To finally challenge Mercedes and BMW, Cadillac had to go back to its roots

Changing minds about car brands can take a generation

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Cadillac CTS VSport

(GM/Tom Kelley Archive/Getty)

In 2011 GM’S newly rejuvenescent Cadillac brand capitalized on the glamorous occasion of the legendary Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, Calif., to introduce a new concept car called the Ciel. Nearly six metres long but just 127 centimetres tall the four-door hybrid convertible looked an enormous glistening brick, or a sci-fi ride for a 22nd-century Cruella de Vil. It caught the eye of the irreverent hosts of the great BBC car show, Top Gear.

“It looks astonishing,” Richard Hammond ventured, as he looked over some pictures of the Ciel, which was obviously intended to evoke the brand’s glorious past. “They say they are going back to their roots.”

“So,” co-host Jeremy Clarkson chimed in, “it will rock for five hours when you get out of it?”

“No!” Hammond protested.

“Does it have a 400-year-old woman from Florida in it then?”

“No!”

The scene came back to me on a recent flight to Florida—Cadillac country—when, flipping through Esquire, I discovered the editors had nominated the new Cadillac CTS VSport as a serious contender for car of the year. Seduced by its delivery of V-8 power (420 h.p.) via an efficient Twin-Turbo V-6 and its scorching performance (0–100 kph in 4.4. seconds), they went so far as to proclaim that the $70,000 car ends four successive decades of German domination of the luxury sedan category by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. It all got me thinking about the tricky business of rebranding, and how long it takes for a car’s image to catch up to its contemporary reality.

Conventional wisdom quantifies that buffer of time at roughly a generation, for the simple reason we often grow up to buy—or at least aspire to buy—those very same cars we lusted after as children. (Though as a child of the 1970s, I found that white Sedan de Villes with powder-blue velveteen seats were not my thing.) But any brand can overcome its past if it makes the right moves and has reserves of patience. For Cadillac, embarrassing false starts named V8-6-4, Cimarron and Allante finally gave to the real thing in 1992, when they relaunched the trusty Seville with sharp new creases in the bodywork, a shot of “Northstar” steroids in its V-8, and a Euro-import-style moniker: STS. The car marked Cadillac’s official adieu to padded vinyl roof covers and hubcaps with fake spokes—and in its place, the embrace of performance that eventually led to the CTS VSport.

Drive it and you may agree with the editors at Esquire. Or not. Either way, Hammond was right: Cadillac has gone back to its roots. Which even in the 1920s were not about being the pricey equal of Duesenberg or Rolls-Royce, but rather a cheaper route to power and luxury. In Florida, I passed plenty of old-timers drifting along in Caddys old and new. I was also blown past on the I-95 by a CTS VSport going twice my speed, with a vanity plate that read “VAVOOM.” Which contrasting impression will linger longest in the eyes of a child? Only time will tell.

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