Payne: From V8s to EVs, how Cadillac plans to electrify performance

Posted by Talbot Payne on March 11, 2021

Cadillac plans to make a historic transition from gas to electric power by the end of this decade. It’s a tall order as General Motors Co.’s luxury brand faces daunting battery challenges including mass lithium-ion manufacturing, range and charging infrastructure.

But there is a big marketing challenge as well: how do you transition a brand synonymous with roaring V8s to whispery EVs?

Cadillac LYRIQ is based on GM's new Ultium battery platform.

For 18 years, Cadillac has gone toe-to-toe with its V-series performance badge against some of the world’s most iconic brands, including BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. The 2022 Cadillac CT4 and CT5 V-Series Blackwing models hitting showrooms this year will be the last, gas-fired V-series sedans. But the V-series badge will live on as Cadillac electrifies a new generation of performance.

“Emotion is the key,” said Cadillac Executive Chief Engineer Brandon Vivian in an interview. “We start with trying to have an emotional connection with the customer. We’ve got to think of different ways of interacting with the customer, of course, because of how the vehicle gets its energy … (but) we’re passionate about delivering performance and sophistication.”

Cadillac Executive Chief Engineer Brandon Vivian is leading Caddy's drive towards electrification.

Vivian is shepherding Caddy’s extreme electric makeover, bringing a wealth of experience having worked on GM’s original electric vehicle, the EV1, as well as V-series steeds. Cadillac traces its performance roots back over a century, a legacy the veteran engineer says is perfectly suited to lead a 21st-century EV revolution.

“Cadillac has a rich history of innovation and really creating the brand around that,” he said. “Then you look at General Motors and our zero-zero-zero based approach for emissions-crash-congestion. Cadillac is going to be at tip of spear and lead the charge.”

Cadillac’s first all-electric vehicle, the Lyriq crossover, won’t debut until early 2022, but other legacy performance brands like Porsche and Ford Motor Co.’s Mustang have introduced new EVs that try and mimic the sound of the petrol engines that made them famous. Both the Porsche Taycan and Mustang Mach E option subtle, synthetic growling sounds.

“EVs aren’t void of noise — there’s an inverter hum you have as it converts electricity, and the electric motors (have) a little bit of a characteristic to them also,” said Vivian. “EVs are playing that up or down depending on what their particular characteristics are for their brand. You’ll see us doing that both internally and externally to create a unique Cadillac sound and experience.”

Cadillac’s unique, window-rattling V8s have defined the brand on and off the track.

The Whelen Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R prototype won the Motul 100 at the Daytona Roar Before the 24. The win puts the Caddy on pole for the Rolex 24 on January 30.

The V-series has won Cadillac an international racing reputation with multiple GT championships in the V8-powered CTS-V. In IMSA’s top-dog prototype class, the 600-horsepower Cadillac DPi-V.R has been the car to beat. Last month it finished second at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, just missing out on a fifth consecutive win.

Racing has been intertwined with Cadillac’s production development this century, helping to advance everything from engines to styling to aerodynamics. But electric racing is in its infancy and has struggled to gain an audience due to batteries’ inherent limitations in range and top speed.

There is no equivalent electric racing challenge like the world-famous Rolex 24 or 24 Hours of Le Mans. Formula E, an open-wheel electric series, has attracted European manufacturers — but no automaker from this side of the pond.

“I’m not sure what Cadillac will do racing wise,” said Stephen Cole Smith, veteran racing writer with Autoweek and The Drive. “They have a great reputation now in the (IMSA) series. People are bailing out of Formula E and not that many getting in. Porsche and Audi are out of it saying they’ve learned everything they can.”

Vivian says that racing will continue to be integral to Cadillac development in the electron age.

“We relish that challenge. Going forward you see more and more (racing) series introducing different tech with different propulsion systems,” he said, though he couldn’t discuss details yet. “As we’re leading the charge into the electric space for the customer we’ve been actively talking to sanctioning bodies to lead the charge into electric racing.”

The current king of EVs, Tesla, has achieved its reputation without ever competing on track. Indeed, its flagship Model S has struggled to complete Car and Driver’s Virginia International Raceway Lightning Lap, a benchmark competition for performance production vehicles.

Cadillac LYRIQ pairs next-generation battery technology with a bold design statement which introduces a new face, proportion and presence for the brand’s new generation of EVs.

Instead, Tesla has made its reputation with neck-snapping, “Ludicrous” mode acceleration. Leveraging instant electric motor torque, YouTube is choked with videos of Teslas beating the world’s fastest gas-engine stallions down quarter-mile dragstrips.

“Tesla has established itself as the initial large EV brand. That’s just a matter of fact,” said Vivian. “We don’t see them as a direct competitor as to where we’re going with luxury performance, but certainly they have the first mover advantage.”

Ironically, Cadillac went head-to-head with the Tesla Model S from 2013-2016 with its ELR plug-in hybrid, which had a range-extending gas engine (to 340 miles) for when the 37-mile range battery ran out of juice. Priced competitively with the $70,000, 265-mile range, all-electric Model S, the ELR sold just 3,000 units before it was discontinued.

The wildly-successful Model S has since gained over 400 miles of range and spawned a family of EVs including the Model 3 sedan and Model X and Y SUVs.

“(The ELR) was fantastically styled, very luxurious vehicle,” reflected Vivian. “What we learned from that was, if were really going to make an EV — and everything the customer is demanding an EV be — then we really needed a dedicated platform.”

The engineer says that Cadillac EVs benefit from decades of learning going back to GM’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Group that launched the EV1 in 1997. Key to that experience was learning to to integrate consumer needs with political demands as governments have become increasingly forceful in dictating automotive drivetrains.

“What we learned is how to interact with more than just the customer. We had to develop infrastructure, so we had to work with utilities. We had to work with government agencies and customer at same time,” he said. “So as we move and transition (to EVs) you have to think of elements outside the vehicle.”

Cadillac’s last, gas-fired V-series won’t go quietly.

Vivian is passionate about the 2022 CT4 and CT5 Blackwings which are the most powerful Caddies ever. Covered in aerodynamic tricks learned from racing, they feature state-of-the-art V-8 and V-6 mills.

“These vehicles need to be everything we can make them as they will be the last internal-combustion engine V-series sedans,” smiled Vivian. “They are the most powerful, the most capable, the most luxurious, the most integrated, the most tech-packed vehicles we could deliver.

“The same people who design our race cars work on our (V-series). So we’ve taken all those learnings — and made sure these they’re going to be the best of the last sedans.”

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