DETROIT — Few American brand names have ever achieved the stature of Cadillac, which was once so closely identified with excellence and status that it became shorthand for anything that was top of the line. And few brands have fallen as far.
Cadillac rose to prominence a century ago as the pinnacle in General Motors’ “ladder of brands” — the ultimate destination as car owners prospered and moved up from Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick to demonstrate their success in life.
But by the 1970s it struggled with quality and failed to keep up as the definition of automotive luxury shifted from big, spacious cars with tail fins to German-engineered performance sedans. Cadillac became known as a “grandpa” car brand. It now trails far behind Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi on a global basis, and ranks just sixth in luxury vehicle sales in the United States.
“It’s almost like the brand is stuck in time,” said David Placek, president of Lexicon Branding, a marketing firm that develops brand names and strategies.
General Motors has tried for more than two decades to restore Cadillac’s standing at the top of the automotive world, with little sustained success. In 2015 it moved Cadillac’s headquarters to the SoHo district of Manhattan, aiming to immerse those shaping the brand in the kind of upscale urban setting that is a prime target for high-end products.
The image-making, however, wasn’t backed up by new cars that turned heads in the crowded luxury segment. And Cadillac again missed a shift, rolling out sedans as consumers flocked to S.U.V.s.
“Moving to New York was wishful thinking,” Mr. Placek said. “To get their edge back, it has to be all about product development first.”
G.M. embarked on the latest turnaround a year ago, when it moved the headquarters back to Detroit and named a new Cadillac president: Steve Carlisle, a Canadian engineer who has been with G.M. since 1982.
“It takes several things to come together to be able to revitalize the brand,” Mr. Carlisle said while at the wheel of a CT6 sedan zipping along Interstate 96 near Detroit. “If you’ve been off people’s radar screens, which we were, they move on to other manufacturers. We have to get back on their screens.”
The challenges are daunting. Cadillac is now in the midst of another reboot at a time when Tesla’s products and other electric cars are becoming the standard for luxury vehicles.
In some ways, Cadillac doesn’t really compete with other luxury brands. Cadillac buyers most often trade in Chevys and Fords; rarely do they trade in German makes. Almost 40 percent of Cadillac buyers are over 65, compared with 20 percent for Audi, according to Cox Automotive.
Mark Reuss, G.M.’s president, has said Cadillac had one last chance to pull off a comeback. And under Mr. Carlisle, it is betting on technology, something that distinguished Cadillac in its glory days. Under his predecessor, G.M. spent heavily to develop engines to be used only in Cadillacs. One of them, a 550-horsepower V8, became available this year — at a time when electric vehicles are captivating luxury-car buyers. Now Cadillac is planning to phase out combustion engines in favor of electric models. Within six to 10 years, Mr. Carlisle said, Cadillac’s entire line will be electric.
Mr. Carlisle, who gives a distinguished look with a head of close-cropped, silver hair and silver goatee, demonstrated another one of the selling points he is counting on: the Super Cruise driver-assistance system. Using radar and cameras, it is able to pilot a car on divided highways. Drivers don’t even need to keep their hands on the wheel. As long as they look straight ahead — an infrared camera monitors the eyes — Super Cruise does the steering, braking and accelerating as needed.
Such systems could gain wide appeal because they can make driving safer, and can make long highway drives less taxing.
As the Super Cruise system slowed the CT6 to keep a safe distance behind a silver Chrysler, Mr. Carlisle ticked off what he sees as the progress that Cadillac is making. In China, now Cadillac’s largest market, its sales are strong and growing, although car buying there over all is beginning to slow. Two new sport utility vehicles have arrived in the lineup, addressing an urgent need.
Dealers are pleased with the additions. “We were on the short end of the stick for many, many years,” said Daniel Jobe, president of Capitol Cadillac in Greenbelt, Md. With the new S.U.V.s in showrooms, he said, “I think Cadillac is going to have a very strong second half this year.”
About two-thirds of those buying one of the new S.U.V.s, called the XT5, have never owned Cadillacs before, G.M. said. That suggests that the vehicles are broadening Cadillac’s appeal.
Mr. Carlisle said G.M. also now had a winning identity that it is trying to infuse Cadillac with. In a previous turnaround push, Cadillac tried to be an American version of BMW.
“We’re not trying to out-German the Germans anymore,” he said. “We have to find our own audience. When Cadillac has done its best, it is when we have represented the best of technology and innovation.”
One part of the plan is for Cadillac to add electric vehicles to compete with Tesla, which in just a few years has become one of the leading sellers of upscale cars. A sedan coming next year will have a digital backbone to allow G.M. to send some over-the-air software updates to the car, a feature that Tesla pioneered and has made a hallmark of its cars.
As Mr. Carlisle’s CT6 neared an interchange, he laced his hands back on the steering wheel and took back control of the car from Super Cruise. The system is not yet capable of navigating from one highway to another, but Mr. Carlisle said that will be added at some point.
The system has the potential to set Cadillac apart from other luxury brands, even Tesla. Competing systems require drivers to keep their hands on the steering wheel, which almost defeats the purpose of having the car steer itself. None have the infrared camera to ensure drivers keep their eyes on the road and can’t give in to the temptation to gaze at their phones or anything else.
While Tesla drivers are supposed to keep their hands on the steering wheel while using the company’s Autopilot technology, that system can continue hands-free operating for one or several minutes, depending on the driving conditions. Tesla acknowledges that Autopilot can have trouble detecting stationary objects like stopped or parked cars or highway barriers, and three crashes resulting in fatalities have occurred when Autopilot was engaged but failed to detect obstacles in the road.
The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that tracks traffic accidents, said it was unaware of any crashes involving Super Cruise in the two years it has been on the market.
As we headed back to Detroit in the CT6, Super Cruise alerted Mr. Carlisle to take control of the car on a stretch of I-94. Drawing on data from digital maps, the system knew that the car was about to enter a construction zone, a confusing driving environment where a human should be in control. By the time orange barrels appeared along the side of the highway, Mr. Carlisle had his hands back in the 10-and-2 position.
Super Cruise “is the only system on the market that will tell you ahead of time that you have to take over,” said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, which evaluated a variety of driver assistance systems last fall and scored Super Cruise above all others.
The potential of Super Cruise and future electric vehicles to reinvigorate Cadillac could be offset by long lead times that leave the strategy vulnerable to changes in the economy and consumer tastes, as well as competitors’ own initiatives. Cadillac’s first electric model, an S.U.V., won’t arrive for three years. By then, the market is likely to be crowded. Jaguar and Audi have just introduced their own electric S.U.V.s, and others are coming next year from Mercedes, BMW and Porsche.
“They have to establish what Cadillac stands for quickly,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry. “Otherwise, they’re still going to be looking at declining sales.”
And despite all the accolades Super Cruise has garnered, G.M. is doing little to take advantage of the technology. It is available only on the slow-selling CT6, as part of an options package that pushes the price to $78,000. The car’s sales have fallen 60 percent this year, and G.M. is considering halting production in January. The system will become available in a smaller sedan next year, the CT5. But S.U.V. models won’t get Super Cruise for another two years or so. That means the brand’s signature technology won’t be on its most popular models for some time.
“That’s just one of these unfortunate prioritization dilemmas,” Mr. Carlisle said, again sitting back, hands free, while Super Cruise piloted us down I-94. “Had we thought of it a little earlier, we would have gotten to it sooner.”