Cadillac, a global symbol of big American cars, will add a British touch by offering models with the steering wheel on the right side as the General Motors luxury brand tries to break into new markets, a company official told Reuters.

Separately, a British consumer website said the brand would, this time, be kept quite separate from GM's European brands Opel and Vauxhall and outside the GM dealer network.

Right-hand drive versions of Cadillac's cars are key for the luxury brand to crack the markets of Britain, Hong Kong, South Africa, Japan and Australia, John Howell, Cadillac's director of global brand development, told Reuters in an interview.

In some markets RHD is essential - Australia (and neighbouring New Zealand) bans outright the import of left-hand drive models.

Reuters said Cadillac is close to finalising plans to set up a dealership group in Britain, a pivotal part of its plans to increase sales in Europe to 10,000 vehicles annually by the end of the decade, up from 791 in 2003.

"We can't really be successful in Europe without something there (in Britain). It's the second-largest market in the European community," Howell told Reuters. "We have to have right-hand drive there if we're going to be successful."

The right-hand drive market of Hong Kong is also essential to conquering mainland China, where the steering wheel is on the left side like most markets around the world, the report said.

"Hong Kong is right-hand drive, and it is kind of the California of China, in terms of trend-setting," Howell reportedly said. "That will help Cadillac's acceptance on mainland China. We're in a much weaker position if all we have is left-hand drive."

Reuters noted that GM formally announced plans in June to invest $US3 billion over the next three years in China, the fastest-growing automotive market in the world, to more than double capacity at its vehicle assembly plants. China will soon become the only place outside the United States where GM builds Cadillacs, and could eventually account for one-fifth of Cadillac's global sales, which totalled nearly 228,000 last year, GM officials reportedly said.

Right-hand drive Cadillacs could also play a role in GM's plans to expand in South Africa, Howell told Reuters. In January, GM finalised a deal to buy South African car manufacturer Delta Motor Corp., and GM announced plans in June to export Saabs there.

Cadillac also hopes to expand into Australia, where GM already has a strong presence with its Holden brand of cars and trucks, and into Japan too, Howell reportedly said.

Reuters noted that GM has tried for years to crack the highly competitive Japanese market, the world's second largest, but has lost money there and sales have numbered only in the thousands despite its efforts.

Currently, only the CTS luxury sedan is built with a right-hand drive version. But the SRX sport utility, which is not going on sale in Europe, and the forthcoming STS sedan are designed to be easily adapted, Reuters added.

Separately, the British consumer website 4car.co.uk reported that the Netherlands-based Kroymans Group, a massive auto retailer and importer with an annual turnover of €1.2 billion, was chosen by GM to lead the Cadillac comeback blitz in Europe partly because of its experience with premium brands such as Aston Martin and Jaguar.

4car said that, unlike previous unsuccessful attempts to market the brand on this side of the Atlantic, Cadillac Europe will be completely independent of Opel and Vauxhall. In the UK, Cadillacs will be sold not through Vauxhall dealers, but via one of the largest retail groups operating in the UK, about which an announcement is imminent.

The website said Cadillac Europe is looking to launch in the UK from the end of January 2005, with right-hand drive models of the BMW 5-Series-sized CTS saloon, the XLR roadster and [contradicting the Reuters report] the SRX cross-over, which will compete with rivals such as Volvo's XC90. The first two will be right-hand drive initially, but it is likely that right-hand drive SRXs will come to the UK within a year or so.

4car said the star of the UK Cadillac range will be the SRX crossover, which will be launched with a choice of 258bhp V6 or 325bhp V8 power, and will cost £31,000 and £41,000 respectively. Cadillac reckons that the SRX will be the most important car in the range because it competes in the soft-roader segment, which looks set to grow for at least another two years. It is also the newest Cadillac model. The XLR roadster, which will offer buyers an alternative to cars such as the Mercedes Benz SL, is expected to sell in tiny numbers and will cost £70,000 in the UK.

The website said the right-hand drive CTS saloon will be offered with a 2.6 or 3.2-litre V6 and will cost £27,000 and £30,000 respectively. Cadillac Europe is very determined to get it right in Europe this time, and will be focussing on providing a dealer network comprehensive enough to allay buyer's concerns over servicing and support issues. It will also establish so called Cadillac experience centres, which will give visitors a flavour of contemporary American culture - "think Starbucks as opposed to Stetsons," 4car said, adding that the idea is to make a virtue out of the 'American-ness' of the Cadillac range.

According to 4car, internally, the catch-phrase used to sum up the direction Cadillac Europe is heading is 'The American alternative. Dare to be different.' As a measure of how seriously GM is taking Cadillac's re-entry into Europe, GM boss Bob Lutz will come to Germany on July 22 to open two of the first Cadillac Experience centres. The aim is to take Cadillac volume from around 7000 per year to 20,000 plus within the decade, the website said.