Once Cadillac's show-horse, CT6 limps to its last Detroit show

Henry Payne Nora Naughton
The Detroit News
The 2016 Cadillac CT6 at the 2015 New York International Auto Show.

For four years, the Cadillac CT6 has been the brand’s show-horse. From New York to Detroit to Los Angeles, the flagship has introduced the latest in Cadillac technology, electronics, engines, even nomenclature. Yet, in a sign of how quickly sedans have fallen from grace in the U.S. – and how Cadillac has struggled to gain market traction — the CT6 will take its final bow at this year’s auto show.

When the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant idles indefinitely this summer, the CT6 will cease production and relinquish its halo.

While Cadillac continues to try to reinvent itself as a cutting-edge luxury maker worthy of  taking on the Teutonic trinity of Mercedes, BMW and Audi, the loss of the CT6 leaves a void. Its passing not only buries the brand’s most ambitious automobile, but also, ironically, passes the flag to its oldest ship — the Chevy pickup-based Escalade SUV.

Cadillac will take the first step to fill the void in Detroit on Sunday with the introduction of another three-row sport utility, the XT6 — the first three-row ute based on a unibody  from the brand. But the front-wheel drive based XT6 reportedly will be built on the same bones as the Chevy Traverse and Buick Enclave, a far cry from the CT6’s sophistication.

It's not clear yet what kind of technology the XT6 will include when it reveals at the Winter Garden Theater in Detroit on Sunday, but Cadillac has said it will start expanding the hands-free driving technology across the lineup in 2020.

It is hard to underestimate the role the CT6 played in Cadillac’s reinvention.

The sleek sedan was unveiled ahead of the 2015 New York Auto Show just six months after Cadillac moved its headquarters to the Big Apple. The CT6 was introduced at Cadillac House in the city's Soho neighborhood.

At the time, its highly-touted president Johan de Nysschen, ex-captain of Audi’s U.S. success story, proclaimed: “The CT6 is nothing less than an entirely new approach to premium luxury — and an approach only Cadillac can offer. It is a bold endeavor that reignites a passion for driving in large luxury vehicles. In short, it is prestige luxury re-imagined.”

It was also Cadillac re-imagined.

The lightweight, rear-wheel drive based Caddy was an engineering tour de force. Its aluminum-intensive "Omega" architecture was a study in materials engineering as it combined high-strength steel and aluminum. It used laser welding and jet fighter-like steel adhesives. Despite being a size segment above Cadillac’s mid-size CTS, it tipped the scales at the same 3,700 pounds. Its tear-drop LED headlights were a new look. As were its all-new V-6 engines.

“The CT6 is the finest car we have ever made,” says Cadillac of Novi General Manager Ed Pobur matter-of-factly. Cadillac of Novi is the country’s largest Cadillac dealer.

Body shops had to be Cadillac-certified to handle the space-age materials repairs. The list of new gadgets pioneered by the CT6 was exhausting. Among them:

  • The first rear-view inside camera-mirror offering the driver an unobstructed view behind the car
  • A console touchpad that could recognize handwriting
  • A heat-sensing Enhanced Night Vision system

The flagship sedan also reset Cadillac's three-letter nomenclature, replacing it with the alphanumeric CT6, which would be followed by smaller CT5, CT4, etc., sedans. (Along the same lines, SUVs would be designated XT6, XT5, and so on.)

The innovation kept coming.

For the 2017 New York show, CT6 introduced SuperCruise, a bold leap into semi-autonomous driving that allowed extended, hands-free driving on divided highways and interstates using a cocktail of infrared, radar, GPS and mapping technologies.

Cadillac promised the technology would trickle down through its lineup. GM said in June it plans to expand SuperCruise across the Cadillac lineup starting in 2020, and later to other GM brands.

Then, just last year, de Nysschen used New York's stage to spotlight a fresh 550-horsepower, twin-turbo V-8 mill in the CT6 called the Blackwing. Naturally, the super-CT6 used the occasion to unwrap a new performance badge called V-Sport.

Then suddenly, the CT6 was sunk, swept away by GM's November announcement shuttering the Hamtramck plant and four others to restructure costs. GM is abandoning its New York headquarters and retreating back to Michigan. De Nysschen is gone.

"The issue is that sedan sales just keep falling," IHS Market auto analyst Stephanie Brinley said of the Hamtramck plant that also makes the slow-selling Chevy Volt, Chevy Impala and Buick Lacrosse. "You can't justify keeping a plant open to do just one vehicle." 

The CT6 is also made in China. Brinley believes the already-unlikely possibility of importing it is made more remote by the U.S.-China tariff spat. 

Cadillac says Hamtramck will have enough inventory after it shutters CT6 production in the second quarter to supply dealers for the rest of the model year. GM will continue to service vehicles with new parts.

Cadillac of Novi's Pobur laments the CT6's passing, but says his dealership moved just five to 10 a month. Despite being competitive with its German rivals in sales, it was outsold in 2018 by the Escalade SUV nearly 4-to-1. 

Brinley says that when the 2020 Escalade debuts later this year (built on the same all-new lightened pickup chassis as the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra), it will inherit the CT6 tech halo. Speculation centers on possible upgrades like a 48-volt battery system or perhaps plug-in hybrid model.

A Cadillac spokesperson says that despite the demise of the CT6, Cadillac is still committed to four-door cars. "We're not abandoning sedans, but retooling our Lansing plant to make replacements for the CTS and ATS cars."

Those midsize and compact cars are expected to be called, respectively, the CT5 and CT4. They are part of Cadillac's commitment to refresh its lineup with a new vehicle every six months through 2020.

Just don't expect a CT6 to be among them.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Nora Naughton covers GM for The Detroit News and can be reached at nnaughton@detroit news.com.