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Can GM really make Cadillac work in Australia when Holden failed?

The Lyriq is the second Cadillac confirmed for Australia after the CTS of 2008, but the latter (a sports sedan) never made it.

Cadillac is officially returning to Australia next year.

Revealed on November 15, 2023, the news surprised nobody given the General Motors (GM) luxury brand's highly publicised global expansion plans driven by new and innovative electric vehicles (EVs) starting with the Lyriq mid-sized SUV. Journalists had been speculating for months beforehand.

But it was not the first time that the more seasoned members of the media heard that very same line either, as then-Holden managing director Chris Gubbey delivered it all the way back on December 4, 2007.

Their similarities are uncanny. "Cadillac is back, sometime next year, with an exciting new model, with more to follow, Australians will love it".

Of course, soon after that 2007 announcement, the Global Financial Crisis began to decimate luxury-car sales, ailing GM was spiralling towards Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Holden was haemorrhaging money as demand for its "Billion Dollar Baby" VE Commodore stumbled against soaring SUV sales and evaporating export markets.

That people were surprised when Gubbey's successor, Mark Reuss, pulled the pin on the then-new second-generation Cadillac CTS' imminent Australian arrival 13 months later on January 22, 2009, and just 20 days before its launch, had more to do with how fine the former vehicle engineer had cut it, and less about it being an inevitability.

GM Cadillac Global Vice President, John Roth revealed that Reuss, a GM product development director following his conclusion as Holden MD later on in 2009 and now GM president, believes the time is right for Cadillac to return to Australia. GM Cadillac Global Vice President, John Roth revealed that Reuss, a GM product development director following his conclusion as Holden MD later on in 2009 and now GM president, believes the time is right for Cadillac to return to Australia.

"We want to be able to get Cadillac right, and there's time in the future to be able to do that, but right now there's probably bigger risk that reward in doing it, so that was the point at which we made the decision," Reuss said at the time.

Economic uncertainty, unrelenting competition… so what's so different that Cadillac can succeed in Australia in the mid-2020s compared to the early 2010s?

What's changed this time around?

"Now's more about what the brand is doing from an EV transformation and luxury customer experience and what's happening in our market," according to GM Australia and NZ Managing Director, Jess Bala – who has a long and distinguished career at GM, including many years at Holden HQ at Fishermans Bend.

"Here and in New Zealand, with the EV transformation going on locally, now is definitely the right time to bring the brand in to be obviously supported by Lyriq as our first entry, and with more vehicles to come at a later date as well."

The CTS sports sedan of 2008 never made it to Australia. The CTS sports sedan of 2008 never made it to Australia.

Also in Melbourne for the Cadillac announcement, GM's Strategic Markets, Alliances and Distributors Managing Director, Ernesto Ortiz, added that now is the perfect time for the 121-year-old brand with no real market or cultural presence in Australia since the heady post-war days of the 1950s and '60s to get in on the ground floor as luxury-vehicle consumers turn to electrification.

"Australia and NZ are at a formative stage of the EV transition, which presented new opportunities for Cadillac and were important factors in selecting these countries as the first right-hand-drive markets for Lyric," he said.

"I would say also that the Ultium (battery technology as part of the scalable and purpose-built BEV3 architecture designed and engineered for global vehicles) allows us to be here, and that's a key driver for having a first-time factory-built RHD vehicle."

GM Cadillac Global Vice President, John Roth – the third senior GM personnel out for the Cadillac announcement – revealed that Reuss, a GM product development director following his conclusion as Holden MD later on in 2009 and now GM president, believes the time is right for Cadillac to return to Australia.

We may see a sedan or two to support the Lyriq, starting with the Optiq and Celestiq, respectively. We may see a sedan or two to support the Lyriq, starting with the Optiq and Celestiq, respectively.

"Mark Reuss – who is a huge fan of the Australian and NZ market – in 2015, there was this 'how to reimagine when we talk about the product renaissance that we are on' (attitude), 'reimagining that portfolio'… he was a big part of that (during the BEV3 architecture genesis)," he said. "And you can't be a global tier-one luxury provider without having RHD.

"And (Reuss') experience in the market, that whole leadership group that was in place in 2015, they spent a lot of time seriously looking at a very strategic and measured launch that you're seeing unfold today."

Part of that "very strategic and measured launch" is focusing on EV-only Cadillacs for Australia, to help establish the brand as a product and technological leader in its field.

In other words, no more Cadillac V8s. Just a wave of electric EV SUVs and maybe a sedan or two to support the Lyriq, starting with the Optiq and Celestiq, respectively.

The news surprised nobody given the General Motors (GM) luxury brand’s highly publicised global expansion plans driven by new and innovative electric vehicles (EVs) starting with the Lyriq mid-sized SUV. The news surprised nobody given the General Motors (GM) luxury brand’s highly publicised global expansion plans driven by new and innovative electric vehicles (EVs) starting with the Lyriq mid-sized SUV.

"Cadillac has announced we will be all-EV by 2030 globally," Bala said. "We will continue to assess what Cadillac is developing globally, and what is fit for our market.

"(Being EV only for Australia) is more around where the brand is heading globally. There's a shift not only from an environmental standpoint, but also from what a consumer is looking for across the globe. We've seen EV adoption jump up considerably.

"As for what the brand is trying to do as a transformative brand and be at the spearhead of technology for GM, it just makes sense that we come to Australia and NZ as an EV brand, because a lot of that tech is coming with the car, and we have a very tech-savvy customer base across the two markets."

“Now’s more about what the brand is doing from an EV transformation and luxury customer experience and what’s happening in our market,” according to GM Australia and NZ Managing Director, Jess Bala. (image credit: Ellen Dewar) “Now’s more about what the brand is doing from an EV transformation and luxury customer experience and what’s happening in our market,” according to GM Australia and NZ Managing Director, Jess Bala. (image credit: Ellen Dewar)

That said, Bala believes Cadillac is in a unique position in that it will resonate with consumers, despite not being part of the Australian motoring scene for the most part of a century, due to the name being ingrained so deeply in popular culture over generations.

"We've done brand research," she said. "We understand what the awareness level of the brand is. It hasn't been here before, but you hear it referenced in so many songs, in movies and in TV shows and things, so there's definitely recognition.

"Our job now is to be able to stand the brand up and to prove to our market why they should want a Lyriq, and we think the car speaks for itself.

GM’s Strategic Markets, Alliances and Distributors Managing Director, Ernesto Ortiz, added that now is the perfect time for the 121-year-old brand with no real market or cultural presence in Australia since the heady post-war days of the 1950s and ‘60s to get in on the ground floor as luxury-vehicle consumers turn to electrification. GM’s Strategic Markets, Alliances and Distributors Managing Director, Ernesto Ortiz, added that now is the perfect time for the 121-year-old brand with no real market or cultural presence in Australia since the heady post-war days of the 1950s and ‘60s to get in on the ground floor as luxury-vehicle consumers turn to electrification.

"We did do research for around the brand and awareness and what people resonate with and things like that, so we could understand what strengths we should be playing on as well locally, because our market is different to American markets, for example."

Finally, is Bala bracing for backlash from Holden loyalists who feel betrayed by GM's decision to axe the brand in 2020?

"There's a lot of passion behind Holden. There was then. There still is now," she said.

"But at the same time, the market is evolving as well, you see a bigger uptake to luxury goods… and attention to detail.

In other words, no more Cadillac V8s. Just a wave of electric EV SUVs. In other words, no more Cadillac V8s. Just a wave of electric EV SUVs.

"So, will there be some (resentment)? Absolutely. But is (Cadillac) for everyone? No. It is a different brand, it's a different offering, it's a different price point, because we're going after that luxury market. So, there will be some. But not everyone.

"The emotional connection that Holden had was an amazing thing. It really resonated here. I think once people see we at GM are bringing more brands back to Australia, it does generate opportunities as well, whether it's for consumers, from an employment standpoint, there are lots of opportunities to come from this as well."