Avoidable Contact #72: The end, and the beginning, of the luxury car
Nine years and one month ago, I drove a ’76 Cadillac Fleetwood Talisman from Columbus to Houston at the behest of notable car collector (and brother to our Community Manager) Sanjay Mehta. That’s the short version of the story; the long version involves three Southwest flights, a mechanical breakdown in Nashville, a minor mental breakdown in Memphis, an unforgettable party with a young woman who went on to be some kind of alt-country-music star, and a deeply embarrassing interlude in which I attempted to sell my soul to the devil in the parking lot of a Church’s Chicken. I suppose you had to be there.
At the age of 39, I wasn’t quite ready to understand the Talisman, even if my daily driver at the time was a 2009 Lincoln Town Car Signature Limited. (Come to think of it, I wasn’t quite ready to understand the Town Car, either.) Conscious of my responsibility to deliver this relatively rare and certainly pristine vehicle to its proper owner, and desperately afraid to run the air conditioner in the 95-degree Mississippi heat, I couldn’t really let myself relax and enjoy the Cadillac the way it was meant to be enjoyed. To make matters worse, I remember feeling a deep sense of loss at the fact that I would probably never have a chance to experience anything like a ’76 Fleetwood in its proper context. Imagine being this car’s first owner! To spend the slightly fantastical sum of $13,767 and take delivery of what has to be the absolute pinnacle of full-sized American luxury.
The Talisman’s greatness lay in its singular focus. It was simply intended to be the most comfortable vehicle General Motors could produce. The Seville, with its chiseled contours and “Euro-sizing,” was nominally more prestigious and probably sent the right message to the right people—but next to the Talisman it was a toy, a cramped thing with self-conscious proportions and a rear seat that was practically in the lap of the front-seat occupants. By contrast, the biggest and baddest Fleetwood outside the livery game was capable of pampering its passengers and driver in equal measure, the same way standard-steel-bodied Rolls-Royces did before the Spur and Spirit gave way to the unabashedly Middle-East-focused Phantom.
There was no pretense of sport in the Fleetwood. None whatsoever. Nor was there any lip service paid to efficiency or economy. That would come in the following year, with the 1977 C-body Cadillacs. Those “downsized” 221-inchers were probably better than their predecessors in every way, but they’d caught the Dutch elm disease of giving a damn what the Joan Claybrooks and Brock Yateses of the world thought about them, a disease that would eventually lead to a disastrous further round of downsizing and a bizarre focus on BMW-beating track ability. Today’s Cadillacs are technological wonders that can slap the best German sedans in the face around Laguna Seca while interacting seamlessly with one’s smartphone—but they have never managed to shed the slightly apologetic air that they acquired in the Carter years. The last Cadillac to be absolutely sure of its station in life was this 20-foot, Medici-velour-lined five-seater from 1976.
Cadillac isn’t alone in this. There appears to be no automaker courageous enough to decouple luxury and sporting intent. Mercedes-Benz puts ridiculous spoilers and flat-black trim on the S-Class; BMW does the same for its big cars. Even Rolls-Royce feels compelled to slather its otherwise excellent cars with the gingerbread of overt aggression. Some of this has to be a side effect of our bizarre modern approach to displaying wealth. Today’s uber-rich have abandoned Savile Row in favor of an athleisure aesthetic focusing on recycled polyester clothing “sustainably made” in China. I think the idea is to always appear to have just completed a vigorous hike in the mountains, the same way it was once fashionable to appear fresh from fox hunting, but the actual net effect is to make our Illuminati look like the nerds in high-school gym class who wore color-coordinated outfits to play dodgeball.
Regardless, the market’s most expensive vehicles are all slightly embarrassed about the idea that they might be comfortable. The owners would like to be comfortable, their passengers would like to be comfortable, but focusing on that would be like being seen to enjoy a two-pack of Twinkies at Davos or something. So you get something like the AMG S63, which has quilted leather and massaging seats and a nice stereo system and double-pane glass for quiet, but then wraps it up in a driveway-scraping air dam and a hyperactive twin-turbo powertrain coupled with steamroller tires. If you want to do without all that club-racer junk, you have to pay more and get the Maybach, which is sort of, ah, I believe the English say “naff.” You’re not allowed to have your deep-pile carpet without a corresponding active-aero package.
There are two remarkable exceptions to this ridiculous state of affairs. The first is the recently-discontinued Lincoln Continental Black Label, which has absolutely zero sporting pretensions and is all the better for it. Yes, it’s fast enough, the same way that the 1976 Talisman was fast enough, but it doesn’t shout about it. There is so much to like about the Continental and only one thing to dislike: at 201 inches, it’s just too small, a consequence of having to share some underpinnings with the Ford Fusion.
The second exception is Hyundai’s Genesis G90, which with the departure of the Continental has become my favorite new car. It’s just a big ugly slug of a sedan, exactly like a 1976 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, and just as shamelessly focused on the comfort of driver and passengers. It could stand to be even larger than it is, but the home market in Korea wouldn’t care for that and they are the ones who actually buy them. It could also stand to be a bit more generously proportioned in the front half of the cabin; as with the last two generations of Lexus LS, one gets the sense that they never really expected an American six-footer to buy one.
I love the G90 for its complete lack of: black trim, spoilers, airdams, NASCAR rake, track modes, sport modes, seat bolsters, Black Series accoutrements, and so on. It has shift paddles for some reason. That’s silly. I do not want to select gears in a Genesis G90. I want the gears to be selected for me, and faultlessly so. If I want to bang out manual shifts without a clutch, I’ll do it while operating my Radical or Kawasaki ZX-14R and shorten the gearbox life in the process.
As soon as my Lincoln MKT shows some signs of being tired, I’m going to buy a Genesis G90. (This might not happen for a while; by the time my MKT was built in 2018, Ford had figured out how to make them almost everlasting, with the exception of the plastic waterpump.) I’m quite looking forward to being a harmless old man in it. I will cheerfully accept the scorn of all the Mercedes-AMG and BMW M-Sport and Cadillac V-Sport and Audi S-Whatever drivers out there. I will proceed at a lethargic but tremendously comfortable pace towards my chosen destination. I will rent an extra garage at Mid-Ohio for it every time I run a club race there. “When you’re done putting the new fender and A-arms on,” I will tell my endlessly patient crew chief, “go ahead and check the tire pressure in the G90, just so we know it’s perfect.”
My son will be hugely embarrassed by the G90. He will ask why I don’t drive my 911 to pick him up from school. I will tell him it is because Porsches are lame, 911s doubly so. He will ask why I bought a 911 in the first place, if that’s the case. I will quote Alexander Pope in response: “A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying that he is wiser today than he was yesterday. Now make sure you wipe your shoes off before you sit in my car.”
All of this supposes, of course, that Hyundai can be bothered to keep making the G90 for a few more years. I wonder if that will be the case. There’s not much market for proper luxury cars nowadays. So I might have to find my G90 on the used market. I’d really appreciate it if one of my readers would go ahead and buy a brown 5.0 RWD Ultimate model right now, just in case.
Assuming the G90 joins the Continental on the scrap heap of history, however, I think there’s a good chance that luxury cars are just about to make a comeback. You see, there’s no such thing as a properly sporting electric vehicle. Teslas and the like can perform amazing tricks on the dragstrip, and the Porsche Toucan or whatever it’s called is supposedly pretty fast around a track, but you can’t get around the fact that these cars have a literal ton of batteries in them. Heck, Tesla started with a Lotus Elise and still managed to make it a hippopotamus in fast corners.
Faced with the obvious stupidity of trying to make a super-sporty electric luxury sedan, the manufacturers are going to have to change focus a bit. If they can’t be truly sporting and/or aggressive, why not make the high-priced electrics of the future simply comfortable? They already have the edge on noise, vibration, and harshness. A Tesla Model S on 15-inch wheels and 70-series tires would probably be a pretty decent car to operate. Even more so if it had proper suspension on it. And since they’re already two-and-a-half-tons—the weight of a Fleetwood Talisman, natch—why not let them cast a bigger shadow? Cadillac is making an electric push as we speak, but they’re insisting on names that sound like they should be be accompanied by a list of side effects. Is “LYRIQ” a car, or does it treat fibromyalgia?
Here’s an idea: Make a real luxury car that happens to run on batteries. Give it Medici Velour and silence to match the grave. Then dispense with the silly names and call it something reasonable. I suggest “Fleetwood.” Who knows. Maybe I’ll trade my G90 in on it.