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“I still strongly believe the only reason Cadillac would make sense anywhere in the world is because it is American. Otherwise, it would be like everyone else. That Americanness is something we talk about quite a bit.

“What is American style? For me, it has always been about optimism, ingenuity, mixing things up like in music, and the idea you break the rules and anybody can succeed. That is a cool, positive message you can take into product,” says Andrew Smith, executive director of global Cadillac design, and it is not as telling as it would be were you to actually hear him speak those words. . .with his Australian accent. Smith has been with Cadillac in the U.S. since 2013, when he moved from his homeland, where he’d headed up design for the Holden brand. (It is interesting to note that while General Motors sold its Opel and Vauxhall brands and operations to PSA in 2017, it retains Holden).

Smith and I are talking in the Cadillac stand at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where the company had unveiled the XT6, a three-row midsize crossover. There is a vehicle nearby on a turntable. But also within the booth is a 1959 Eldorado convertible. Which may be thought to be a study in contrasts, as the Eldo is big and the definition of “American in-your-face” while the XT6 is certainly far more stylistically subdued.

Referencing the old car, Smith comments, “I’ve talked quite a bit with my boss Mike Simcoe”—another Australian who is the GM vice president of Global Design, who’d also been with Holden—"and he uses the word ‘outrageous’ when he talks about Cadillac.” Smith adds by way of tempering expectations, “Don’t expect fins—but he is pushing me fairly hard to have some fun.”

But as for the XT6, it seems to be more about “fit-for-purpose” rather than “fun.”

That is, Smith explains, “The XT6 is an interesting vehicle for me because I’ve always said a designer is a problem-solver and an artist is about self-expression.

“I felt like the XT6 wasn’t designed as designer’s dream, but as a solution to a customer’s need.” He hastens to say that this wasn’t some sort of copy-book exercise, but that they knew where they needed to slot a vehicle that would meet the demographic of those who want (or need) something smaller than an Escalade yet offered roominess for passengers and/or cargo. “We had a size footprint we wanted to get to”—and know that the XT6 has a 112.7-inch wheelbase and is 198.8 inches long, 77.3 inches wide and 68.9 inches high—“and we wanted to get an interior space so that we could have a third row that an adult could sit in for an extended period of time.” Meaning that there are a lot of three-row crossovers in which the third row serves the purpose of a penalty box.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to do in every vehicle is to make sure that the character reflects what the customer is looking for,” Smith says.

“The vehicles that we develop have two major inputs: the customer and the brand. What is the brand perspective in the segment? What makes a Cadillac a Cadillac? And what is the customer looking for?”

So while there are some people who criticize the design of the XT6 is being insufficiently Escalade-like, Smith points out that the customers for each of the vehicles is different. He says that an objective for the styling of the XT6 was to achieve a vehicle that has “a timeless and sophisticated character,” two adjectives that are unlikely to be applied to an Escalade.

And from another point of view on it, he adds, “To do the XT6 as a mini-Escalade wouldn’t make any sense because no one wants a mini anything.”

While holding design clinics is seemingly baked into all development programs nowadays—and certainly Cadillac has its share—Smith says that in his estimation, “insight is more important for a designer” than clinic scores. Consequently, he believes that “spending time with consumers and understanding how they use their vehicles, what their lifestyles are like, what their expectations are” can be more informative, and lead to something that isn’t a mini-Escalade.

One of the things that designers are sometimes told to do is to think of a particular person for whom they are designing something. Who does Smith picture as someone who is going to buy a Cadillac? “Me. When it is not you, it is hard,” he admits. But there are cases when the people he thinks about are truly others: “I have a friend who is the Escalade buyer. I know what she wants, what she is looking for.

“I have a friend who is the CT6-V Series driver. He is the guy. I know exactly what he wants. And he bought one.” (His friend was lucky because Cadillac announced that the car could be ordered the morning of January 14 and by about 2:30 pm, all 275 vehicles for the U.S. market were accounted for.)

“You can’t make up customers. If you do you end up with cars that aren’t particularly authentic. And I think that authenticity requires you to have real insight.” Which comes from real people.

One of the things that Smith believes that all people want when it comes to products and services is to feel special. He cites, for example, someone who gets on a plane in coach and is then upgraded to first class, or someone else who gets an emailed voucher for a sale. In the context of what they’re working toward the questions become, “What is Cadillac going to deliver for me? Is this vehicle or experience going to be what I expect Cadillac to do?”

So he and his team are working at not just the way the sheet metal is formed on the outside and the leather stitched on the inside, but all of the elements related to the driving experience.

As well as the experience of a Cadillac when the vehicle is doing the driving. Cadillac is leading GM’s commercial execution of autonomy-lite with its Super Cruise technology (Smith says that he’d “understood” Super Cruise, hands-off-the-wheel tech that operates on limited access highways, but really experienced it when his father was visiting from Australia. Smith drove from suburban Detroit north to Petoskey, Michigan, about 245 miles, then after arrival was sufficiently relaxed so that they decided to drive to Sault Ste. Marie, another 95 miles north, then after watching the shipping locks, drove home. “It was easy. That really surprised me.”).

Not surprisingly, Smith says that autonomy “will change the way we configure vehicles.” But what is somewhat out of the ordinary is an issue that they’re addressing: “How do you make the person riding feel physically comfortable and physically safe?” This isn’t simply an issue of comfortable seats and a solid structure but of the psychological aspects, as well. Smith contrasts the feeling that one might have were she to be in a chauffeur-driven vehicle (“You sit back and enjoy the ride”) with being in a taxi in a country where you don’t know the language (“You give the driver the destination but you don’t know if he knows where he is going. You track him on Google Maps”). Cadillac wants the experience of the former for the autonomous passenger, not the latter.

So where is Cadillac going?

It seems to come to this: “As vehicles have evolved over the last 100 years,” Smith says, “the differentiation in terms of product performance or substance has become less and less. So incremental.

“The next challenge has to be doing the experience in such a way that you stand apart.”

And so that your customer feels special.


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