A Made-from-Scratch Shot at Full-Size American Luxury

Cadillac’s flagship CT6 matches intelligence with wit.

In October 2010, Cadillac Chief Engineer Travis Hester received an internal memo, blank save for three center-spaced bullet points: “3.0-liter twin turbo. High-tech chassis and drivetrain. Full-size luxury.” From this paper, he was expected to birth a top-of-the-line car for Cadillac that would put an American-sized dent in a German-dominated market.

Hester, whom Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen calls “Mr. CT6,” had no timeline for delivery and no boundaries for design, just a mission to overcome Cadillac’s baggage as high-end geriatric auto-barge. He and Design Manager Taki Karras immediately picked up dry-erase markers and started brainstorming. Along with a few other team members, they set about “inventing a car,” to use Karras’ term.

Five laborious years of development followed, with markers giving way to clay renderings, and clay giving way to foam, all under the shadow of a post-bailout automaker trying to reinvent itself. “Having the ultimate freedom from infancy up is pretty daunting,” Karras said. “You’re making all the decisions for the car.”

Cadillac CT6 Specs

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Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6
Transmission: eight-speed automatic
Horsepower: 404
Torque: 400 lb-ft
Drive Type: all-wheel-drive
MSRP: $53,495 (base)

The resulting Cadillac CT6 is a lightweight, high-class, long-wheelbase flagship that de Nysschen says represents the “spiritual home” of the brand. The top-of-the-line Cadillac’s hallmark is its weight — or lack thereof — sitting 1,000 pounds lighter than an S-Class and 100 pounds lighter than a 5-series. Mass savings were so integral to the CT6 that, in one instance, Hester and Karras went toe to toe with a sheet metal engineer in an attempt to remove three millimeters of thickness from a panel above the doorframe. After a $1 million do-over, the pair got their wish and shed some more precious pounds. There were sacrifices too, like a subtle spoiler that was tossed out because the team couldn’t get it to properly stamp on the aluminum deck lid (steel, though accepting of the spoiler, would be heavier).

The engineer’s weight-conscious mindset was noticeable, and appreciated, while driving the CT6 on the spiraling roads east of San Diego. The car is wide, no doubt, but at least it’s not fat. The 400 horsepower, 3.0-liter twin-turbo engine has an eager, quick punch forward, and it won’t leave you wanting for power (the CT6 also comes with a sneaky-good 2.0-liter turbo four and a 3.6-liter V6). The car accelerates with a throaty roar, the noise cutting through the cabin only enough to remind you this isn’t your grandpa’s Caddy. The handling is deft, with a rear-wheel steering feature that can move the wheels out of phase, helping glide drivers in and out of lanes and tighten up turning radiuses. The car is all-wheel-drive, but engaging the “Sport” feature sends 70 percent of power to the rear wheels, in case you want to joyride a bit (I did).

Mass savings were so integral to the CT6 that, in one instance, Hester and Karras went toe to toe with a sheet metal engineer in an attempt to remove three millimeters of thickness from a panel above the doorframe.

As Karrass and I careened around the hills of San Diego, I asked him if he’s ever afraid that this vehicle — with its massively expensive development and impossibly high expectations — will flop. “Yes,” he replied before I finished the question. “Yes,” he echoed again while nodding pensively. “Because people like to box things in.”

Cadillac expects the majority of CT6’s to sell in China, where chauffeuring is more common, so the interior is indulgent and cavernous for both drivers and passengers. The upgraded backseats offer heating, cooling and massage capabilities, while Bose developed a 34-speaker (!) surround-sound system called Panaray, which is currently exclusive to the vehicle. There are retractable TVs with HDMI hookups (think Chromecast/Amazon Fire Stick), a generous allotment of USB ports and individual climate control for four different passengers. Driving the car is enjoyable, but one shouldn’t eschew the additional pleasure of a backseat massage while being driven about town.

There are treats for the driver, too, like the Rear Camera Mirror. When this feature is turned on, the rearview mirror displays a high-definition video feed from the car’s rear end, providing a wide, unobstructed view backwards. If there are camera troubles, the driver can turn it off with a quick switch and still have a standard mirror. This feature, perhaps more than any other, sums up the CT6 driving experience — forward-thinking, but not flashy; easy, but not boring.

The car, which will ship to dealers in March, stands just fine without context, but its broad importance to Cadillac can’t be ignored. As Karras said, “How relevant is the brand if you don’t have something at the top and the bottom?” A V8 iteration of the car is expected, a plug-in hybrid is imminent, and a true flagship, one positioned above the CT6, is in the pipeline for 2020. It’s obvious that the CT6 is the tentpole upon which Cadillac is building their shelter. It is less of a successor to the STS, DTS or Seville, and more of a tricky mind-flip, designed to make drivers forget that those “not very aspirational” cars, as Karras called them, ever existed. “You gotta do three generations of cars for people to respect the brand,” Karras told me. “Luxury products are word of mouth.”

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