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Is the 2016 Cadillac CT6 the Rock Star the Brand Needs?

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Cadillac’s ATS and CTS play confidently in the same sandbox with the best from Europe and Japan. My recent drive of the ATS-V revealed that BMW’s legendary M3/M4 may no longer be king of the racetrack. That’s because Cadillac is nailing the chassis dynamics on its automobiles, demonstrating how a luxury car can feel balanced and special when pushed hard.

Sadly for Cadillac, luxury car consumers have responded by avoiding its dealerships. Positive car-magazine reviews haven’t helped. Much is riding on the new full-size luxury sedan, the 2016 Cadillac CT6, launching late this year.

I recently spoke with its chief engineer, Travis Hester, about the car. He joined General Motors in 1995, and after 10 years with Holden in his native Australia, he came to the U.S. to oversee the Zeta platform (underpinning the Holden Commodore and Chevrolet Camaro). Hester knows a thing or two about rear-wheel-drive cars.

The CT6 “was the natural transition after the ATS and CTS,” Hester says. “We knew we wanted a car that was one phase bigger. We knew we wanted it to have the same performance attributes as the other vehicles — a very athletic, performance-oriented vehicle.”

On face value, that sounds like a good plan; ride the wave of magazine accolades enjoyed by the smaller cars. But it makes me wonder whether Cadillac is spending too much time trying to impress the lap-time and oversteer-mad automotive media instead of building cars that mainstream luxury consumers want to live with.

Consider the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Sure, the long-wheelbase model (the only version offered in the U.S.) is a bit bigger than the 2016 Cadillac CT6, but since it’s arguably the best luxury car on the market today, it serves as an excellent benchmark for Cadillac. The S-Class is no back-roads dancer, however. Even the AMG versions aren’t proper sport sedans despite their insanely fast straight-line pace. The S63 and S65 AMG give buyers the perception of a sporty chassis with little day-to-day compromise outside of a fruitier exhaust note. If you took an S-Class — even an AMG model — to a racetrack, it wouldn’t impress. What do you expect for a sedan that weighs nearly 5,000 pounds, or roughly half a ton more than the CT6? Does that matter to the average buyer? Not one bit.

So, let’s assume Hester and his team make the CT6 a better track car than the S-Class. What does that really mean outside of better handling numbers in the magazine reviews?

Cadillac’s latest RWD models feel good when thrashed, but I don’t thrash luxury cars on the street very often, nor do the owners of such cars. The Cadillac CTS is a far better car on track compared to the Mercedes E-Class or Audi A6, but that doesn’t mean I’d take the Cadillac over the German offerings for a daily driver. A car that handles well and rotates nicely through a corner might win comparison tests, but luxury consumers want rolling refinement and comfort, qualities missing in the Cadillac ATS and CTS. The CT6 will not be a success without having such qualities, even if it’s not a direct competitor of the Mercedes S-Class or BMW 7 Series.

“It’s going to be hard for people to get their head around (the CT6), I think,” Hester says. “It’s going to fit between the segments. It’s going to give better drivability than the big cars and it’s going to give more spaciousness than the smaller cars. We have better body stiffness, we have lighter mass, we have better vehicle dynamics. But then when you compare it to your (BMW) 5 Series and (Audi) A6, we’re physically bigger and we’re going to offer the customer more space.” Cadillac will make all-wheel drive standard on the CT6 when equipped with either the 3.6-liter V-6 or the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6; RWD comes only with the base 2.0-liter turbo-four.

Hester says the 2016 Cadillac CT6 is about the same size as the standard-wheelbase 7 Series, which is not returning to the U.S. market with the new 2016 model. The Cadillac is shorter than a long-wheelbase 7 Series, which BMW will continue to import.

And the CT6 won’t mark the end of Cadillac’s plan to increase the model count.

“When we put CT6 out, that doesn’t mean that’s the end of what we intend to do,” Hester notes. “We can do cars that are bigger (than CT6) but there is no point in developing a car that’s not in keeping with the development of our products. It makes more sense to go from CTS to CT6, and then our next car will be the bigger one. It would make less sense to go and create, say, a CT7 and then not have a CT6. That would not have helped out in the dealership.”

I am confident that Cadillac has learned from disappointing sales of the ATS and CTS, and the development team knows it needs to get the CT6 right. China is a huge market for this car, and buyers in that region aren’t known for their appreciation of sporty automobiles.

“Every time we did a research event in either Los Angeles or New York, we’d do a corresponding one with the exact same properties, questions, and discussion points in China,” in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, Hester says. “We talked to those customers as much as we did with those in the U.S, to make sure we really understood what customers really want between the regions. They want the luxury execution and the nice features, but it’s all about the fit, finish, craftsmanship, and the quality in the car. The feature desires were pretty similar in each country.”

That gives me hope that the 2016 Cadillac CT6’s chassis will find a better balance between ride and handling. But what do you think about Cadillac and the CT6? Will this new, large sedan be just what the legendary automaker needs to return to greatness?