Cadillac thinks its hand-built electric car can take on Rolls-Royce

The Celestiq, an electric car, is expected to cost as much as $300,000 when it goes on sale, a figure first reported by the Wall Street Journal and which GM has not officially confirmed or disputed. GM has not yet announced a date when actual production will begin. The vehicle GM unveiled is a “show car” version of the Celestiq, but executives have said the production will be very close in appearance except that it will be highly customizable by individual buyers.

Cadillac has sold cars costing six-figure sums before, but those were usually just over $100,000 and they’ve usually been Cadillac Escalades loaded up with options. The Celstiq takes General Motors’ luxury brand into direct competition with brands like Bentley and Rolls-Royce that routinely sell cars at these sorts of prices.

This is territory Cadillac hasn’t occupied since at least 1957, when Cadillac offered the Eldorado Brougham, said John Wiley, manager of valuation analytics at Hagerty, a company that closely tracks the collector car market. GM made only 400 Eldorado Broughams and they were entirely hand-assembled, not made on an assembly line. When it was new, the Eldorado cost just over $13,000 at a time when a Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud could be purchased for about $16,000, said Wiley. (Adjusted for inflation, those figures would be roughly 10 times as much today.) Ironically, as a collectible car, a Cadillac Eldorado Brougham is today worth more than twice as much as a Silver Royce Silver Cloud, said Wiley.

It’s a bold move for the company which has repeatedly sought to re-identify itself for the past two decades. The first attempt was the Cadillac CTS, introduced in 2003, as the entry-level luxury American car to beat the BMW 3 Series. With its angular styling and crisp handling, it was a sharp departure from the comfortable cruising Cadillacs of past years. But the CTS reached its apex with just over 60,000 sold in 2005. Production ended in 2019. In most years, BMW sold around twice as many of the 3 Series.

Cadillac has made other attempts at re-invention, including a shift to alphanumeric names for its vehicles before going back to names again. There was also an attempt at creating an exclusive engine for the brand, dubbed the “Blackwing” V8, before ending production after just two years in 2020 with fewer than 1000 made.

The Celestiq appears to be Cadillac’s latest effort to return to its roots as a one-time pinnacle of luxury.

These days Cadillac is really identified with a single product, the Escalade full-sized SUV, said Tyson Jominy, vice president for data analytics at J.D. Power. The Escalade is, by far, Cadillac’s single best-selling product, and also the one with the most pop culture cachet.

While Cadillac has had many beautiful concept cars with rare and exotic materials in recent years, such as the Cadillac Sixteen with an enormous fuel-burning engine, and the Elmiraj with an interior featuring “handpicked fallen Brazilian Rosewood.” The Celestiq is the first that will actually be put into production. It arrives shortly after the brand put into production its first electric vehicle, the Cadillac Lyriq. Cadillac will be among the first luxury brands to make the shift to being fully electric by 2030.

The shift towards electrification — for Cadillac as well as the industry as a whole — provides a unique opportunity for Cadillac to reposition itself in the eyes of customers, said Brian Moody, executive editor at Autotrader.com. Customers shopping for electric vehicles have proven to be very open to trying new brands, and the Celestiq will get attention.

“That’s exactly what they need to do to differentiate themselves,” he said.

In its early days, Cadillac’s motto was “the standard of the world,” a market position it hopes to regain with this car, GM executives have said. Cars like Celestiq serve as a point of pride for GM, setting the standard for what’s possible, according to Jominy.

“This is their beacon,” said Jominy, “It’s the beacon for their employees, for their engineers to rally around. It’s the beacon for the dealers to show ‘We do things right. This is the pinnacle of what we can do.'”

Instead of a GM factory, each Celestiq will be built at GM’s Technical Center in Warren, Michigan. The Technical Center houses GM engineers and designers, and it has various test areas and wind tunnels. There are cars that are typically built there, but they are usually ones intended for testing or display purposes, not ones sold to the public.

GM has said it is investing $81 million to prepare the Warren Technical Center, not normally a site for production car assembly, to make the Celestiq.

The Celestiq features technology already available on other Cadillac models, like Super Cruise, GM’s hands-free highway driving system. It also has a 55-inch diagonal display screen and a glass roof that can darken to different shades in each of four different zones.

What will really set it apart will be the nearly infinite level of customization available.

“Each vehicle will be a custom-commissioned celebration of a client’s individuality, leveraging innovative design, authentic materials and the latest in automotive technology,” said Rory Harvey, GM’s vice-president for Cadillac.

A 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham.
This sort of extreme individual customization — buyers will be able to choose literally any paint color they wish, for instance — is something that ultra-luxury automakers like Rolls-Royce have been offering for over a century. This is not something that Cadillac dealers are used to, and it remains to be seen how GM will handle the vehicle ordering process. “The overall experience for the customer” will be an important part of what makes the Celestiq stand out, Harvey said in a statement emailed to CNN Business.

Cadillac dealers probably already have customers in mind for the Celestiq, Jominy said. These will be people with multiple luxury cars in their garages, including at least one Escalade, he said.

“They’re already buying [Aston Martins] and others and ‘Hey, let me take a chance on this, it looks interesting.”

Some might be classic car collectors who already have a 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham in their garage. They might like the modern, electric version to park next to it.

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