From deep within the design departments of Detroit and its environs, a new reality is reshaping the conversation about American luxury cars. Remember this category? The one that was recently defined by marketing campaign braggadocio and brought about the limousine-like Lincoln Town Car and stiff but charmless Cadillac DTS? These relics clung to a luxury ethos that had moved on, leaving most high-end American sedans in the dust as Germans like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz sped by with high-tech, haute couture, and superior craftsmanship.
Few battlegrounds are like exterior design, in terms of having the same, instant effect on a potential consumer's reactive opinion of a car — but these days the innovative brands have found the next best thing. Now, it's what's on the inside of the luxury car that counts.
Take the Cadillac's salvo into the upper-luxury market, the CT6 sedan, which will go on sale this spring alongside the midsize CTS and slightly smaller XTS. The differences in styling on the outside between CT6 and CTS? They're imperceptible, embellishing the point that one model may eventually supplant the other. But the CT6's interior innovations, like a trick, camera-based rearview mirror, are proof that what's inside counts. With the flick of a lever at the base, just like the one that adorns old-school rearview mirrors, the conventional mirror transforms to display real-time video from a rear-facing camera that eliminates major blind spots and the floating heads of backseat passengers. When was the last time you tried out a feature that was actually a world-first?
The list of functional surprise-and-delight features runs high on the CT6, from an available night-vision system with pedestrian detection — which you'll wonder how you ever went without — to exclusive rights to Panaray, the newly created sub-brand of Bose, and a 34-speaker sound system. All of this, supposedly, in the name of wooing a clientele more accustomed to gently taunting their colleagues and neighbors by letting their German sedans' names roll lovingly off the tongue.
The interior, then, has become the white space for differentiation. There's the wow-factor interior from the American luxury four-door most often confused for an import: the Tesla Model S, which contrasts inoffensive exterior styling highlighting toned shoulders against a sparse, zenlike passenger compartment dominated by a 17-inch touchscreen with brilliant graphic quality and a first-rate interface. (For comparison, the newly released gargantuan iPad Pro measures only 12.9 diagonal inches.)
Then there's Lincoln's upcoming Continental. It, too, makes its biggest improvements inside, featuring a triumph in interior as well as exterior styling. Armchair-like front seats with repeating Lincoln diamonds belong at home in a Tribeca apartment. Adjustable rear seats flank a center console with the same control layout that you'd find in a top BMW. (The Continental's neck pillow headrests seem to be nicked directly from said BMW and its Mercedes-Benz equal.) The interior treatment, at any trim level, seems plush, and far from the airport shuttle duty into which so many Town Cars were once pressed.
That's a key driving factor for the next generation of American luxury, which will come of age in an era of democratized luxury that installed heated seats in a Honda Civic and provided the Subaru Impreza with auto-braking radar cruise control — and placed smartphones with navigation in so many hands. It's yet unclear which American luxury sedan will take top honors, but both deserve a closer look.