NEW YORK -- Having witnessed the dramatic unveiling of the new CT6 luxury sedan Tuesday night at a swanky soiree on the Brooklyn waterfront, I think it’s safe to say that Cadillac has something very special in its stable.
But it’s not the CT6.
For sure, the new range-topper from Cadillac looks like a capable vehicle. Brand chief Johan de Nysschen described it as being as large as a standard-wheelbase BMW 7-series, but as light as the Cadillac CTS, one class below. It comes with a suite of fuel-saving technology, including lightweight materials, cylinder deactivation, a stop-start engine and an eight-speed transmission. A shopper comparing the field of large luxury sedans would have to give the CT6 its due.
But bottom line, the CT6 is a car that can be compared with others. At this stage in its brand story, what Cadillac needs is more vehicles that are simply incomparable.
For now, that distinction belongs to the Escalade. This thought struck me last night as I challenged my 22-year-old nephew, a college student who plans to pursue a career in advertising in New York, to tell me what he might do to help revive a brand like Cadillac.
He was stumped. He knew Cadillac was a storied American brand, but didn’t know why. He could scarcely believe that Cadillac once represented the pinnacle of luxury. Whatever it was that once distinguished Cadillac, it’s been lost on people his age.
But when I mentioned the word “Escalade,” something clicked.
He could readily tell me what that vehicle represented, who would drive one, who would desire one and how he might feel if he were behind the wheel of one: big, bold, important, influential, self-assured, unapologetic. The Escalade, he said -- echoing the very words I once heard from Cadillac marketing chief Uwe Ellinghaus -- “is a brand unto itself,” bigger than Cadillac.
Outside the definitions
That’s a remarkable status for a vehicle that’s basically a dressed up Chevy Tahoe, which, in turn, is derived from a full-size pickup. The Escalade is derivative, and yet it isn’t. It doesn’t do, or try to do, anything that the German luxury brands do. It will even stand outside the alphanumeric naming system that Cadillac’s executive team is applying across the brand’s lineup.
It’s not a performance vehicle or a technology showcase. It simply is.
De Nysschen has aptly said that the Escalade can be a template for the rest of Cadillac, in the sense that its tight supplies support higher transaction prices and profits and help convey exclusivity. That’s the “top down” luxury strategy he has been preaching.
But the Escalade should also serve as a benchmark for each of Cadillac’s coming products.
Consider that long after the luster of Cadillac faded in the 1980s and ’90s, people continued to invoke the glamour of the brand in phrases like “the Cadillac of school buses,” “the Cadillac of washing machines” or “Cadillac health plans,” even as they had begun to regard Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz as the true Cadillacs of automobiles.
Escalade, too, has that metaphorical power.
Cadillac is working on filling the gaps in its lineup to better match up against the Germans, and the CT6 is a good start. But the challenge for Cadillac as it seeks to regain its prestige is to set the bar even higher, to create incomparable vehicles that are brands unto themselves: An Escalade of sport sedans. An Escalade of crossovers. An Escalade of luxury coupes.
That would be something special.