Pebble Beach Car Week is over. This year’s festivities marked my 12th in a row, and the world’s largest car bash/gala/anniversary felt more alive and expansive than ever. I went as a guest of Cadillac, celebrating the brand’s 120th anniversary. Caddy showed off its Project GTP Hypercar, a stealth-fighter-style concept that previews the forthcoming third-generation racing car prototype that will eventually compete in the 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans. But the beauty of the current ball from Cadillac remains the Celestiq, the forthcoming hand-built electric super sedan. How big is this thing? GM CEO Mary Barra was at Celestiq’s unveiling party; I saw her with my own eyes stuffing my maw with caviar-covered tater tots (fat and salt plus fat and salt is delicious – who knows?). Before the beef wellington and lobster were served, I was given a long, hard look at the Celestiq and asked a series of questions. Not to be one to bite the hand that feeds me foie gras, but I have some concerns.
Can Cadillac really sell $300,000 cars?
But first, it’s important to consider whether the Cadillac brand is strong enough to support a $300,000 car. My opinion: Absolutely, yes. Even more so than Maybach, I think Cadillac could compete on an equal footing with Bentley and Rolls-Royce, should GM ever choose to fully embrace that route. Yes, the Celestiq is being built to take on the upcoming EV entrants from both UK brands. And in more ways than Bentley or Rolls will ever publicly admit, the Escalade is a real competitor to both the Bentayga and Cullinan. I will always remember former head of Rolls-Royce design Giles Taylor telling me that the Cullinan needed to be made much bigger after American Rolls-Royce owners were presented with a proposal and said something along the lines of, “Do you call that an SUV? I have an Escalade on the ranch that’s three times the size!”
The success of the Celestiq is of course not a fait accompli. Everything can still go wrong. But for whatever reason, and all the “Standard of the World” slogans aside, Americans just have a soft spot in our hearts for great Cadillacs. But the XT4? Uh no. It’s a minor drawback that our Buyer’s Guide ranks 15th in its segment. Fifteenth! Cadillac needs to make sure these kinds of products are dead and buried by the time the Celestiq (pronounced “sell-EHS-tick”, not “sell-ess-TEEK”) appears in 2024. good faith to those you ask to put down three big bills, why not kill the XT4 now? “But they sell,” I hear someone say to me all the way in Michigan. As Dan Ammann, GM’s former CFO, said when Cadillac briefly moved to New York City, “It’s easy to look out your window in Detroit and think Cadillac is a success.” A rising tide lifts all ships, while anchors do the opposite. If Cadillac wants the Celestiq to succeed, it has shed dead weight.
It has to be really special and custom made
I raised the following several times at the Celestiq party: “I’ve been to Crewe. I’ve met the woman who takes 13 hours to hand stitch each Bentley steering wheel. And as a Bentley didn’t even go to Crewe and meet her, they’ve seen the video. I’ve also met the guy in Goodwood who hand paints every pinstripe on every Rolls-Royce. Got them? Did you hire these people?” I wasn’t thrilled with the answers. I heard there’s no one in the house right now to do those things on the production vehicle, but members of the design team are capable. Narrator’s voice: No one on the design team will do such a thing in the production of Celestiqs. I kept pushing and heard a worse answer: the plan is to let suppliers handle these types of items. Who, Johnson Controls? That’s just not an acceptable answer.
I’m not snobbish for the sake of being snobbish. People who have spent $300,000 on a car are doing it because they want to. It’s an unnecessary, completely unnecessary luxury. You can’t outsource the little things. You have to sweat them, which is why Bentley has a man called Clive (or something British like that) and his chisel handling the wood. To be fair to Cadillac, and since I’ve gotten several, uncoordinated answers, I don’t think the brand has all the answers yet. The car is still two years away from production. Everyone I spoke to explained how the level of customization and individual personification will be top notch in the industry. Do you have a guitar string that means something to you? Cadillac will incorporate it into the interior. The same goes for the guitar itself or grandma’s dentures – whichever you prefer. As one of those Americans with a soft spot for great Cadillacs in my heart, I want nothing more than GM to get the Celestiq right. But you have to at least reach the level of the competition before you can beat them.
What about the car?
I still can’t figure out what the design is. The size is good – read: huge – but I don’t love it and don’t hate it. I guess that means I haven’t looked at it properly yet. Yes, there were mediocre press photos and I saw the car at night at a well-attended party, but I still don’t feel like I really seen the thing. The front is imposing but eyeless, like a blind shark. The hard side is different from the point that I’m not sure what to make of it. I see an Audi concept car mixed with SUX 6000 Robocop. The back glass needs a tint and I would like to see a Celestiq in a color other than gray. The rear is, in my opinion, the most accomplished part of the design, yet there are angles – just like the new Nissan Z – that suddenly make me think ‘Hmmm’. I think the actual production version should be a grand slam knockout. Nothing should be in doubt.
The interior is comfortable, a real luxury villa with four thrones. Although, boy, it would have been cool to have seen a themed interior, one that showed off the customization Cadillac kept bragging about. Caddy, I have one of Billie Joe Armstrong’s guitar strings from a 1992 Green Day show (before they sold out!) in a box somewhere if you need it. Speaking of cool, the interior felt a little frore, like being in a robot’s lap. The Cadillac design team kept insisting, “Anything that looks like metal is metal.” Indeed, but what about leather and/or wood?
The most disturbing thing about the interior is the huge screen that stretches from one A-pillar to the next. Why is that a problem? Well, unless Cadillac has the software engineers on hand to make sure the screen is constantly filled with car-appropriate stuff, you’ll end up with a big, blank screen instead. That’s not world-class luxury. I asked if there is a way to make the screen disappear, pointing out that on both Bentleys and Rolls-Royces there are ways to hit a switch and the screen is suddenly replaced or covered in wood. Cadillac’s answer was no. But what if a customer does not want to see the screen? The key to cars like this is being able to answer yes almost regardless of the request.
There has been much sarcastic chatter about Cadillac’s plan to fly customers to the GM Technical Center in Warren, Michigan, when it comes time to modify the car. “Thanks for your $300,000, here’s your ticket to Detroit.” And, “Where is Cadillac going to lodge these wealthy clients, downtown near the Book Cadillac?” Mind you, these were Detroit dudes who made these cracks. I’ve always admired the Tech Center from a distance – it’s a mid-century architectural masterpiece – although I’ve never visited it. I’ve been to Crewe and Goodwood, Maranello and Sant’Agata Bolognese, and Porsche’s Exclusive Manufaktur showroom in Zuffenhausen, all places where people come to personalize cars at this price. It is vital to turn this kind of visit into a positive one. I think Cadillac is on the right track here.
The night after the Cadillac Celestiq party, I attended the annual Bentley Signature Party, where Bentley’s CEO Adrian Hallmark unwrapped the brand’s not very handsome Batur. (Looks like it could be the 2028 Infiniti Q60.) Once inside the fabulous house on the 17th fairway of Pebble Beach that Bentley rents year after year, I saw the whole crew from Crewe dressed like dandies. Regulate Britannia and all, but my word, the Bentley team looked well tailored. Classy, high-end, like the kind of people who might know a thing or two about selling a $300,000 car. Squad Cadillac? Way too many white T-shirts from multipacks worn under shirts. It’s a Midwestern thing, I get it, but come on.
But let’s go back all the way to the night before the Celestiq party. That evening I attended the Land Rover party where we were shown the Range Rover Carmel Edition. It will be the rarest Range Rover ever built, limited to just 17 units (one for each mile of 17-Mile Drive), has a pretty nifty interior and decals for $345,000. Yes, I spit out my champagne when the award was announced. However, Jaguar Land Rover CEO Joe Eberhardt said the only people invited to buy a Carmel Edition were standing there. I heard the car was sold out later that weekend. Maybe that means $345,000 isn’t what it used to be. Maybe Cadillac knows exactly what he’s doing. Come back here in 2024.