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While Mercedes debuts another knockout C-class, Cadillac bets on the future

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Mercedes unveiled its all-new C-class Tuesday, and it’s stunning. With its curved, space-age screen rising from the console, state-of-the-art "MBUX" voice recognition, and smooth, 255-horse turbo engine with 48-volt battery assist, Merc's best-selling sedan reasserts the automaker’s place — along with the BMW 3-series and Tesla Model 3 — as the most coveted luxury car in autodom.

It’s a big reason why GM's luxury brand, Cadillac, is swinging for the fences by going all-electric in 2030.

Despite producing swift chariots on par with its rivals in athleticism, Caddy has struggled to keep up. Going electric is a chance to reset by leap-frogging the competition in technology.

“That’s how extreme you have to go to stay relevant in today’s luxury market,” said ISeeCars executive auto analyst Karl Brauer while swooning over the C-class' new interior. “It’s not good enough for Cadillac to be as good as the Europeans. They have to be over the top on tech, design, and drivetrain.”

To that end, Cadillac has unveiled its first EV, the mid-sized Cadillac Lyriq SUV, that matches Mercedes in interior wow factor. Then it takes it up a notch by promising a dual-motor, skateboard electric chassis like Tesla.

The Lyriq boasts a 33-inch, curved LED screen that stretches from behind the steering wheel across the dash — a sculpture as dramatic as the Mercedes’ 12-inch masterpiece. Mercedes’ self-driving features allow automatic lane changes — just like Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. Building on Cadillac’s Super Cruise driver-assist technology, the Lyriq will introduce “augmented reality" feature — projecting two planes of driver information over the road in front of the car.

The new Cadillac Lyriq electric crossover has a 33-inch display screen.

But it's Cadillac’s commitment to an all-EV lineup in just nine short years that it hopes will help it stand out to new, Generation Tesla car buyers against the European juggernaut.

Significantly, Mercedes  — which has defined luxury for decades — has not felt the need to target an all-electric future until 2039. “By 2030 we aim to have electric models make up more than half of our car sales — that includes all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids,” the company announced in 2019.

But for Cadillac, the future is now or never.

“Cadillac is a small financial risk for General Motors, so they can swing for the fences,” said Brauer. “A lot of statements made today about the electric future are meant to benefit brands like Cadillac in the present. Mercedes doesn’t need to do that because they define the market today.”

The Cadillac Lyriq that debuted Thursday night will hit dealerships late next year.

In addition to its interior tech, the 2022 C-class (due on dealer lots early next year at a likely starting price of about $43,000) doubles down on the design traits that luxury buyers covet: giant, chrome star anchoring the front grille, aviator vents anchoring the horizontal dash, coupe-like roof flowing across an expanded wheelbase.

Cadillac has tried to match Mercedes in sedan segments (as well as SUVs) with its CTS and ATS — recently rebadged as the CT4 and CT5. Tested on Germany’s famed Nürburgring race track, the Caddys received raves from the motoring press for their agility and power — and for V-series performance variants that went stride-for-stride with high-end Merc AMG models.

But ATS sales never crested 40,000 in the states, while the C-class often doubled that.

“Along with Mazda, Cadillac is one of the most underappreciated brands in the market,” said Brauer. “If you drive (a Cadillac sedan) it was right there with the Germans.”

In announcing his new C-class Tuesday, Mercedes CEO Ola Källenius expressed his confidence the sedan would set a new standard: "The C-Class is already our best-selling sedan. Our most successful model range will once again raise the bar as the most sophisticated offering in its segment."

With its new lineup of EVs coming by decade's end, Cadillac hopes it will capture some of the magic that has made Tesla as desirable as Mercedes. In 2020, the Model 3 sold a segment-best 206,500 units.

The 2022 Mercedes-Benz C-class is all new and will arrive in dealerships early next year.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.