DETROIT — Behind General Motors' bold pronouncements about a high-tech, electrified future for Cadillac lies a grimmer reality: Despite a decade of similar efforts to elevate and transform the brand, it remains in fragile shape.
Strong China results lifted Cadillac to record global volume last year, but U.S. sales for the quintessentially American luxury marque were down for the third straight year, and 2018 marked another upheaval of its executive ranks.
But Americans love a comeback story, and Cadillac, led by GM President Mark Reuss and brand chief Steve Carlisle, is promising to deliver one — first, through an influx of new and freshened sedans, crossovers and SUVs, and then through leadership of GM's charge toward all-electric vehicles.
Cadillac this month previewed an electric crossover expected in 2021 that will be the first vehicle to ride on GM's next-generation EV platform.
"We've got one chance. This is it," Reuss told Automotive News last week. "We will leave nothing on the table, but we've got to get there. ... We're going to get there."
Reuss and Carlisle expect to succeed where others have failed by leveraging Cadillac's growing popularity and profits in China, which became Cadillac's top market in 2017.
They'll be building on an aggressive product plan orchestrated by Johan de Nysschen, the former Audi and Infiniti executive who left a plodding brand-building effort unfinished when he was ousted as Cadillac's president in April.
At the same time, they're erasing some hallmarks of the previous leadership era, during which Cadillac moved its headquarters to New York, embraced esoteric marketing and sought more autonomy from executives in Detroit.
Cadillac is now giving up its New York presence entirely and relocating to a refurbished building in suburban Detroit. Reuss took oversight of Cadillac from then-GM President Dan Ammann in June.
Cadillac Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl, who returned to the auto industry after a 10-year hiatus to succeed Uwe Ellinghaus last year, is bringing more upbeat, less-pretentious marketing and advertising to the brand.
Cadillac is still dogged by a reputation as a large-car brand, she said, but there are "pieces of its heritage that are still strong in people's mind."
Returning Cadillac to some measure of its previous glory and positioning it as an EV leader promise to be a heavy lift. It means going up against not only the traditional luxury leaders from Europe, but also electrification pioneers with far stronger brands that are establishing beachheads in high-performance or luxury EVs, including Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche.
Cadillac's performance against luxury rivals during its current three-year product blitz will either build a firmer foundation for the brand to make that climb into EVs or bury it in an even deeper hole.