Cadillac reveals a show car that could serve up a hint of the brand's next flagship in the form of the four-door Ciel convertible.

“Retro” was definitely not a word Cadillac officials wanted to hear as they pulled the covers off the luxury division’s new Ciel Concept during a Thursday night preview.  But with what General Motors chief designer Ed Welburn described as a “hint of a fin,” the striking show car provides a vision of where Caddy might be going by touching on where it had been in a once-glorious past.

Long the leader of the luxury market, Cadillac now lags behind overseas rivals like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.  But it has begun regaining ground, in recent years, with a renewed focus on distinctive design.  And confident there’s an opportunity for growth, GM management has given Caddy the green light to add a variety of new models, including the ELR plug-in hybrid, approved just this week, as well as the small Cadillac ATS and larger XTS.

But, “You need a flagship in your portfolio to be successful in the luxury market today,” asserted Clay Dean, the brand’s lead designer.  And the Ciel is a hint of what such a car might be.  Nearly as long as the big Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle, the prototype was shown in convertible form, but if taken into production would likely also be offered as a full-sized sedan, company insiders told

The name, Ciel, is French for “sky,” and carries something of a double meaning.  There’s the reference to the convertible design but it might also suggest that the sky is the limit, as far as GM is concerned, if Caddy can pull off a true turnaround.  That would likely depend on tapping into more than just the U.S. market – even though it is the largest luxury market in the world.  The Ciel, whether in convertible or hard top form, would also be targeted at China, now the largest overall automotive market on the planet – and a place where increasingly affluent buyers have shown a distinct predilection for cars that are large and lavishly equipped.

The Ciel's interior is as distinctive as its 4-door convertible body.

Though Dean insists, “We didn’t want to be nostalgic.  We need to look to the future,” it’s hard to miss the retro touches, including the vestigial fins, noted by GM styling director Welburn.  They harken back to the Caddies of the early-mid-‘60s, however, and not that ultimate exercise in excess, the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Ciel show car also borrows a bit from Caddy’s traditional competitor, Lincoln, with the long, somewhat slab-sided shape split by both traditional front and rear “suicide” doors.  Modern motorists might recognize the look from the Lincoln Continental convertible used on the HBO TV series, Entourage.  In fact, were the Ciel to go into production it would be the first four-door convertible since that Lincoln left production close to a half century ago.

A closer look at the Ciel nose, with its vertical LCD lamps.

The distinctive exterior of the Ciel – with its hockey-stick LCD lamps framing a massive grille – is more than matched by the interior, which is outfitted with acres of sumptuous leather and trimmed in wood and chrome.  There are a variety of distinctive, if unusual, details, such as the zippered amenity pockets and a pull-out scarf to provide a little warmth for a rear-seat passenger.

Cadillac lifted the covers on the new Ciel show car on the same evening as Lexus revealed its next-generation GS sedan.  The latter boasts an industry-record 12.3-inch LCD screen.  The Caddy show car goes to the other extreme.  At first glance, one might even think there’s no monitor at all in the new car, but a closer look reveals there are several smaller displays built into the wing-like instrument panel.

Lead designer Clay Dean with the Ciel.

That fits a design philosophy that stands in sharp contrast to where many luxury makers, like Lexus, are going.  Rather than flash all the high-tech features, “We have hidden the elements you don’t need.”  The smaller monitors light up only when needed, according to Dean, and much of the essential information a driver would need pops up on a Head-Up-Display, or HUD.  Meanwhile, other interior components have been moved out of sight, including the climate control vents.

What you do see, such as the brightly-lit chronometer-style speedometer, are meant to impart a sense of elegance, but more in the form of upscale architectural design, suggested Dean, than a traditional automotive layout.

One of the more unusual design features is a pull-out scarf for a rear-seat passenger.

Will Cadillac build the new Ciel?  For the moment, officials stress there isn’t even a platform in the corporate portfolio to build it on.  But “it is a statement car,” according to lead designer Dean, and one intended to say that Cadillac is coming back.  That message would largely be lost if Ciel were just another in a long line of show cars that never see the showroom.

The good news for those who like the design is that GM has been considering its options for a true flagship even larger than the upcoming XTS.  And a senior Cadillac source advised that a go/no-go decision is likely to be made within a matter of months.

Cadillac also rolled out the well-received Converj concept, which will now reappear as the ELR luxury plug-in hybrid.

A strong, positive response for the Ciel, which will now go onto the auto show circuit, would likely help nudge the project forward. Expect GM to measure potential demand not only in the U.S. but in other markets, notably including China.  That’s where the Buick brand began its turnaround, noted Welburn, and Caddy is counting on building demand there as well.

If that happens, that’s no guarantee the Ciel itself would reach market.  But according to Dean, Cadillac very definitely wants and needs “an open air car.” The prototype would almost certainly be toned down for production, but considering Cadillac’s bet that distinctive styling is critical to its future, some of the more distinctive elements of the Ciel just might make it to market.

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