Driving the new XTS at last weekend's car culture celebration in Monterey, RACER founder Paul Pfanner gets a feel for the company's aggressive commitment to re-establishing Cadillac as a true tier 1 luxury brand in the global automotive marketplace.
One of life's rewards is the perspective that comes with time. In the whirlwind five months that have followed our re-acquisition of RACER on March 20, 2012 there has been precious little of either. However that changed last Thursday when I had a rare moment to catch a breath, be in the moment and take in all that has happened during the prior 150 days.
It was only one short year ago that I found myself in Carmel Valley, Calif., for the reveal of the Cadillac Ciel concept vehicle. My place in this tableau of manufacturer and media interaction was different then. Pfanner Communications had produced the launch video for the Ciel Concept for GM Advanced Design with director/photographer and long-time RACER contributor Rick Graves and his talented production team. The shoot faced huge timing and logistical challenges but Rick is a racer at heart. He lives in the moment and he goes for it.
Our short film titled “The Journey” debuted during the Ciel's post-launch reception at Clint Eastwood's Tehama Ranch. It is something I remain very proud of and it also marked my transition from three years of being focused solely on video production to my own journey back to RACER.
So it came to pass that I was back in Carmel Valley, this time as a media guest of Cadillac during the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion/Pebble Beach weekend.
Upon arrival, I was offered the chance to drive either the new entry-level Cadillac ATS (which is aimed squarely at the dominant BMW 3-series benchmark) or the larger 2013 XTS Sedan (RIGHT). Having spent the Great Recession navigating the Carpocalypse in a BMW 5 Series, I opted for a chance to drive in the latter offering in the hope of having a more direct comparison.
I chose to avoid the various car culture orgies near Carmel By The Sea and was soon pointed inland and gliding down the winding ribbon of automotive nirvana that is the Carmel Valley Road. The XTS was composed, surprisingly agile and pleasantly precise in its feel and feedback. The interior was refined in every detail with truly premium materials and emotional design I've only seen in recent Jaguars and Audis, and a far cry from the somber sterility of the Chris Bangle-era BMW I was familiar with.
The new CUE infotainment/connectivity system only took a few minutes to acclimate to and the experience of the BOSE audio and the navigation system was truly impressive. The joy of using the Brembo front brakes was offset by a racer's desire for more power from the 304hp, 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6, but that really isn't what this car is about. What the XTS is about is a confident presence, which is evident in an aggressive stance powerfully communicated through the sophisticated evolution of Cadillac's “Art and Science” design language. As I turned to appreciate the XTS and its ATS sibling one last time in the late afternoon light, I was struck by how far Cadillac had come from the brink of irrelevance.
That evening I found myself once again at the Tehama Ranch enjoying dinner with some of the leading lights of automotive media along with Cadillac's design, marketing and PR team. At the beginning of the night Cadillac's PR man Dave Caldwell, vp of Marketing, Don Butler and GM's Global Advanced Design Director/Cadillac Brand Director, Clay Dean provided a compelling narrative detailing the positioning of Cadillac's current offerings along with a tantalizing insight into the future (and dramatic) expansion of the brand's model line in the noble quest to re-establish Cadillac as a true tier 1 luxury brand in the über-competitive global marketplace. We were told there are 10, yes 10 studios within GM working on future Cadillac models that will be revealed over the next few years. I think they might be serious about this.
From what was shared, I believe Cadillac has a real shot but the challenge is indeed daunting. The luxury category's standards are relentlessly being driven forward at every touch point by the established international players and for Cadillac (and America) to compete and win at this level, there must be a commitment to leadership in innovation, distinctive design and excellence in customer experience if the brand is to win new hearts and minds.
Creating a context for consideration is an important first step in that process. To that end, Cadillac recently aired a series of TV spots titled “Cadillac ATS vs. The World” (BELOW) to launch its all-important entry level model during the Olympic Games broadcast on NBC, as well as online documentary videos. This was certainly a very expensive undertaking and underscores GM's commitment to the brand's stature and future.
After dinner came a presentation by none other than RACER's co-founder, Jeff Zwart, who directed the Cadillac TV spots that showcased stunning locations with extreme environments in Chile, Monaco, Morocco and China and the spirited driving of Derek Hill, son of America's first World Champion, the late Phil Hill. Jeff embarked on this epic 2½-month shoot just as we re-assumed control of RACER and we had minimal contact during the production, so it was fascinating hearing Jeff's backstory of how it all came together. Due to the extreme circumstances at each location, there were no practice runs. What you see on screen is in the moment, raw and real. The overwhelmingly positive initial audience feedback and corresponding spike in Cadillac.com's web traffic is validation of this approach. It didn't hurt that Jeff and Derek are racers and are accustomed to being in the moment and going for it.
The following morning Cadillac hosted the media at The Quail Motorsports Gathering. This is one of the hardest tickets to obtain during the weekend and is an experience I strongly recommend to anyone who loves racing and high-performance cars. In this amazing place one can see giants of the auto industry, designers, drivers, celebrities, the media and most importantly, significant competition cars from the past and the latest in high-end, high-performance cars.
Naturally, with the recent passing of Carroll Shelby, his legendary Ford Cobra was the appropriate focus of the Monterey Motorsport Reunion weekend and his storied conquest of Le Mans and the FIA GT World Championship nearly 50 years ago was rightly celebrated as a pinnacle of American automotive achievement on the global stage.
In contrast to this sepia-tinted afterglow of long past glories, I was struck by something as I walked the enchanted grounds of the Quail. Cadillac was the only company displaying a current racing car – its mighty CTS-V Coupe SCCA Pirelli World Challenge GT contender. With the new ATS and XTS sharing the Cadillac display, it was a profound statement of intent. They are squarely in the moment and they are going for it.
Only time and perspective will tell if Cadillac is truly ready for the world, but it is clear that there is no turning back for America's only real hope on the global tier 1 automotive battlefield. This is Cadillac's moment of truth. Like in racing, what you see will be raw and real and the competition will be ruthless. Like any true racer, Cadillac is focused on what it has to gain rather than what it has to lose, so I like its chances.
• Paul Pfanner is the founder, CEO and Executive Publisher of RACER magazine.