Is Cadillac Stuck In A Time Loop? The Brand Has “One Last Chance” To Stage A Comeback

The brand has struggled against its luxury competition

Cadillac is once again making some major shifts.

GM’s luxury brand once had a dominating presence in American culture — something as engrained as NASCAR or football. Now, as Cadillac attempts to reinvent itself once again, you can’t help but wonder what happened from time to time. A New York Times report recently covered the brand’s latest attempt to stage a comeback against the German automakers that have since overtaken it. According to Cadillac president Steve Carlisle, that involves taking a different approach than in the past. But here’s the thing: We’ve heard that before.

When Cadillac tried to move its headquarters to New York in 2015, the move mainly focused on optics. “General Motors has tried for more than two decades to restore Cadillac’s standing at the top of the automotive world, with little sustained success,” the report points out. When the move to Manhattan didn’t work, the company reversed course and returned to Michigan. Meanwhile, Cadillac steamed forward with ill-fated models like the ELR and its sedan portfolio, at a time when other automakers jumped on the crossover bandwagon.

Cadillac ELR
Cadillac has certainly had some misses in the past few years. [Photo: Cadillac]

Those who have been following Cadillac these past several decades will point out these decisions aren’t anything new. While the brand stood as the epitome of American luxury in the mid-20th century, by the 1970s and 1980s it struggled to maintain that identity. It stuck with cavernous and thirsty cars at a time when tastes were changing toward smaller, sportier German sedans. Now as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi all heavily invest in crossovers, electrification and other hot-button automotive segments, Cadillac has fallen behind. “It’s almost like the brand is stuck in time,” president of Lexicon Branding David Placek said.

That’s worrying for Cadillac’s future, as Carlisle tries to spearhead the brand’s revival. “It takes several things to come together to be able to revitalize a brand,” he told the New York Times.

2018 Cadillac CT6 Super Cruise

Betting on Super Cruise

Cadillac is jumping into crossovers with the XT4, XT5 and XT6, addressing a critical need for dealers. After all, the brand can’t just sell sedan in a times when sedans are largely dying in the marketplace. That said, the brand’s flagship sedan, the CT6, is the company’s showcase for its technological prowess against its fierce competition. Namely, its Super Cruise system aims a shot straight across Tesla’s bow, as well as its German competition, which are also in the process of developing self-driving systems.

Right now, the technology is only available on the CT6. It’s also coming to the upcoming CT5 sedan, but what about the brand’s crossovers? Super Cruise will make its way over to there eventually, but it could be too little, too late by then. As virtually every manufacturer — especially luxury brands — develop self-driving technology, GM’s ace-in-the-hole could wind up late to the party. Ultimately, that likely won’t reverse Cadillac’s fortunes.

At a time when automakers are also investing heavily in electrification, Cadillac’s newest powertrain is its 4.2-liter twin-turbocharged “Blackwing” V-8. While Cadillac is planning electric models in the pipeline, they won’t arrive for several years. Audi already has the e-tron on sale, while Mercedes-Benz is bringing the EQC and BMW is working on its own electrification plan. Again, Cadillac may get there, but not in time to effectively compete against the competition.

Cadillac has new models in the pipeline, but will they revitalize the brand’s sales?

“We’re not trying to out-German the Germans anymore”

For a time, Cadillac’s strategy to revitalized itself seemed to be, “if you can’t beat them, join them”. As such, the brand shifted to its Art and Science philosophy. In the early 2000s, that move was meant to evoke high technology in the brand’s design language, and shake off its reputation as an old-fashioned car for old people. We did get cars like the supercharged Cadillac CTS-V out of it, but it ultimately did not translate to sales that out-pace luxury rivals.

As the New York Times and others point out, the fundamental aspect to Cadillac’s revival is establishing an identity. In an attempt to shift away from the past, Carlisle did say, “We’re not trying to out-German the Germans anymore. We have to find our own audience. When Cadillac has done its best, it is when we have represented the best of technology and innovation.”

Time will tell, but that comes down to how well GM pushes Cadillac’s technology and products moving forward. If it has its finger on the pulse of what people want and can deliver in time, we may yet see Cadillac stage a comeback. But the clock is running out, as GM president Mark Reuss points out. According to the NYT piece, he has said Cadillac has one last chance to stage a comeback.