Standard of the World, Again, Finally?

Will EVs provide Cadillac the jolt it needs to make it matter—again—in the market? Todd Lassa considers the proposition

As “Standard of the World,” Cadillac has had two distinct eras. The first started in 1908, when the luxury marque won engineering’s prestigious Dewar trophy for the precise interchangeability of its parts and earned that tagline; it ended at the beginning of World War II, shortly after it discontinued its second V-16 engine design and LaSalle sub-brand. The second era was from the new OHV high-compression V-8 of 1949 to, roughly, the mid-1970s. Even the over-chromed, over-finned, over-sized Cadillacs had a cache from here to Europe and Asia that began to fade in the 1970s, when Mercedes-Benz made them look in comparison like rental cars for the executive with a generous expense account.

Cadillac has been trying to earn back its “Standard of the World” reputation since the early part of the 21st century, when it started converting back to mostly rear-wheel-drive-based sedans. Despite some very good efforts, from the second- and third-generation CTS to the all too short-lived CT6 (and especially the CT6-V Blackwing), its flagship remained the big Tahoe/Suburban-based SUV, the Escalade. And if the ’71 DeVille came off as an overpriced ’71 Chevy Caprice (as Motor Trend so noted in a feature article asking whether the extra $3,000 was worth it), the ’21 Escalade still is basically a glorified ’21 GMC Yukon Denali with an extra-fancy dashboard.

A fresh face of Cadillac. (Images: Cadillac)

General Motors tried all sorts of extracurricular schemes to earn spots in car magazine comparison tests alongside the best from Mercedes, BMW, Lexus and Audi, including the Sixteen concept of 2003, powered by two Chevy small blocks welded together: several failed European export attempts; moving HQ to Manhattan, and (unrelated, as it was then-CFO Dan Amman who didn’t want to relocate to Detroit) hiring the exec credited with making Audi what it is in North America, Johan deNysschen, after he spent a month running Nissan’s Infiniti luxury brand.

DeNysschen had grand plans for Cadillac, which GM had just split off into a separate business entity, so it wouldn’t have to share more than the unseen bits (e.g.,  truck platforms, wiring harnesses and other things consumers aren’t particularly aware of) with Chevys, Buicks and GMC models. In what I believe was his first interview as president of Cadillac, in early fall 2014 for Automobile magazine, he told me the marque would eventually get a Mercedes S-Class competitor and a high-end sports car or two.

DeNysschen lasted in the job about three-and-a-half years. Some auto news reports overplayed his responsibility for initiatives including an edgy ad campaign (along with incorrectly blaming him for the Manhattan HQ) that failed to move the metal and a subscription service called “Book by Cadillac” (all lux-car sub services except for maybe Volvo have since fallen), but the real reason he left, not in a huff, but in a minute-and-a-huff, is that he clashed with top GM management, most of them lifers, over vehicle pricing.

To become Standard of the World again, you can’t put money on the hood as though the brand sells through one big network of Fast Eddy car lots, where its all about the deal, but that’s what they did. DeNysschen wanted to rebuild slowly by selling a product that could stand hood-ornament-by-hood-ornament with Mercs and Bimmers, but he fully recognized that it would take a good decade or more for new, younger luxury buyers to believe that the Caddy had the same level of cache´.

DeNysschen has been gone now as long as a full product lifecycle. He landed at Volkswagen USA (an even tougher job, but that’s another column), and Cadillac is still at it, offering the Mercedes E-Class-size CT5 for the price of a C-Class, and the BMW 3 Series-size CT4 for the price of a BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe.

But GM has figured a way back to the Standard, perhaps out of necessity: Electric vehicles (EVs).

Despite what you may have read in the mainstream press, GM hasn’t suddenly discovered EVs. There were more than two decades between the 1966 Chevy Electrovair experiment and the Saturn-esque EV1—admittedly, the Electrovair was pretty much for internal work and to show to the world that it could be done while the EV1 was also something of an external test program, as there were Californians who had the opportunity to lease the vehicle for their daily drives. What’s more, GM developed the extended-range Volt and the fully electric Bolt, both of them Chevrolets for the mass market, and it is now concentrating R&D efforts on what it calls the “Ultium” platform—batteries, motors and underlying platform.

In 2013 the Cadillac ELR went into production. It used the same Voltec extended-range EV technology that powered the Volt. In part, this was a response to analysts who pointed out the company should have used what is now known as plug-in hybrid tech in a $60,000 luxury car rather than a $40,000 commodity hatchback sedan. The Volt had gone into production three years earlier. By the time the ELR launched on the first-generation Voltec technology, it had inferior technology next to the Chevy Volt with its updated extended-range system. The ELR was a disaster.

Cadillac LYRIQ with the GM Design Dome in the background.

GM – or should I say, “gm,” given its new lower-case logo – is planning its big EV rollout of the next five or so years with new models to cover every U.S. brand. This time, however, it starts with higher profit-margin prestige models, like the GMC Hummer and the Cadillac Lyriq SUV.  

What’s more, GM has announced that Cadillac will become the company’s lead brand for electric vehicles, with plans calling for it to sell essentially only EVs by 2030. (Going back to deNysschen’s plan for dealers selling on quality not price, it is interesting to note that late last year GM offered to buy out Cadillac dealers who weren’t interested in going down the electric road, and some 150 of them—about one in six—took the offer.)

If the production Cadillac EVs, especially the >$100,000 Celestiq luxury sedan, are close to the prototypes GM showed off last March in the legendary GM Design Dome, they could rule the segment ahead of German, Japanese, British and South Korean luxury brands. Price them against the only real competition to date: the Tesla lineup. And if the Ultium EV platform delivers on its promise to reduce the cost of the technology but with highly competitive range and performance, Cadillac could become the Standard of the Electrified World and, importantly, make money while doing so.

GM could mess this up, of course, as it has so many times in the past. But I didn’t get the sense from the presentations last March that CEO Mary Barra, President Mark Reuss, and others in the company that they were at all nervous about continuing the automaker’s usual fatal flaws, like too-cheap interiors, disappointing execution, or a management reorganization that places emphasis back on V-8 pickup trucks and SUVs, reducing EV production plans below Corvette output and cancelling promising models after two years, pretending that this has been the plan all along.

Let’s face it: Even if they come up with superb products it is going to take Cadillac some time to convince those who are likely to buy premium-priced EVs that they want a Cadillac crest on their purchase. However, there is one possibility that would play to Cadillac’s advantage in the EV space: There will be a cohort of younger buyers who are looking for EVs and who have little or no impressions of the brand, so they’d be just as willing to go Cadillac as any other marque.

Still, it seems as though electrification could be Cadillac’s best shot.—Todd Lassa

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