Opinion: Future of Cadillac is Electric, Eventually
GM promises a return to Cadillac innovation, but Lyriq EV crossover only arriving in 2022, well after GMC Hummer EV
The electric ELR plug-in hybrid coupe was easily one of and arguably Cadillac’s most visually handsome design of the past 10 years, but as soon as the low-slung two-door hit the market in 2013, the grumbles around its powertrain began.
With its powertrain based closely on the one in the ground-breaking Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV, the ELR featured a little bit more power overall, but the same impressive plug-in formula: a relatively large lithium-ion battery that offered lots of quiet in-town electric range, and a four-cylinder engine to power the electric motor, and thus enable planning-free long distance trips.
This was cutting-edge technology at the time, and its range and refinement would still qualify as one of the most advanced PHEV powertrains today, if it was still offered.
Unfortunately for Cadillac, GM launched the ELR roughly two years after the compact Volt four-door landed in late 2011 to much acclaim. With the ELR costing almost double the Volt’s price.
Cadillac hints to the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq’s sub-US$60k starting price in the U.S. suggest its performance and cost will be very reasonable within its all-electric luxury SUV class, unlike the ELR. But after GM’s top brand stated in 2109 that Cadillac would become the sprawling company’s leading brand on EV technology, there are already signs that Cadillac may not quite have learned all the hard-knock lessons its ELR experience offered.
There are clear branding and product advantages to allowing Cadillac to take the EV lead at GM. The ELR’s Caddy-after-Chevrolet PHEV timing switched the usual auto company cadence of introducing high technology first in a company’s priciest vehicles, where larger profit margins help pay for new-to-market technologies sold in lower volumes. This typically allows OEMs to ramp up supply chains for various innovations, and allows economies of scale and supplier competition to bring the price per unit of the technology down, helping the OEM to more widely spread it to other brands, and more consumers overall.
That’s what companies such as Volkswagen Group is doing now with its EVs, finally introducing its all-electric Audi e-Tron SUV and Porsche Taycan models in the past two years in North America, after both luxury brands flirted with plug-in hybrid versions of gas models at very low volumes. Those more recent Audi and Porsche BEVs will be followed by the upcoming Volkswagen ID line of battery electric vehicles at much lower prices, on a newer but lower cost platform, and selling (if all goes to plan) at much higher volumes. The Volkswagen ID.3 compact hatchback began deliveries in Europe recently, with the ID.4 crossover that will launch the ID family in Canada and the U.S. slated to arrive in 2021.
But GM never extended the use of the Volt’s widely lauded extended range EV powertrain, after years of consumer and media pleas to add the useful PHEV technology to a larger and/or more practical SUV-ish body, then the lamented 2018 death of the Volt, and even 10 years now after its launch in North America.
Interestingly, the chief powertrain engineer of the second-generation Volt, Mike Harpster, is now the global chief engineer of the Ultium battery propulsion system, which is the advanced modular electric-only powertrain that GM has detailed will be the basis of its next generation of EVs in the upcoming decade. Those batteries, in different pack sizes, will become an integral part of the vehicle structure, he explained in a recent Zoom deep dive on the Cadillac Lyriq, with him and Lyriq chief engineer Jamie Brewer.
When asked whether any plug-in hybrid (PHEV) technology may one day again be used in a Cadillac, Harpster expressed some enthusiasm still for the Volt-like tech.
“We’re a large corporation, and we’re constantly evaluating,” he said. “These motors would work great in a PHEV.”
But Brewer noted that there may be some battery energy density issues with using Ultium batteries in a PHEV, and that the cells were designed for BEV use, which is what their research has suggested Cadillac owners want most.
“We think there’s a strong desire to transition away from ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles, especially in the luxury segment,” said Brewer. “Cadillac is really leading the way on electrification, especially with battery technology.”
And yet, despite repeating often that Cadillac will be the lead brand when it comes to BEV technology, the GMC Hummer all-electric ‘supertruck’ is currently scheduled to be the first available Ultium-powered electric vehicle to arrive in Canada, with a SuperBowl ad featuring NBA megastar LeBron James already under its belt, and a production date slated for fall 2021 (and confirmed in a post-pandemic first wave update). It will offer mind-blowing specs: up to 1,000 hp, a dump truck-worthy 11,500 lb-ft of estimated torque, and zero to 97 km acceleration in roughly three seconds, said GM.
Meanwhile, the Cadillac Lyriq is reportedly only slated to arrive to the market a full year later, in late 2022 as a ’23 model. With a range of up to 485 km, and a battery size from 60 up to 100 kWh, it’s also far from the 200 kWh max offered in larger truck and SUVs, or the 644 km range GM says is possible with the largest Ultium batteries.
Granted, those vehicles are physically larger, and likely in the same or higher price ballpark as the Cadillac Lyriq, which will rival the Tesla Model Y and Audi e-Tron in the market. And there’s no doubt that the room needed for a massive 200 kWh battery would be a challenge in the mid-size Lyriq SUV, if possible at all. Yet the Lyriq’s later timing than the GMC Hummer, and more demure specs, strongly challenges GM’s stated pronouncement of Cadillac being the “vanguard of the company’s move towards an all-electric future,” a declaration the company loudly made in January 2019.
That’s not to say there’s nothing new with Cadillac or the Lyriq more specifically. Cadillac will always be known as the innovation lead at GM, said Brewer, citing the Lyriq’s 33-inch diagonal LED display, a head-up display with augmented reality, as well as a ‘supervised’ active parking function, which will allow you to park using your cellphone, if you’re within six feet or so. But there will also be over the air software updates available, none of which has been offered at GM before.
These OTA software updates have provided Tesla owners with multiple new or updated features when connected to a WiFi network overnight, such as more adding power/quick response, new customization options, and enabled new videogames while parked, among other features. Most of these additions have been free, though some have been paid, sometimes activating globally installed hardware for a few hundred dollars, such as heated rear seats, while others are multi-thousand-dollar options, such as Tesla’s Full Self Driving hardware.
Much of Cadillac’s enthusiasm on the Lyriq is based on the fac that is a ground up electric vehicle design.
“We did not just take a gas vehicle battery, and stuff some batteries in it – we’ve invested in an all-new vehicle architecture,” she said, which maximizes range and flexibility, with no bulky battery shoehorned into the trunk. “You’re not going to feel any body roll: the ride experience, the precision and the quickness of its response is really exciting,” and they’re not done tuning it, added Brewer.
Despite having no engine up front, there will not be a front trunk, as Brewer said Cadillac opted to give buyers more room in the rear cargo area by moving drivetrain components to the front. “Our research suggested one large cargo space would be better than two smaller spaces.”
Thus, the Lyriq is certainly one large leap into Cadillac’s electric future, which in the next 10 years may offer no gas-powered vehicles at all, though Cadillac execs are still leaving themselves some wiggle room on that question.
“We plan to make Cadillac an all-EV brand,” stated Brewer unequivocally. “We’re really setting ourselves up for that objective by the end of the decade.”
What we’re yet to see is whether Cadillac’s ICE-focused (until recently) executives learned the hard lessons taught by its first plug-in, the ELR, many years ago.