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Lutz's Cadillac puts on a better show than Lutz

Fri, 30 Oct 2009

"Hi, I'm Bob Lutz, and this is the Cadillac CTS-V Drive Challenge."

General Motors Co.'s marketing chief dons his monogrammed helmet and puts Cadillac's 550-horsepower sedan through some warm-up laps at Monticello Motor Club, a members-only track. In what might have passed as a dismissible moment of Lutz braggadocio, "Maximum" Bob has challenged anyone with a four-door sedan to beat his 2010 CTS-V.

Though not a showman by trade, Lutz is bankable for amusing, bald-faced assessments of his employer, his critics and the auto industry at large. He infamously quipped to a room full of journalists in 2008 that global warming was "a total crock of s***," later clarifying that he's "a skeptic, not a denier."

Yet he's uncharacteristically self-deprecating on this race day.

Patrick Morrissey, GM's director of product and brand communications, deadpans, "He's got plenty of confidence in the car, but not so much in himself."

The Lutz dare was answered and propagated this summer by a Gawker Media's car-culture blog, which is why Lutz is now pitted against lead-footed auto journos and whoever else has the cojones -- and the car -- to challenge him and his ultra high-performance Caddy at Monticello.

Good deal

Before race time, the 77-year-old Mr. Lutz sounded every bit the viral-media convert.

"This isn't one of those Evian baby videos that everyone passes around. But we've still gotten great pick-up on the blogs," he says, dressed in khakis and a red button-down with a Corvette logo embroidered on the pocket.

"Sure, it costs a lot to get all these cars up here and have all these people come, but it's still incredibly cost-effective. I mean, compared to making and getting air time for a 30-second TV spot, there's no comparison in cost terms."

Boston-based Modernista produced those 30-second spots at a time when Cadillac's redesigned CTS sedan was collecting car of the year laurels from multiple U.S. publications.

Yet the commercials, featuring a coquettish Kate Walsh questioning, "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?" seemingly failed to capture their target, who continued mulling over Germany's Big Three luxury compact sedans: the BMW 3 Series, the Mercedes-Benz C Class and the Audi A4.

Early this month, GM split from the agency completely, which it had previously retained for its Hummer brand.

No joy in marketing land

"There's no joy pumping bullets into the marketing department. To see great cars butchered by bad marketing was the worst thing," said Lutz, who has taken control of GM's marketing. "Now I get to market our own stuff."

For all his cocksure quips, he has no delusions about his limitations as a brand custodian.

"I don't try to muscle the brand managers. If they want my input when it's time to make a decision, I'm happy to provide it," he said.

Nor does Lutz see Caddy fitting tidily within the eventual winning agency's automotive-client silo. "We need a full-service agency; we're a little bit different from club soda and tennis shoes," he said.

Come race time, the drivers break into heats. Jalopnik's road-test editor, Wes Siler, was considered an early threat to Lutz and all other contenders, but he struggles with his Mitsubishi Evo X's erratic power delivery, posting a disappointing 3:08 best lap time.

Meanwhile, a pair of deftly piloted BMW M3s set the early benchmark with sub-2:50 runs, while their more powerful sibling, an M5, doesn't even place. Despite his age, Lutz hammers the straightaways and displays nimble turn-in at the corners in his CTS-V automatic, finishing in a commendable 2:56.

He is bested by the BMWs, a stinging blow -- if not for the five other CTS-Vs on the racetrack driven by GM engineers and executives, which post solidly in the mid-2:40s, the day's fastest times.

While not necessarily a great day for Lutz, it is a grand day at the races for Cadillac.

By Jonathan Schultz- Advertising Age