GM invested $16 million in a V-8 that was supposed to power Cadillac’s future. It didn’t.
In March 2018, Cadillac announced it would give its top-of-the-line CT6 sedan the engine it always deserved: a V-8. Dubbed “Blackwing,” this engine wasn’t a repurposed Chevrolet small-block but a high-tech, 4.2-liter, double-overhead-cam engine with four valves per cylinder and two twin-scroll turbochargers nestled in its vee. This clean-sheet design, one of the most advanced engines General Motors had ever made, could produce up to 131 horsepower per liter. It would be the centerpiece of a new Cadillac lineup aimed squarely at Germany’s best. Creating a new engine requires years of work and millions of dollars. That’s why the Blackwing’s story is so unusual.
Less than a year later, the team responsible for the CT6 was let go as part of a huge GM restructuring. The CT6, which had debuted for the 2016 model year, was canceled, with production ending in February 2020. Only 800 cars were built with the Blackwing V-8. Cadillac has no plans to put it in anything else, and that was the case before the coronavirus made an indelible mark on the auto industry. Why did Cadillac go through the effort to create an all-new engine only to abandon it in such short order? This wasn’t the original plan. We contacted several people who were deeply involved with the Blackwing project, all of whom agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, to understand why this ambitious project came to such a sudden demise.
Twenty years ago, General Motors decided it was time for Cadillac to move upmarket and finally present a real challenge to the German luxury-car establishment. By the early 2010s, that meant a big, opulent sedan. At the time, the Alpha platform was brand-new, slated for the upcoming ATS and the third-generation CTS, as well as the sixth-generation Chevrolet Camaro. But the new full-size Cadillac wouldn’t share a platform with lesser models. It would use its own front-engine, rear- or all-wheel drive architecture, appropriately named Omega. This is where Johan de Nysschen, best known for a long and successful tenure leading Audi of America, entered the picture. De Nysschen is refreshingly outspoken among auto executives and is familiar with controversy. Cadillac poached the South African-born executive from Infiniti in 2014, where his lasting contribution seems to be a widely panned name change for all the brand’s cars. Soon after his arrival at Cadillac, de Nysschen announced huge shifts. He created a $12 billion plan to go after the German establishment and expand Cadillac’s domain beyond the American and Chinese markets where it made most of its sales. He also announced the brand’s business headquarters would move from Detroit to New York City, a decision he later explained had been in the works before he arrived.
The CT6 debuted in 2015, the first product on the new Omega platform. The project’s design brief called for a large luxury sedan that drove like a small one. The CT6 was bigger than a contemporary BMW 5-series but lighter, thanks to an aluminum-intensive structure, and much sharper to drive. Somewhat bland styling and a lackluster interior put the Cadillac at a disadvantage in its intended segment, but as a driver’s car the CT6 was unimpeachable. The car launched with a turbo four-cylinder and a pair of V-6s, but Cadillac always intended for the top-spec CT6 to have eight cylinders. Indeed, de Nysschen confirmed this in a Jalopnik reader Q&A shortly after the car’s debut. “Imagine how this car would perform with a twin-turbo V-8,” he teased.
Then, at the 2016 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, de Nysschen’s big statement arrived. Cadillac debuted the gorgeous Escala, a stately four-door fastback meant to showcase the brand’s new direction. In a press release, de Nysschen outlined two objectives: “First, Escala is a statement of intent for the next iteration of the Cadillac design language, and also technical concepts in development for future Cadillac models. Secondly, Escala builds Cadillac’s aspirational character, signaling the brand’s return to the pinnacle of premium.”
The last two paragraphs of the Escala press release were telling. Cadillac confirmed that the concept utilized the CT6’s Omega platform and revealed its powerplant: a 4.2-liter twin-turbo V-8, “a prototype of a new system in development for future Cadillac models.” At Pebble Beach, de Nysschen said a production Escala was a real possibility; sources involved with Cadillac at the time confirmed to R&T that concrete production plans were in place.
It makes perfect sense that Cadillac would want to expand Omega. Developing a new platform is a massive investment, one best amortized across multiple models. The CT6 was never meant to be an orphan, and the Omega platform was never meant for just one sedan. Multiple sources confirmed that a crossover was slated for the platform, part of de Nysschen’s plan to give Cadillac global appeal. The Escalade is great for the American market, and profitable given how much it shares with Chevy and GMC, but there was a need for a car-based utility vehicle in the European mold. A source explained to R&T that the Omega crossover would have offered the same range of engines found in the CT6: a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder, one or two V-6s, and the Blackwing V-8.
The Blackwing is unlike any other V-8 in GM’s current lineup, closer to the high-end powerplants of the German luxury brands than the General’s pushrod offerings. It’s the first twin-turbo V-8 in the company’s history, with an aluminum block and heads, dual throttle bodies, water-to-air charge coolers, and electronic wastegates. In the CT6 Premium Luxury, the engine made 500 horsepower and 574 lb-ft of torque; in the high-performance CT6-V, those figures jumped to 550 horsepower and an astounding 640 lb-ft. The engine makes a maximum of 20 pounds of boost in factory trim. A source familiar with the Blackwing tells R&T that it’s capable of even higher output on the dyno, but the CT6’s tight engine bay made heat management a challenge, capping power.
The Blackwing was meant to differentiate top-level Cadillacs from the rest of GM’s products. There were practical motivators, too: One source said that a naturally aspirated small-block V-8 could fit in the Omega platform, but it wouldn’t offer much more power than the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6. GM’s most powerful small-blocks are supercharged, a solution that wasn’t feasible in the Omega platform and wouldn’t have fit the character Cadillac was striving for. But while the Blackwing was under development, Cadillac’s situation changed. “As the world really started to shift—and especially as sedans started to disappear—it got harder and harder to justify continuing the strategy of building new derivatives of the Omega platform,” one of our sources said. “They weren’t all sedans, but if you didn’t have the sedans, the sport-utilities got more and more expensive. At some point, financially, it just wasn’t a good strategy, so one by one, those Omega derivatives disappeared, and in the end, the CT6 was left all by itself.”
The Escala was canceled. Sedan volumes were plummeting, and it was hard to justify a car priced above the already slow-selling CT6. Next was the Omega crossover. It’s easy to imagine this being a slam-dunk, especially with the platform already developed, but it wasn’t that simple. A source told R&T that GM simply didn’t have the engineering resources the new crossover needed. Most of the automaker’s engineering is centralized. There are teams dedicated to individual vehicles, but they’re smaller than you’d think, and they lean on the larger organization. While Cadillac was trying to make the Omega crossover a reality, GM was busy working on the next generation of the body-on-frame pickups and SUVs that are so important to the company’s success. One insider estimated that, at the time, fully half of GM’s engineering resources were dedicated to those vehicles. The Omega crossover couldn’t compete. The simultaneous development of the C8 Corvette likely didn’t make matters easier.
There was a bigger problem. One gets the impression that de Nysschen clashed with GM management. His plan to turn Cadillac around required time and money in huge quantities, and GM didn’t seem convinced of the value. De Nysschen left the company in April 2018, less than four years after he arrived, and just one month after Cadillac announced the Blackwing V-8 for the CT6.
Former GM product boss and R&T contributor Bob Lutz explained the situation around de Nysschen’s departure. “The GM organization is not prone to doubling down on unprofitable ventures that show no signs of imminent recovery,” he wrote for this publication in April 2018. “GM’s powerful Detroit-based planning and product development organization never really relinquished their tight grip on design and portfolio decisions…. Outgunned by the bulletproof reputations of the Germans, the onslaught of competitor crossovers, the relative failure of the new Cadillac sedans, the lack of traction of marketing initiatives and the steadily-sinking profitability of the brand, circumstances conspired to lead everyone concerned to one conclusion—let’s end it.”
Today, the recently-debuted CT4 and CT5 sedans, replacements for the ATS and CTS, respectively, have de Nysschen’s fingerprints all over them. So does the new Escalade, which differentiates itself significantly from the rest of GM’s full-size SUVs. But the XT6 crossover, which hit the market in 2019, is a case of what could have been. After the Omega-based utility vehicle was canceled, Cadillac adapted GM’s front-drive C1XX platform to create a fine, if unremarkable, family hauler. But with its transverse engine layout, don’t expect to see a high-performance XT6 to compete with the BMW X5 M or the Porsche Cayenne Turbo.
Given Cadillac’s abrupt change of course, it’s amazing that the Blackwing engine even made it into production. The few examples of the twin-turbo V-8 were hand-built in Kentucky, at the Bowling Green plant where the Corvette is assembled. Each engine was constructed from start to finish by a single employee, one of just six appointed to this role. One source estimates that the Blackwing cost General Motors $16 million to develop—around $20,000 per example. You get the sense that the team behind it wanted to show Cadillac was capable of producing a world-class engine, even if the production run was extremely small.
It’s unlikely we’ll see it again. Whether the engine can fit in the CT4 or CT5 is unclear, and even if it could, such a low-volume offering doesn’t seem to align with Cadillac’s current plans. The company does intend to offer a high-performance version of each of those sedans, ironically and confusingly wearing the Blackwing name even though they won’t use that engine. It’s also not clear whether the twin-turbo V-8 will ever see use in the new Escalade, though that, too, seems unlikely. At the reveal of the new Escalade this past February, de Nysschen’s successor, Steve Carlisle, told R&T that Cadillac has “no plans” for the Blackwing.
This March, GM announced sweeping plans to ramp up electric vehicle production, with a new modular EV platform to be shared among its four brands. Cadillac will get two electric flagships: The Lyriq, an SUV set to arrive later this year, and the Celestiq, a fastback sedan. The latter will be hand-built in very small numbers, and could cost upwards of $200,000—double the price of a well-equipped Escalade and occupying the space once intended for the Blackwing-powered Escala.
De Nysschen wanted Cadillac to represent the pinnacle of GM technology and engineering. Something like that may be coming to fruition, just not as he envisioned.