Car Reviews

2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In Hybrid Quick Drive Review: Shanghai Special

Driving the CT6 luxury sedan's new plug-in variant

Driving the CT6 luxury sedan's new plug-in variant

For a car that’s sold only 5,570 units in the United States since its introduction, there sure are a lot of 2017 Cadillac CT6 variants. Caddy’s not-a-flagship (but oh-so-totally-a-flagship) sedan can be had here in the States with four powerplants: a sweet 2.0-liter turbo I-4, a 3.6-liter naturally aspirated V-6, a muscular 3.0-liter, and the newest of the group, a plug-in hybrid powertrain anchored by that 2.0-liter turbo-four and backed up by two electric motors. The newest, greenest variant, dubbed the 2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug-In Hybrid (with a 2.0E badge on the trunk lid), is more than just a play for environmentally conscious buyers on the West Coast—it’s a serious play at winning over the Chinese elite.

It’s no secret that the Chinese market is where most automakers are hedging their bets, and with Cadillac currently experiencing 90 percent year-over-year sales growth in the People’s Republic versus a 4.6 percent drop in the U.S. over the same period, it’s pivoting to provide the Chinese market with more of what they want.

Case in point: the new CT6 plug-in hybrid.
2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug In Hybrid lineup 05

The only variant of the CT6 sedan built in China and exported to America—the gas versions are all built in Detroit—the Shanghai-built CT6 2.0E is designed to take advantage of the Chinese government’s aggressive push to lower the country’s emissions. With the communist party incentivizing what it calls New Energy Vehicles, such as plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and electric vehicles (EVs), and some cities such as Shanghai implementing gasoline-free zones, plug-in hybrids such as the Cadillac CT6 plug-in hybrid are necessary to sustain that growth.

Thankfully the 2017 CT6 plug-in hybrid is far more than a cynical emission-incentive play. Leveraging GM’s vast experience with PHEVs such as the Chevrolet Volt and EVs such as the Chevrolet Bolt, the CT6 plug-in hybrid team has developed a luxury car that’ll be equally at home prowling the streets of Shanghai as it is cruising the boulevards of Los Angeles. The beating heart of the car isn’t actually its engine, but rather its transmission. Utilizing the two-mode hybrid system that GM co-developed with Chrysler at the end of the past decade, the CT6 2.0E’s electric-variable transmission sandwiches two 100 hp electric motors together via a CVT-like planetary gear set and puts the power to the road through a four-speed automatic transmission. Providing supplemental power to the electric motors is a 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 from the base CT6 2.0T that’s been modified to have a higher idle speed in order to allow it to generate electricity for the battery while idling. Total system power output is 335 hp and a healthy 432 lb-ft of torque. The final piece of the CT6 plug-in hybrid’s powertrain is its power pack. The plug-in hybrid has an 18.4 kWh lithium-ion battery featuring the same battery chemistry as the Chevrolet Bolt EV behind the rear seats.

Like most PHEVs, the hybridized CT6 is designed to operate in electric-only mode when the battery is charged, driving like a conventional hybrid when the speeds exceed 78 mph (125 km/h) or once the battery is depleted. Plugging into a 220 volt outlet for 4.5 hours is enough to fully charge the battery’s 192 cells, giving the Cadillac 31 miles (50 km) of range on electricity.

The car’s default Tour mode will always default to electric-only mode with the battery sufficiently charged or to hybrid mode when the juice has run dry. The CT6 also features a Hold mode to hold the battery’s state of charge in order to save the electric motors in EV-only areas of Chinese cities and in high-density low-speed situations where electric motors are most efficient.

Parked on a narrow West Los Angeles side street, little visually separates the 2017 CT6 plug-in hybrid from its less-efficient brethren at first glance. Look a little closer, and you’ll notice the extra filler cap covering the plug-in hardware on the driver’s side of the car, the small 18-inch wheels that are necessary because of the car’s relatively hefty curb weight, and the 2.0E badge on the car’s trunk. It’s the same story inside. Save for the smaller trunk (you can thank the battery pack for that) and the fully digital instrument cluster, this efficient CT6 could really be any CT6.

And then you key it on.

Silence.
2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug In Hybrid charging

With the battery fully topped off and the range meter displaying 31 miles (50 km) of EV range available, I set off on my short drive loop on electrons, and the CT6 feels like a big luxurious EV. The CT6’s electric motors have plenty of torque to get the Cadillac moving with the flow of traffic without firing the gas engine up. The car is pretty quiet and smooth rolling down the West Side’s wide boulevards. But the hint of gear whine and the odd feeling of an electric motor being shifted by a gearbox that behaves like an automatic half the time and a CVT the other half betray the CT6 for being a different animal from your run-of-the-mill luxury EV.

Like other GM-built PHEVs and EVs, the 2017 CT6 plug-in features regen-on-demand braking paddles. But Cadillac gave the system a bit of a rethink for the CT6. Instead of having a paddle on the left-hand side of the steering wheel used to modulate regenerative braking force, the CT6 has four driver-selectable regenerative modes named like BMW sports cars: M1, M2, M3, and M4 (They’re not really named after Bimmers). M4 is the default mode. It provides the least amount of regeneration and deceleration, essentially mimicking the natural engine braking that occurs in internal combustion engine-powered cars when you get off the throttle. M1 is the most aggressive regenerative mode, providing a full-on EV-like driving experience. M3 and M2 fill the gap between the other two, providing increasing levels of regeneration.

I played around with all four modes but wound up missing the simplicity and effectiveness of the single regen-on-demand paddle. I imagine it’d take a bit more than a few hours behind the wheel to grow completely comfortable with the systems.

What really makes Cadillac’s plug-in feel different than other plug-in hybrids is the way the engine fires up to supplement the motors’ electrons. When running on battery power, the engine fires up to add power when pressing the throttle past its 50 percent point. The first time I dipped into the throttle to pass slower traffic on a congested freeway was jarring, to say the least. The CT6 was accelerating smoothly under electricity around halfway into its throttle travel, but needed more oomph to safely move into the faster-moving left lane. As I got past 50 percent into the throttle, the car hesitated before the gas engine fired up, stuttering for a moment as the transmission kicked down a cog and the car finally started accelerating quicker.

That herky-jerky hesitation wasn’t a one-off occurrence either. As long as the battery still had some state of charge, it could regularly be induced by quickly going past the 50 percent point in the throttle while on the move. The only time the issue doesn’t occur is when you flatfoot the throttle from a standstill or if the CT6 is rolling around in its hybrid mode.

2017 Cadillac CT6 Plug In Hybrid front view 06

Aside from the new high-tech powertrain, the rest of the Cadillac’s package is your typical CT6. Despite the extra heft and smaller wheel and tire package, the car rides and handles wonderfully. The Cadillac’s cabin also remains roomy and comfortable. The backseat, with the exception of the center jump seat, is comfortable and spacious with two USB ports, a 12v socket, and a 120v outlet to keep everything charged on the go. The mono-spec CT6 variant also comes well equipped for its $76,090 USD sticker price with every conceivable option from the semi-autonomous driver assistance package with night vision to the rear seat infotainment package that’s standard.

You get a lot of car for $76,000 USD compared to the Porsche Panamera 4 E-Hybrid, Mercedes-Benz S550e, and BMW 740e—but there are plenty of places where Cadillac misses the high bar the Germans have set (the 530e plug-in is also available for those who don’t mind a smaller back seat). The interior, for all its creature comforts, doesn’t have an interior design that’s as inspired as the Germans.

Not only is the design arguably too safe, but the material choice is frankly bizarre.

There’s an old rule one of my high school hockey coaches had: don’t ever eat anything with more than five ingredients on a game day because it’ll only slow you down.

The same basic rule can be applied to automotive interiors: pick three materials as your thematic elements, and stick to it. Anything else is overkill. Volvo is the master at this. The S90 features leather, wood, and a hint of aluminum. Cadillac unfortunately takes the shotgun approach with the CT6—on the dash alone there’s perforated leather, piano black trim, satin aluminum, carbon fiber, and a black walnut-looking wood. Less is more. The piano black and carbon fiber can go. A luxury flagship doesn’t need to look sporty even if it is.

Cadillac’s interior quality is all over the map, ranging from hard Chevrolet-grade plastics in spots where Cadillac doesn’t think you’ll notice (such as the door pockets) to varying grades of leather on less-trafficked touch points such as the dash tops to actually top-tier materials on the seats and steering wheel.

I know it probably sounds like I’m nitpicking here, but if Cadillac wants to beat the best, it’s got to be the best. Cadillac has made it quite clear that it wants to be the standard of the world again, but it’ll never fully get there if it doesn’t “Dare Greatly,” as its new slogan says.

Despite the frustrating interior niggles, the 2017 CT6 Plug-In Hybrid is arguably the most compelling powerplant in the CT6’s large engine catalog. It provides the punch of the twin-turbo V-6 with efficiency besting the base 2.0-liter turbo-4. The jury’s out on whether the CT6 plug-in will help Cadillac get its sales back into the black here in the U.S., but odds are this China special will help the automaker sustain its massive Chinese sales growth deep into the year of the Rooster.