Making Cadillac The New Standard Of The World
Cadillac was once considered the standard of the world. A pioneer in engineering the latest and greatest automotive technology decade upon decade, Cadillac established a reputation synonymous with luxury, at least for the time being. Driving a Caddy was a statement piece, it commanded presence and attention, it meant you were someone important. While I am not one to say that case is no longer true, especially if you are behind the wheel of the all new 2021 Escalade, it is clear that the market has changed and Cadillac’s brand perceptions do not hold as true in the luxury segment as they did many years ago. Cadillac’s early 2000 models were plagued with quality and reliability problems that have damaged the brand’s reputation up to today. While Caddy’s newest models are well improved and the brand is on a righteous path to return to its roots and regain popularity, it is still far from where General Motors wants it to be, and quite frankly where I know it can be!
As a past Cadillac product and technology specialist, I have come to see the strengths and weaknesses of Caddy’s latest models. GM is on a roll, but there are still many hurtles to overcome if GM wants Cadillac to re-establish itself, have the presence and attention it once received many decades ago, and attract younger buyers. Perhaps it will never be as sought after a product as it once was, but it is not impossible if the correct moves are taken in the years ahead. While I am no expert, as an engineer it is my goal, first and foremost, to understand why the brand is perceived as it is today, how to fix it, improve profitability, and how to elevate products in order to get the brand to where it wants to be. I am collectively putting together many ideas and valued knowledge I have gained from working around this product to form a plan, that while arbitrary and not backed up by necessary data, could be used to strengthen GM’s efforts to continue reimagining Cadillac for the modern era.
Cadillac’s goal, for many years now, has been to reinvent the brand so it can find widespread popularity as it did in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This popularity they hope to stretch over many age gaps, most particularly the younger generation. Efforts are already under way, and it has become quite clear what is and is not working well. In order to examine these phenomenon’s, I would like to refer to the short term and long term. Short term solutions can be implemented over a timeframe of about a year or two, while long term are beyond 2-3 years, and potentially one product cycle. Continue reading for my major short and long term ideas that could help shift Cadillac into the direction GM wants it to go.
Short Term: Luxury Trim Restructuring
When Cadillac introduced its Y Trim Strategy a few years ago, it seemed like a smart move, and for the most part it has been. This trim strategy begins with a base Luxury model and then splits off into the higher tiers with Premium Luxury and Sport personas. Premium Luxury and Sport models have different aesthetics and driving dynamics, which allows each model to appeal to a wider customer base. Both trims can be equipped with the same luxury amenities and fully loaded with Platinum Packages, so customers have a lot of freedom with what they buy or lease. These personas have helped the brand incredibly, but what has not been taken to its full potential are the base luxury trim models. Like any base model, you would not expect every option or feature, but from a luxury brand you expect more than with non-luxury brands.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the luxury trims is the absence of 1 or 2 major features. No luxury models come standard, or even offer, blind spot assist. The CT4 and CT5 sedans do not even offer rear parking sensors. If you are spending north of $35k on a new car, you would expect at least a well equipped model. While a full suite of driver awareness features are either standard or available on all premium luxury or sport models, their absence from base models make them undesirable for those seeking a larger array of driver awareness.
Another weakness that plagues 2 models in particular are the lack of premium powertrains standard. XT5 and XT6 luxury models only come standard with GM’s 2.0L Turbo four cylinders, that while potent, do not do these vehicles justice as the 3.6L V6s that come on the Premium Luxury and Sport models. The V6 feels more commanding and punchy when you accelerate from a stop, whereas the 4 cylinder takes a bit longer and feels weak when you push it to get up to speed. To make matters worse, XT5 came standard with a V6 for the 2017-2019 model years. Its switch to a standard 4 cylinder has alienated previous buyers and lessees who now can’t afford upgrading to a new XT5 with the same powertrain. Perhaps this move works for the Chinese market, but not quite as well in North America.
Ultimately, the base Luxury trim is important; it is meant to lure in buyers that may not want or be able to afford the higher equipped models. Lack of certain safety and powertrains, even as options, alienates prospective buyers. While amenities such as sunroofs, upgraded sound systems, adaptive cruise control, or auto high-beams are not necessary on these base trims, the right blend of technology, safety, and premium power are important. Addressing this issue alone could be done within a 1 year model transition, and it could serve well to Cadillac to consider offering, at least as an option, a driver awareness package that incorporates blind spot assist and rear parking sensors on the base models. On XT5 and XT6, offering a V6, even at a small additional cost, would allow dealers to have a broader range of offerings for customers when they come in looking for a new vehicle. Don’t forget, dealers are the ones ordering the vehicles for stock, they don’t want to order models that may not sell well. Current build combinations make it hard for some dealers to justify certain orders given that most consumers want the right blend of safety and power that are not offered on the base luxury trims.
Long Term: A Technology, Design, & Performance Shift
Cadillac’s efforts to rebuild its brand image have been on a long, upward slope in recent years. After adding much needed crossovers to the lineup, integrating new technologies such as Super Cruise, and addressing past concerns of quality and reliability issues, the brand is starting to regain its grip on the luxury car market. The new Escalade is perhaps the biggest step forward. A comment I personally heard from multiple customers makes all the difference: “They finally did it right!” Unlike most brands which present a flagship sedan or coupe as the inspiration for the brand, Cadillac has put the Escalade at the top of its pack and its success proves the brand is on the right path forward.
While the Escalade is a great indicator of what the brand needs to elevate success, Cadillac still needs to utilize its true strengths as it transforms into an all electric brand over the next decade, and that is using design and technology to stand above the pack. The brand did this in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s with iconic models that were pioneers in design and new technology. Many such models have become timeless classics that hold high market value in today’s classic car market. Oddly enough, the philosophy that helped spawn these iconic vehicles is still present, but not many people are talking about it. This is the philosophy of building vehicles that people will strive to want more so than need.
There are always many wants versus needs in the car buying market, and while many can argue that any luxury car is more of a want than a need, you know you’ve done something unconventional and wildly successful when you make people want a car so badly that they feel as though they need it. Tesla has certainly done this well in recent years, and it isn’t due to 1 factor, but many. Elegant and timeless designs, next generation technology never seen before in a vehicle, and an ownership experience unlike any other. Tesla hit the nail on the head doing what Cadillac once did many years ago, making a unique vehicle that could easily be placed in a small niche of the car market yet making it wildly successful and sought after. Cadillac needs to bring this philosophy back to life by continuing to expand the availability of Super Cruise and next generation interior designs with large OLED infotainment screens. Bringing iconic, unique, and timeless designs with bold color choices on interiors and exteriors will help the brand stand out and push towards a reimagined ownership experience. When push comes to shove though, the lineup itself is going electric, so no matter what GM does to reimagine its ownership experience in their latest models, the brand will also need the right lineup of models to find success in all the major vehicle size categories.
Current plans project 5 EVs hitting the American lineup by 2025, the first being the 2023 Lyriq. Following Lyriq will be an all electric Escalade, 2 more crossovers (most likely named Optiq and Symboliq) as well as the Celestiq, a hand built $200k limited production flagship sedan. These will be GM’s new stab at the future of American luxury, so expect more gorgeous OLED infotainment displays and Super Cruise availability. While these new models are a big deal for Cadillac, it is still questionable how quickly Americans will hop on the EV bandwagon. In order for a more seamless transition, I believe GM needs to keep producing internal combustion engine models that closely resemble the new EVs to prepare people for the transition to a fully electric lineup. Notably, this means a redesign to the XT4, XT5, and XT6 but with the same styling and technology of the forthcoming EVs. Utilizing their current platforms but tweaking what needs improvement will help reduce investments but will get people excited by the new designs and technology. During this period as new EVs also come to market, Cadillac dealerships will be able to show customers the benefit of EV ownership so the XT4,5, and 6 can be phased out by 2030 and fully replaced by their electric counterparts. By then, the brand should be able to prove to its customers why it’s worth it to own an EV.
While most efforts will focus around utility vehicles, GM also has the opportunity to keep the car alive but in its own well focused space. Currently, many customers are upset by the discontinuation of the CT6, and it has no true successor in the American market. The Celestiq will be an amazing flagship, no doubt, when it hits the market, but only a small elite class of individuals will be able to afford this vehicle. Cadillac needs something more reasonable, and given the shrink in sedan success, they need to be cautious how many models they make. My proposal is the best of both worlds, a 3 model shared platform strategy. Cadillac still talks about the Escala concept and its inspiration on the brands future, so why not make it an actual model? By utilizing the concept that electric sedan architectures have more cabin space than their engine counterparts, Cadillac could size the Escala between CT5 and CT6. Essentially, imagine a nimble RWD/AWD sedan not too large but with the interior volume of a larger more traditional sedan. Also on this platform would be its grand touring counterparts, the Elmiraj and Eldorado. Elmiraj would be a coupified version of the Escala and Eldorado would be a soft top convertible version. Essentially the same vehicle but with 2 iconic names, Eldorado alone would attract enthusiasts due to its heritage in Cadillac’s brand history. For extra excitement, Cadillac can bring back retro color themes with a modern spin, so an available all red, or two tone red and cream interior would make their return. The idea here is bringing exciting cars to the market with some retro flare and spin, but bold enough to attract older and younger buyers alike. Since CT4 and CT5 will be gone in a few years, V Blackwing models would push EV boundaries to make track ready models that will please performance enthusiasts.
Ultimately, these adjustments to the model lineup prepares Cadillac for a fully electric transition by the early 2030s. A lot of the success will come from proper vehicle execution, but if GM really wants to push through its baggage from the past, they need to continue focusing on design and technology that draws in younger buyers. Once EV technology becomes cheaper, a small EV crossover (possibly a low roof or fastback design), would certainly draw in younger buyers. Adding upgraded infotainment systems, like the new Escalades rear media system, will attract families or business’s expecting to chauffer clients in luxury. Cadillac can begin to introduce models for more executive transport uses, and even reintroduce Book by Cadillac for those who want to pay for a subscription service and swap between models often and freely. Figuring out new marketing and use tactics to expand what a luxury vehicle is used for, including performance vehicles for purists, will certainly help in the years ahead. As GM executives have said, Cadillac needs to be Cadillac again, but with all the right philosophies in mind. I believe for true success to emerge, Cadillac not only needs to return to its roots but also push to be a newer, better version of what it once was years ago, taking advantage of the technology and experiences today’s buyers look for in the competition and taking it to a new level that consumers will fall in love with!