Industry Analysis: Cadillac Has No Soul, Is In A Fight For Its Life, And General Motors Knows It

What is American automotive luxury?

Cadillac and Lincoln have repeatedly failed to answer that question for quite some time. At least until recently. Lincoln, a former pariah among luxury brands, has finally turned itself around, and in the process earned the respect of the automotive intelligentsia. Meanwhile, Cadillac is basically doing the “Bird Box challenge,” ambling around blindfolded in an effort to survive. General Motors has a real problem on its hands. And if they don’t solve it, their top tier brand is in big trouble.

Some of you might be scratching your heads at that opening statement. Cadillac, after all, beat Lincoln in total 2018 sales by about 50,000 units. And the Escalade and XT5 handily outsold their American competitors as well. The problem with that line of thinking is that it ignores the rapid (and continuing) sales climb the Navigator experienced when the vastly improved model arrived in 2017 for the 2018 model year. And the XT5 lost about 8,000 units in sales when compared to 2017.

Lincoln is essentially just one nameplate away from matching Cadillac in sales. And this year they revealed the vehicle that will probably do just that: the 2020 Lincoln Aviator. With fresh styling, an attractive exterior, and a cabin that mimics the Navigator in the best way possible, the Aviator is poised to be a hit.

On the Aviator, Lincoln’s twin turbo 3.0 liter V6 will be paired with Ford’s new ten speed automatic transmission and boast an output of 400 horsepower and 400 Ib-ft of torque. That powertrain is standard. A 3.0 liter twin turbo V6 plug-in hybrid is optional, and Lincoln claims that engine will be rated at 450 horsepower and 600 Ib-ft of torque. Pricing for the Aviator starts at $52,195.

By contrast, the standard powertrain in the 2019 Audi Q7 is a 2.0 liter turbo with 248 horsepower and 273 Ib-ft of torque on tap married to an eight speed automatic transmission. A 3.0 twin turbo V6 that produces 329 horsepower and 325 Ib-ft is optional and starts at $59,950. The Q7 has a base MSRP of $53,550.

When the Aviator arrives at dealerships later this year, it will boast extremely competitive powertrains and an attractive starting price that will no doubt entice many buyers. It will also be riding the wave of critical acclaim that began when it essentially debuted at the 2018 New York International Auto Show in near production form.

Cadillac will also introduce their first-ever three row unibody SUV this year. That is where similarities with the Aviator end. Critics almost universally panned the XT6 for its staid styling. And it gets worse: the only powertrain is the 3.6 liter naturally aspirated V6 that is featured in a plethora of General Motors products. With an output of 310 horsepower and 271 Ib-ft. of torque, the XT6 barely matches its competitors and does nothing particularly innovative. And that engine will be paired with GM’s nine speed automatic transmission, a unit that has proven troublesome in its platform mate, the Chevrolet Traverse.

Things aren’t any better in the cabin. The aesthetic matches every other modern Cadillac. And members of the automotive press that took the time to evaluate its interior concluded that it is notably lacking the interior quality of its competitors.

It couldn’t be more obvious that Cadillac has lost its way. And when they finally realized crossovers were the answer, they rolled out a mediocre product that is best described as a slightly fancier GMC Acadia. Or a Mazda CX-9 with all the passion removed from it.

In a few short years, Lincoln went from being the laughingstock of the industry to serious contender. Cadillac did the opposite. As Jalopnik commenter Maha pointed out, Cadillac has essentially become the stodgy and out of touch grump Kay while Lincoln stealthily evolved into the smooth-as-hell Jay. How did that happen?

Any humanities teacher worth their weight in salt will stress the importance of the thesis statement. What is a thesis statement? Its the section of an introductory paragraph where you outline exactly what your paper will accomplish. Cadillac has no thesis statement. There is no clear objective coming from anyone at the top about what the brand represents, where they’ve come from, or where they’re going. Take a break from this article and read Kristen Lee’s sit down with Steve Carlisle, now head of the division. It’s illuminating. He says everything about nothing. Here is a choice quote from that interview:

Carlisle attempted to explain it, albeit in very vague terms. “There’s a lot of Cadillac in the XT6,” he said. “The trims, styling and technology package are different; there are 20 safety and technology-related features. The packaging is different—we made adjustments in terms of spaciousness and third-row access. It’s a Cadillac.”

He didn’t add anything else, but a spokesperson sitting in on the interview chimed in to say that they’re counting on the strength of “the brand” here as well.

Cadillac cannot explain itself because they’ve been chasing the German luxury brands for years. Johan de Nysschen deserves to be criticized for his mistreatment of the brand, but Cadillac was emulating BMW and Mercedes long before he came on board. CT6? XT5? No better than names like ATS or CTS.

All would be forgiven if Cadillac actually got some results from developing sedans capable of going around a track in a way that matches its competitors, but they don’t even have that going for them. The Lincoln MKZ nearly outsold the ATS and the CTS last year. And the CT6 didn’t even break the 10,000 units for 2018.

The CT6 is the best representation of Cadillac as it currently exists. It’s the opposite of what the brand currently needs right now and is almost surely a money loser given its exclusive platform. It also demonstrates what could have been. A modern, real and all wheel drive platform with a twin turbo V6 capable of over 400 horsepower and 400 Ib-ft of torque? A performance engine that blows away anything else in the segment? Cadillac had the potential to create a monster of a three row crossover with a twin turbo V8 with 550 horsepower and 627 Ib-ft of torque. It could have had an Aviator killer. Instead, it seems that GM cut its losses and went the opposite direction by developing the cheapest and laziest full size crossover they could.

By contrast, Lincoln built its revival around two words: “Quiet Luxury.” Their opening statement explains what they’re trying to do and where they’re going. More importantly, they backed up their talking with relevant products. The Navigator, Continental, and Aviator all boast high quality interiors that match or exceed the competition. They have actual names again, a bold yet understated way of saying Lincoln is different from everyone else and even those MKwatdafuq imitators of yesteryear. And once you buy a Lincoln you’re part of an organization that completely takes the stress out of going to the dealership because they offer complimentary pickup and delivery. It’s basically the Lexus recipe for success, with some extra spice thrown in.

Lincoln reinvented itself without taking many risks. None of their new products dropped a bomb in their respective segments. The entire lineup received all their platforms, engines, and transmissions from Ford. They’re not pioneering some gee-whiz technology on some outlandish low volume halo car. But they didn’t have to. All it took was careful planning, the right vehicles, and the creation of a tactile experience that would resonate with the buying public.

Cadillac may just need some type of halo car to fight its way back from certain doom. They could at least have some sort of ethos guiding their product development.

Do they want to be a Tesla fighter? Currently, their EV program is the above rendering, and that’s it. Tesla will most likely have two electric crossovers in its lineup by the time Cadillac roles out its first EV. With a larger dealer network and the stability of an automotive company with decades of experience building cars, its entirely possible the division could compete with Tesla. But right now they’re not even standing out from their corporate brethren. And they’re running out of time. Baby Boomers won’t live forever and their kids don’t have the same affinity for the brand as they do. The clock is ticking. Cadillac needs to bring out the goods soon.

Sources/Related Reading:

Cadillac: We’ve Got One Chance” Michael Wayland, Automotive News

Lincoln is winning the battle against Cadillac” Richard Truett, Automotive News

Cadillac Has a Lot of Convincing to Do” Kristen Lee, Jalopnik

Automotive History: 1986 Ford Taurus – Good Role Models And Clear Objectives Create A Breakthrough Car