GM's push to compete with Tesla begins with Cadillac Lyriq crossover debut Thursday

  • General Motors is unveiling the all-electric Cadillac Lyriq crossover online Thursday night.
  • The vehicle is the first all-electric vehicle for the brand as part of a multibillion plan for Cadillac to lead GM away from vehicles with internal combustion engines to battery-electric.
  • GM believes its next-generation vehicles such as the Lyriq will rival, if not outperform, anything else on the market today, including Tesla.

A century ago, Cadillac was known as the "standard of the world." General Motors is hoping history repeats itself starting Thursday night with the unveiling of the Cadillac Lyriq crossover.

The vehicle, which will debut at 7 p.m. ET, is the most pivotal new product for the quintessential American luxury brand since the debut of the Escalade SUV in 1998. It marks Cadillac's first all-electric vehicle as part of a multibillion plan to lead GM away from vehicles with internal combustion engines to battery-electric vehicles.

The stakes are high, and the challenges are abundant for Lyriq, which will be one of the first vehicles to market with GM's next-generation batteries and EV architecture. GM executives believe the technologies will rival, if not outperform, anything else on the market today, including Tesla.

"It marks a new beginning for the brand and a major pivot for the company," Cadillac President Steve Carlisle told CNBC. "It's meant to be a stake in the ground, a tent pole, an announcement of what the future looks like for Cadillac and for General Motors."

GM has said its next-generation of all-electric vehicles, including the GMC Hummer next year, will be capable of fast-charging, driving 400 miles or more on a single charge and, unlike today, will be profitable from the beginning of production on a per-unit basis.

GM President Mark Reuss earlier this year described the company's electric vehicle plans as the "biggest opportunity any of us has ever seen for this company."

The Detroit automaker, despite the coronavirus pandemic, has not wavered from a plan to invest $20 billion in all-electric and autonomous vehicles from 2020 through 2025.

Chasing Tesla

GM believes it has the engineering, brands and capital to compete against Tesla, the global leader in all-electric vehicle sales.

The Silicon Valley automaker, led by its outspoken CEO Elon Musk, accounted for roughly four out of every five all-electric vehicles sold in the U.S. last year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But all-electric vehicles were less than 2% of the roughly 17.1 million vehicles sold last year in the U.S. The small volume of sales is one of the reasons GM believes it can compete.

As electric vehicle ownership is expected to grow in the coming years and decades, the market widens, costs reduce and more mainstream, diverse buyers enter the market rather than early adopters.

"It's an enormous opening of the funnel in terms of opportunity," Carlisle said. "Today we think about it as 1.5% or 1%. We have to think about it when it's more normalized. More choice will promote more adoption."

More choices from Audi, Porsche and others, including GM's Chevrolet brand, have helped boost sales. Tesla has easily maintained its leadership position in the segment thanks to its reputation as a tech-savvy, forward-thinking company – something Cadillac was known for in the early part of the 20th century.

"We changed the world before and we're going to do it again," GM CEO Mary Barra said earlier this year when discussing the company's all-electric vehicle plans.

Carlisle, who will become GM's president of North America in September, has said the company expects a majority, if not all, of its Cadillac cars and SUVs sold globally to be all-electric vehicles by 2030.

Lyriq

The Lyriq, a midsize crossover, will feature a new level of technology and design for GM. It is expected to include a massive 33-inch curved glass screen on the interior, advanced lighting technology on the exterior and GM's advanced Super Cruise driver-assist system.

Teaser videos for the display car show an illuminated Cadillac crest at the front of the grill with vertical and horizontal lighting similar to headlamps of current Cadillac vehicles as well as dozens of illuminated lines that appear to form a "grille" around the brand's logo.

A majority of the show car's attributes are expected to make to dealer lots. Show cars are typically production-intent vehicles than concept vehicles, which are meant to portray a "vision" for the company. 

Carlisle described the Lyriq as achieving a "a whole new level of attention to craftsmanship and detail" as well as technology, with the company's proprietary "Ultium" batteries and new electric drive motors and control systems.

"Our goal is to lead. No excuses, no apologies," he said. "That's another reason Lyriq is so important to be a showcase for those things."

The Lyriq is expected to first arrive in China, the world's largest electric vehicle market as early as 2021, followed by the U.S. GM has not announced where the vehicle will be produced, pricing and other details.  

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