for providing easy-going, luxurious, tank- like transport for easy-going, ageing, tank-like Americans. Most people who buy Lincolns are over 60. Many live in the northern states and, come winter, their Lincolns hit the freeways heading south for the sun, like a flock of overweight, grounded geese.

The LS will not sell well in Europe, no matter what Ford may be hoping. It looks too much like a Toyota Carina E. This is a pity because, underneath the unimaginative shell, the mechanicals are likely to be first rate. The Lincoln shares its major components with the new Jaguar S-type and yet will cost many thousands less. The LS will almost certainly be one of those cars that, logically, we should buy. But that, practically, we will not.

So is there no hope for the Yanks in Europe? Cadillac, for one, is optimistic. And having just spent a day touring around the company's research headquarters in Warren, Michigan, I think it might actually have a chance.

For starters, Cadillac probably has the best brand name, for luxury motoring, of all the Yank makers. In Europe, that matters. Unlike Lexus, Japan's pretender to Europe's luxury crown, it also has a heritage, having produced some of the finest cars the world has seen. Although, admittedly, that was back in Eisenhower's day, when US presidents were pre-occupied with Reds under Beds, rather than girls in them.

Cadillac has also sussed the route to true riches in the European flash- car market. Namely, you've got to get the styling right. Worthy noises about value for money, high-technology, faultless reliability and the rest matter rather less than visual presence.

The Cadillac Evoq roadster, the star of the recent Detroit Auto Show, points the way ahead. It is not an American copy of a European design, which is where the Seville and the Lincoln LS go wrong. Rather, it has a crisp-edged techno feel, which is all its own. It's a look that comes from the computer-aided design, rather than from hand craftsmanship.

"This is in keeping with America's technology-led image," says Kip Wasenko, Cadillac's design boss. Other Caddy cues include vertical headlamps, blade- like vertical tail lights, minimalist Bang & Olufsen-like interiors (rather than modern interpretations of an Edwardian drawing room) and a diamond- cut style.

The Evoq is heading for the showroom, but the first production interpretation of the new Caddy look will be in 2001, when a BMW 5-series rival hits the road. By 2004, says John Smith, Cadillac's general manager, the company will have three or four models on sale in Europe. Providing it can get the quality, pricing and dynamics right, all of which are feasible, then the company may be on to a winner. And the final frontier for American worldwide cultural hegemony - cars - will have been conquered.

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