Cadillac established itself as the luxury-car standard at the dawn of the 20th century for innovations like electric self-starting, closed-body styling and powerful V-8 engines.
Spin forward 100 years and upstart Tesla has become the 21st-century innovator.
By reinventing the electric vehicle as a sleek performance machine, Tesla’s Model S has captured the imagination of America’s premium buyer to become one of the best-selling luxury sedans in the States. It has forced its chief rivals — BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Cadillac — to develop their own electron-charged chariots to keep up. Indeed, Cadillac is not only a shadow of its former self, it is in danger of being rendered an anachronism. Tesla has transformed the auto into a smartphone on wheels complete with supercar acceleration, iPad-like touchscreen and spacious interior.
Where young Americans once aspired to Cadillacs, today they covet Tesla.
The brand is omnipresent in big, premium-car coastal markets. Mention to my locker-room pals that I have a Tesla tester and they’ll line up like kids at Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster roller coaster. Aware that its future is at stake — from German and Yankee alike — Cadillac has moved its headquarters to New York City, hired Audi-meister Johan de Nysschen and introduced its best luxury sedan ever.
Its Tesla fighter is the $76,090 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In and I took it had-to-head with the formidable Model S in back-to-back, long-distance tests this summer.
With its lightweight construction, gorgeous styling and battery-assist, the plug-in hybrid version of the CT6 is a thoroughly modern Caddy. It’s also a bargain next to similar Mercedes S-class and BMW 7-series hybrids. But next to the state-of the-art Tesla, it feels sooo 15 minutes ago.
To be clear, my Tesla tester was the top-of-the-line, $152,700 P100D. This legend-in-its-own-time speedster can spring from 0-60 mph in just 2.4 seconds in “Ludicrous” mode. That’s the same time as Ferrari’s $1.2 million LaFerrari supercar. But strip away the P100D’s bigger battery, all-wheel drive, carbon-fiber trim and expensive add-ons like “Bioweapons Defense Mode” (ahem, cabin air-filter) and you get a Model S 75 for the same price as the Caddy.
Nothing else is the same. The Model S crushes the Caddy in every metric — performance, interior space, cool factor — save one: range anxiety, the EV’s kryptonite. The CT-6 Plug-In’s 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-4 cylinder gasoline engine will get you home even if the battery gets low.
The Tesla lets you know immediately it’s not the usual blind-date. Seductive, wide hips taper to a long front hood anchored by almond-shaped LED headlights. Gone is the original ill-considered, plastic faux-grille (EVs need grilles like animals need gills), replaced by a simple, Tesla graphic. The Tesla’s beak is like a falcon trolling for prey.
Step toward the Model S and its flush, silver door handles step out to meet you. Slip inside and it starts itself (assuming you haven’t already prepped the cockpit with a remote app — a feature the Cadillac shares). The design is Apple-like — elegant and spartan. It’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s vision of the iPhone on wheels.
The CT6 is the prettiest Cadillac I’ve laid eyes on, the mature realization of the brand’s edgy Art & Science design language. Its pentagon-shaped grille dominates the front canvas, the headlights artfully pushed to the edges. The theme is repeated inside with an 8-inch pentagon screen, crafted dash, and yacht-like T-shifter. But it looks conventional compared to Tesla’s rendering.
With its simple driveline in the floor, the Model S’s luggage space is yuuuge. Where the Cadillac’s front hood is stuffed with an engine block, the Tesla offers a suitcase-swallowing “frunk.” The CT6’s battery eats up half the trunk and freezes the rear seats in place. The Tesla’s hatchback configuration can seat three or fold flat for acres of space for luggage or on-your-back star-gazing.
Six years after its introduction, the Tesla’s giant 17-inch console screen still gets gasps from the neighbors. There’s nothing like it on the market. Also unique is Tesla’s Google maps navigation, just like a smartphone. It’s the best navigation system on the planet. Why every automaker doesn’t contract with Google is beyond me. Instead, they (including Cadillac) insist on inferior, homemade navigation systems complemented by apps that mimic your phone’s nav. Awkward.
I bark my destination to the Tesla and we’re off like lightning. Talk about merging with authority. Floor the pedal and — ZOT! — instant torque shoots the S into traffic like a harpoon from a gun.
The Caddy is more laborious. Even when fully charged to 31-mile EV range, the battery defers to the turbo-four gas engine for hard acceleration causing a momentary balk as the transmission downshifts (the buzz of a four-cylinder doesn’t become a $75,000 chariot, either).
Through the hills, both vehicles feel a size smaller. Like 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant knifing through the lane, these are athletes. Despite topping the lightweight CT6 by 400 pounds, the battery-powered Tesla feels more grounded thanks to its Porsche-like, low center-of-gravity.
But the Tesla’s playpen is only as big as the nearest supercharger. The gas-assisted Caddy’s range is limitless.
After electrifying the Pacific Coast with its handling and acceleration, my P100D drank 157 miles of range while covering 90 miles. Arriving at a Mountain View supercharger at 9:30 p.m., all 12 chargers were used with a waiting line four-deep. I shuddered at the thought of tens of thousands of cheaper Model 3s flooding the market next year — even as Tesla doubles its network. I retreated to my son’s apartment complex where a 240-volt Chargepoint station refueled the S for $21 over 101/2 hours.
The CT6’s charge lasted just past Clarkston up Interstate 75, but then I hoofed it the rest of the way to Charlevoix on gasoline.
A Tesla friend from Chicago met me there, sans Tesla. Up North would be a dead end for his Model S (not to mention the hassle of an hour-long, supercharger delay along the way). Charging the Tesla on the 120-volt socket in our weekend cabin would have taken a lifetime (heck, it took 19 hours to fully charge the 30-mile Caddy!), while recharging it on the local utility’s 240-volt teat would render the car nearly useless for the weekend.
So the Caddy wins the long-distance prize. And everyone else learns the limitations of mass-market EVs.
But for those who can afford a $76,000 Tesla or Caddy, they can also spare change for a second, multi-purpose vehicle. For daily use, Tesla is the 21st-century standard.
Once the teacher, the handsome Cadillac is now the student. It has some learning to do.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In
Front-engine, rear-wheel drive,
five-passenger luxury sedan
18.4 kWh lithium-ion battery pack with
AC motor; 2.0-liter, turbocharged,
Continuously variable automatic
335 horsepower, 432 pound-feet
torque (total system power)
0-60 mph, 5.2 seconds (mftr.);
78 mph top speed in EV mode
31 miles on full charge; EPA est.
62 MPe (34.7 total mpg as tested on
Competitive price; gas engine for
battery robs trunk space
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★
Tesla Model S
Electric, front and all-wheel drive,
five-passenger luxury sedan
75-100 kWh lithium-ion battery with
electric motor drive
4,469 pounds (4,941 P100D as tested)
$74,500 Model S 75 base ($152,700
P100D as tested
382 horsepower, 325 pound-feet
torque (605 hp, 687 torque P100D
0-60 mph, 4.3 seconds base model
(mnftr.); 2.4 sec., P100D
Range: 249 miles, base (315
mi. P100D. 157 miles of range to cover
90 miles as tested)
Luxury reinvented; massive cargo
space from frunk to rear
Less range when driven to capability;
charging infrastructure limitations