Don’t listen to anybody who tries to tell you that all new cars are about the same nowadays, even if they’re referring to the inhabitants of a particular market segment. While I was at my local auto show last week, I took a few minutes to pretend that I was still my 2005-or-thereabouts self and that I was in the market for a new car. I was a different man back then: childless, fancy-free, still pushin’ those Schedule Twos, and personally addicted to flossin’ in the finest full-sized sedans that did not attract a Flying Spur’s worth of attention from the authorities.
Back then, I divided my street car, four-door wheel time between a Volkswagen Phaeton, Audi A8, and Mercedes-Benz CL55 AMG. I thought I’d look at a few bland big-ballers and pick a favorite using the same criteria that drove my decisions lo these many years ago. Started with the Genesis G90. Now this is a nice car. Lots of room, acceptable interior quality, and the blank-faced menacing mien that used to come standard with fuselage New Yorkers. And such a bargain, too. Make mine the V8 AWD. Hell, I thought about buying one right now but I can no longer justify spending more than $50,000 on a new car unless it has a snake badge on the nose.
Next up: Lincoln Continental. The G90 makes it feel tight inside but this is the one to have for interior ambiance. Bright, airy, and chock-full of unashamed, authentic design for design’s sake. I never thought the day would come when an American car would be able to compete heads-up with Audi in the cockpit, but the Continental absolutely makes the case.
Last on the list, the Cadillac CT6. Well, what can we say about that?
Here’s the complete list of what I admire about the Cadillac CT6 interior: There’s a nifty shiny-bronze-kinda-carbon-fiber strip along the bottom of the dashboard and front-door trim panels. It’s absolutely unnecessary, serves no purpose, and looks like the proverbial business. If you’re a fan of the “maker aesthetic” that has taken over Instagram with locally machined bottle openers and whatnot, then you’ll immediately connect with the idea of having a metallic decoration strip.
And there’s also … no, that’s it. Everything else is just blah. It’s all a bunch of flat-grey plastic and leather that also looks like plastic. There’s no joy in here, no sense of glamorous excess like you get in the Continental. It’s all been squeezed out by a thoroughly unfortunate concept of Cadillac as a “European performance brand.” Once again, GM is a day late and a dollar short. They brought out the HHR right as the PT Cruiser was tanking, got the Fiero GT fixed just in time to cancel it. You get the idea. This time, they’ve managed to copy the cheerless interior of an E38 740iL — a full 16 years after Mr. Bangle ushered in the era of Baroque dashboard style and materials. The old W220 S-Class was like that, too. It sucked, and I say that as someone with a lot of miles behind the wheel of that particular chassis.
I have no doubt that the CT6 is dynamically superior to the Continental and the Genesis G90. I also have zero concern that the CT6 would not be easily up to the challenge of besting a 528i around the Nurburgring. But the buyers for these cars could not care less about stuff like that. The deal that a luxury-car customer makes with the manufacturer is pretty simple: in exchange for making a monthly payment that would secure a fairly decent four-bedroom home in flyover county, the fellow making that payment expects to feel special every time he gets behind the wheel. You can do it with outrageous exterior design and a ho-hum interior; that was the Jaguar selling proposition for pretty much the whole era between XJ40 and the newest cars. You can do it with a stellar interior and a bland exterior; hello, Audi! Or you can try to impress with both, if you’re feeling frisky. But you cannot combine styling that is strongly reminiscent of the $29,999 Saturday-newspaper-sale ATS with an interior that fails to distance itself from that of a LaCrosse or even an Impala. It cannot be all the same shade of Chevy Cruze Grey.
Now I am perfectly aware that a couple of B&B commenters are already flexing their typing fingers so they can lecture me on how the CT6 is an entire league above the FWD Continental and the generic Genesis in terms of chassis engineering, aerodynamic stability, high-speed lane-change, and possibly “natural resonant frequency.” And that, right there, is the problem. Cadillac has been handed over to people who think you can engineer your way to excellence in the luxury-car market. You can’t. It has to be done with marketing.
And don’t you dare bring up Lexus as a counter-example. The original LS400 was a master class in cost-no-object engineering but nobody bought it for that reason. They bought it because it looked just like an S-Class, it based at $35,000 instead of $58,000, and the marketing emphasized that. Period, point blank. I want you to think back to the last time you saw the actual MSRP of a D-class luxury sedan in a television ad and I guarantee you it will be that first-gen LS400. The price was the whole point. The Infiniti Q45 was a better car to drive in day-to-day use — I know, I had access to both of them when they were brand new — and it didn’t sell worth a damn because the marketing was garbage. Instead of a picture of the car and the sticker price, they had rocks and trees. People already had rocks and trees. What they wanted was a discount S-Class.
To misquote the late great Frank Herbert, when marketing and engineering ride in the same cart there is no fuggin’ stopping them. The 1977 Cadillac Sedan de Ville is a great example. GM made it smaller but also better than the car it replaced, and the ad campaigns evoked the upper-middle-class lifestyle like nobody’s business. It was absolutely clear why you would buy a Cadillac and it didn’t have a single damn thing to do with engineering. You bought a Cadillac to stick it in the neighbor’s face. This was such a great idea that it was later refined into its purest form with the Lexus “Christmas bow” commercials. You ever notice how they are shot? Not from the perspective of the man giving his wife an RX350, or from the perspective of the lucky lady. It’s from the perspective of the neighbors. Oh my God, David. The Smiths next door just got a new RX350, just three weeks after your job got outsourced to Wipro. Let’s all get so depressed about this oppressive fact that we extend the bed death of our marriage another 30 days.
Cadillac has had 27 years to learn something — anything! — from the example of Lexus, but it just doesn’t seem to be able to figure it out. Look at the image that heads this article. I made it myself; I was shopping for a Chevy SS with my wife and I saw these two vehicles parked next to each other. How did this happen? It would be like calling the Buick Enclave the Buick Rega7. You can’t tell me that nobody pointed this out. I betcha the guy at the factory who gets the boxes full of trunk logos from China noticed, at least.
Listen, I understand we are in an era now where everybody is supposed to be so timid that we involuntarily gasp when we spot our own shadows. I know that in 2017 we have grown men saying “SQUEEEE!” and dressing like Totoro and Christ knows what else. I also realize that jobs are thin on the ground and nobody wanted to lose theirs by jumping up on a conference room table and yelling “EVERYTHING THAT WE HAVE DONE SINCE 1984 HAS BEEN GROSSLY INCOMPETENT!” But somebody has got to step up before we lose yet another great American nameplate the way we lost Oldsmobile.
So here’s my suggestion. Bring back the Mad Men. Find the most despicable, non-progressive, manipulative ad agency money can buy. Get the people who did the Lexus bows and tell them that the gloves are off. Starting tomorrow, everything will be done with marketing foremost in mind. No more Nurburgring times, no more class-leading lateral g. We’re gonna take the fight to Lexus with cars that are absurdly desirable. Cars that flaunt your prosperity to your neighbors. The Escalade is gonna be the bare minimum when it comes to excess displays of wealth. Buying a Cadillac should feel like putting on a red-velvet top hat and punching your boss in the face. It should be irrationally exuberant.
Of course, the engineering will lag the marketing. But I have a suggestion in the meantime. License the Genesis G90 from Hyundai. Copy the Lincoln Continental’s interior. Put fins on it. It might be a failure. But it might not be. The alternative is to keep making these bland sedans that combine a Daytona Prototype’s worth of vehicle dynamics with painfully drab looks. There is no future in that. I’m speaking for my old self when I say that. It’s one thing to be bland. It’s another thing to be too bland. Don’t listen to your cubicle mates. Listen to me!