In a little over 10 years, Cadillac has pulled off an incredible transition from a builder of soft-sprung land yachts to a builder of exciting, sporty luxury cars that can compete with the best Europe and Japan have to offer. Despite fielding one of the most competitive luxury lineups on the market, Cadillac has become a major problem for General Motors as its sales numbers continue to slump at a time when car sales are projected to hit an all-time high. Journalists have been singing the praises of the company’s unlikely comeback for years, but these world-class cars just aren’t attracting new buyers to the brand.
Facing a major dilemma, the brand’s future is unclear as it struggles with this monumental question: How can it appeal to a generation of consumers too young to remember when Cadillacs were known as “The Standard of the World?” Cadillac’s image took a battering after decades of building weak cars for an aging demographic, and now it’s finding that competing with the world’s best just isn’t as easy as it used to be. To tackle this problem, General Motors turned to high-profile former Audi executive Johan de Nysschen, naming him company president and charging him with rebooting the company’s stodgy image.
Since then, things have been changing quickly at Cadillac. After taking the helm in July, de Nysschen launched a radical plan to modernize the brand without precedent in the conservative halls of General Motors. Last September, GM shocked the automotive world by announcing it would spin off Cadillac into a separate business unit and relocate the brand to relocate to New York City – a move strongly lobbied for by de Nysschen. Cadillac’s new president feels that locating the brand in New York’s trendy Soho neighborhood will connect it with the ultra-luxury market, and help to make it a stronger competitor against the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Lexus, and Jaguar.
After the move to New York was announced, de Nysschen followed up with an ambitious plan calling for the conversion of 700 Cadillac dealerships into modern, high-end “boutiques.” The plan is similar to a program he spearheaded at Audi, and calls for the boutiques to be smaller and more up-market than current dealerships, while focusing on a tech-heavy experience and a high level of customer service similar to Tesla and Audi showrooms.
While Cadillac redefines its sales experience, it’s also in the midst of one of the largest advertising campaigns since GM’s bankruptcy in 2009. Brand spokesman David Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press that the campaign “is the start of a redefining of Cadillac’s values,” and is designed to introduce the new, modern Cadillac to the public in a big way. To show that it’s serious about this reboot, Cadillac’s social media presence and website went blank ahead of the major media push, and released a teaser ad that prominently featured the brand’s new home in Soho – but none of its cars. Under the slogan “Dare Greatly,” a trio of commercials debuted during this year’s Oscars, and two of the three new commercials showed a glimpse of the all-new flagship CT6 sedan, set to be officially unveiled this April at the New York International Auto Show.
The CT6 is expected to take the brand into a segment it hasn’t paid attention to in decades. The Mercedes-Benz S-Class-sized sedan is a rear-wheel drive luxury car that will utilize a lightweight aluminum construction that Cadillac claims will give the big sedan performance comparable to the BMW M5. The CT6 is also the first Cadillac to use the brand’s new “CT” model designation. All future Cadillacs will use this naming system (except the Escalade), and the brand hopes it will establish a clear model hierarchy, clearing up the confusion caused by its current, vaguely-named ATS/CTS/SRX/ELR/XTS lineup. The CT6’s front fascia takes styling cues from the recent Ciel and Elmiraj concepts, and if it can deliver its claimed performance at a competitive price, Cadillac just might have the hit its been hoping for.
Despite the dynamic changes at Cadillac, it still has a long way to go before it can compete with its European and Japanese rivals. The spinoff from GM and the ambitious dealership restructuring are risky but important first steps. If Cadillac wants to regain a premium cachet, it needs every aspect of the ownership experience to feel high-end – and buying a Cadillac off a lot alongside Buicks and used Chevrolets doesn’t quite give the same premium experience that a smaller, specialized dealership can offer. Even while sales slide, Cadillac’s lineup is the strongest it’s been in modern history, it needs to aggressively promote its cars if it wants to succeed in the modern luxury marketplace.
Since its introduction last spring, the all-new 2015 Escalade has been the sole bright spot in Cadillac’s sagging sales figures. Falling gas prices and an attractive new design accounted for a 149% sales increase over the SUV’s January 2014 numbers, while sales of nearly every other Cadillac model slumped. The full-size SUV has a reputation for size, comfort, and luxury that Cadillac’s cars once enjoyed, and with Cadillac increasing production to keep up with rising demand, the Escalade is a runaway hit. The brand can now focus on giving its cars the exposure they deserve.
Cadillac’s “Art and Science” design language continues to get sharper with each new generation of car, and after years of struggling, its interiors are finally world class. The performance-oriented ATS-V and CTS-V sedans are legitimate contenders to the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, and the BMW M3 and M5, and if the CT6 can make good on its combination of size and performance, Cadillac will have a full-size performance car that fills a niche without much direct competition. To take on the premium rear-wheel drive sedans like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and BMW 7-Series, and Audi A8, the brand recently confirmed it’s moving even further upmarket with plans for an even larger premium sedan to be called either the CT8 or CT9, a car that should play an integral role in Cadillac’s next big step: China.
While the brand needs to regain its footing in the domestic market, Cadillac’s success is instrumental in GM’s plans for expansion into China – a market that GM believes will be Cadillac’s largest by 2020. China’s market for full-size luxury cars has exploded in recent years, and a competitive flagship CT that can compete against the best Germany has to offer would help introduce the brand to the world’s fastest-growing auto market in a big way.
General Motors’ decision to give Cadillac autonomy is based on how much it expects from the brand – and de Nysschen. The hardest part for Cadillac is over, it’s already building great cars. Now it just needs to get people to pay attention. The move away from Detroit, the sales restructuring, and the rebranding is a great start. The CT6, the new naming system, a full-size flagship, and an expansion into China will undoubtedly help, too. For now, Cadillac is still nagged by a caveat attached to its cars. They’re still just “good…for a Cadillac.” But the brand has shown that it’s firmly committed to regaining that “Standard of the World” title, and with de Nysschen at the helm, Cadillac has shown that it’s serious about it. In just over 10 years, the brand has transformed from has-been to world-beater. For a company as aggressive as Cadillac, the next 10 years could prove to be even more exciting.
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