But is it too little, too late?
To win the luxury race, Cadillac needs a Beast
This won’t be easy for me to admit, but here goes: I had a pretty strong reaction to President Trump’s semi-impromptu decision to join the pace lap of the Daytona 500 this weekend. I wasn’t alone in this; some of the Twitterati and the political pundits went absolutely nuts over it in ways that I cannot repeat within the electronic pages of this family-oriented publication. I read about a thousand “takes” on it. Some people think he just won the next election. Others think he directly caused the rainout and subsequent near-tragedy on the final lap. In our modern politics, as in the near-eternal battle between Camaro and Mustang, very few people can find it in their hearts to see the middle ground. (Which, in the latter, would be either the AMX or the Challenger T/A, obviously.)
My reaction was a little different. I was thinking just how proper the “Beast” looked in the midst of the Highlanders and Suburbans and whatnot out there on pit road. The Beast, of course, is that outrageous Cadillac-badged contraption which carries the President around. There are several of them in service. The most educated guesses think that it’s basically a medium-duty GM truck with automotive bodywork, weighing somewhere in the range of 22,000 pounds. That’s even more than a Challenger Hellcat; in fact, it’s as much as two Grumman Hellcats and a Challenger Hellcat combined.
The current Beast is intended to look like a Cadillac CT6, which is why it has a stubby little trunk. President Obama’s variant of it was intended to look like a Cadillac DTS or XTS but in practice it looked like a slightly perplexed Yukon Denali. This new one’s better, particularly from the front and three-quarter views. It has all the presence of a Rolls-Royce Phantom—or the Aurus Senat limo used by Vladimir Putin.
The Beast, the Phantom, and the Senat are all real-life examples of what we’d have if the full-sized luxury sedan had kept pace with the full-sized truck over the past twenty-some years. If you get in a time machine and set it to 1992, you’ll step out and see that the Cadillac Fleetwood (the rear-wheel-drive holdout, not the front-wheel-drive model) and the Lincoln Town Car cast a pretty similar shadow to the Chevy 1500 and Ford F-150 of the day. In fact, during the “Malaise” era of the seventies the sedans were tangibly bigger than the trucks. A 1975 Suburban is an inch narrower than a Fleetwood Brougham of the same year, and fifteen inches shorter.
What happened? Oh, you know—it was CAFE, the fuel economy standards which put the squeeze on Cadillacs and Lincolns but offered a loophole big enough to drive a Ford Excursion Limited through. Which is what the American buying public promptly did. If you hate the modern automotive landscape and its sea-to-shining-sea of identical 4500-pound four-cylinder station wagons on stilts, you have only CAFE to blame. The customers merely did the logical thing; they just wanted the same body-on-frame, long-term-durable rear-wheel-drive big car they’d always had. It was the federal regulations which made that same car an Explorer or Tahoe instead of an LTD or Impala.
CAFE killed the luxury sedan just as effectively as it killed its mass-market counterpart. It’s lovely to sit in and to drive an S-Class; it’s not so lovely to find yourself surrounded by a wall of steel on the freeway. There’s a profound psychological disconnect involved in dropping $180K on a new car only to find yourself starting at the doorhandles of the proles everywhere you go. The same is true for two of my favorite cars in the whole world, the Lincoln Continental and the Genesis G90. Luckily I trained for this in advance by driving a Porsche 911 for 15 years. That, too, gives you the sense of “every car around me costs one-fifth as much and is totally blocking my ability to make a safe right turn out of this McDonald’s,” but at least you have the consolation of knowing that you have an engine-out service coming and you can drive your tow vehicle during that extended period of time.
There’s a solution to this problem, and BMW figured it out fifteen years ago. Way back in the day, the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud rode much higher than the hoi polloi all around it. Even the unit-body Shadow offered a much higher “hip point” than the mass-market sedans of the day. It wasn’t until you got to the modern age, in which the Silver Seraph sat higher than a Taurus but much lower than a Jeep Grand Cherokee, where things got a bit dicey from a perceived-prestige standpoint.
The Goodwood-built Phantom solved this problem by occupying a Suburban-sized footprint with a be-trunked sedan. This didn’t bode well for CAFE compliance but since Rolls-Royce’s Phantom sales volume is about one percent of what Cadillac moved in any year of the seventies it didn’t really matter. And just like that, the prestige of the Rolls-Royce sedan was permanently restored.
Over here in the colonies, we dealt with this problem by introducing the Escalade and Navigator, both of which were pretty ragged efforts to begin with but which now behave much like proper luxury vehicles. The Navigator, in particular, has all the mojo of a ’61 Continental—it just has that mojo in the shape and size of a sperm whale. There’s just one little problem with them, and it’s this: no true luxury vehicle has a hatchback. There is always the danger that you’ll be leaving the dealership in your shiny new $110,000 Escalade and you’ll be cut off by a construction crew going out to dig a sewage trench in a rusted-out 2005 Escalade. At that point, the old joke about “now we’re just negotiating the price” comes to mind.
There’s also a real penalty in noise, vibration, and harshness which comes along with putting an echo chamber behind your passengers. My cherished 2018 Lincoln MKT is very quiet, but it’s not as quiet as a new Continental. It’s not even as quiet as the Lincoln MKS with which it shared a platform. Nor does it offer a secured steel trunk for precious cargo of the non-human kind.
The solution is starting everyone in the face, particularly if you’ve just seen the Daytona 500. Make Sedans Big Again (MSBA). The Continental should be a Navigator with a trunk. There should be an Escalade with a trunk, and it should be called Fleetwood. FCA should bring us an RAM-related Imperial.
These cars would be quieter, better-riding, and slightly lighter than the truck-wagons to which they claim cousinhood—but they would be just as imposing and just as respectable. The ride height could be set at where today’s 2WD trucks sit; there’s a point where additional ride height, like additional head height in a prospective CEO, looks less executive-suite and more Ringling Bros. Yeah, they’re going to weigh 5500 pounds. A Kia Telluride is knocking on the door of 4300. That’s just the way the business works now.
My most intelligent and perceptive readers will note that the “bear hug” of CAFE has not decreased since the big sedans were driven to extinction; in fact, it’s gotten much, much worse. Not a problem. It turns out that twenty-foot executive sedans are, in fact, the perfect platform for electric drivetrains. This is where you want dead-quiet operation, mountainous torque, and no unpleasant shifting. This is also where weight, packaging, and cost don’t matter quite as much. There’s room for a whole layer of batteries under the floor.
Range anxiety? That’s for poor people, whose lives always put them at risk of having to travel long distances in their primary vehicle to deal with an emergency or help a family member. The upper middle class solves these problems with NetJets or the Suburban Premier that’s already sitting in the garage. I’ve long considered electric vehicles to be basically playtoys for out-of-touch elites; this application makes a virtue of the inconveniences associated with electric ownership.
There’s also the sad fact that our modern-day auto executives have pandemic levels of Tech Bro Envy. The new Fleetwood would be great with the GM 6.2-liter V-8 but that wouldn’t let the RenCen set pretend to be risk-takers and disruptors. So trendy-electric powertrain it is, whether we like it or not.
It’s a can’t-miss idea. You bring back a range of hugely profitable products. You increase the prestige of your brand. You get to play around with electric stuff. I’d like to think that our country, so divided in these past years by political and moral polarization, could be reunited by this effort. Like the old Lite Beer ads.
“Consumes no fossil fuel!”
“Power reclining rear seats in Medici Velour!”
“Zero CO2 emissions!”
“Blots out the sun like the Willis Tower!”
“It’s beautiful for the climate!”
“And it looks like… the Beast!”