2008 Cadillac CTS - Japandemonium

Brian Konoske

The clock ticks down on the Super Bowl, and as the sports bar empties, I'm exhausted and ready to hit the sack. Too bad that's not an option. I'm in Tokyo, it's barely past noon, and in an hour, I'm going to pick up one of the first Cadillac CTS's in Japan. While my friends back home are either celebrating or drowning their sorrows into the wee hours of the night, I'll be navigating Tokyo traffic in the afternoon sun.

My schedule for the next five days looks something like this: Collect Cadillac on Monday. Return Cadillac on Friday. Everything in between is up for grabs, and that sort of road-trip freedom always spells trouble for me. I get greedy. I look at a map and say, "I want to go there. And there. And there." And so I decide that I want to go to Hokkaidō, the northernmost of the Japanese islands - go any farther, and you're in Russia. Hokkaidō has some twenty percent of Japan's land mass but only five percent of its population, thus it seems like the perfect place to exercise a big, brash sedan. To reach the ferry to Hokkaidō, you need to drive to Aomori, about 500 miles north of Tokyo. It's a trip that'll take us far from the techno-sheen of the city and deep into the hinterlands, where we'll get a chance to see what the locals make of bumbling Americans rolling up in a quintessentially American car. Five hundred miles plus a ferry ride: ambitious but doable. But then, I didn't factor in the snow.

When I mention my plan to our hotel's desk clerk in Tokyo, she says, "Much snow." I relay this information to Brian Konoske, the photographer, who tells me that he also shared our plan with a hotel employee. "He told me, 'Very dangerous,' " Konoske says. Given the Japanese propensity for circumspect conversations (there seems to be no word for "no" but fifteen variations of "maybe"), dropping the phrase "very dangerous" is tantamount to, "My coworkers and I will now wager on which day you will be eaten by yeti."

It's a good thing Cadillac offers the latest CTS with all-wheel drive. It'd be even better if they sold that one in Japan. Our ride for the next five days is the performance-oriented CTS, complete with the 304-horsepower, 3.6-liter direct-injected V-6; a sport suspension; and Michelin Pilot Sport summer tires. Cadillac doesn't sell enough cars in Japan to bother with a right-hand-drive model yet, so the only discernable change for the Japanese-market CTS is extraplush floor mats, which may come in handy if we need something to throw under the rear tires for traction. Much snow. Very dangerous.

On the way out of Tokyo, I develop an exceedingly unhealthy attitude toward the car's nav system. On one hand, I'd be lost without it - literally - but on the other, I'd take great pleasure in ripping it out of the dash with my bare hands and tossing it into Tokyo Bay. The maps and the vocal commands are rendered in Japanese, so I'm forced to follow the turn-by-turn pictogram on the LCD screen while coping with Tokyo traffic from the wrong side of the car. Since I decide that it would be poor form to crush an innocent family in their Daihatsu Silly Boy Turbo beneath my almighty Yankee bumper this early in the trip, I prioritize my attention to the road and thus make lots of wrong turns.

After a late lunch, it's growing dark by the time we reach the highway. I have a friend, Jason, who works for the military and lives in the far north of the main island of Honshū, and my plan is to reach his town tonight and head to Hokkaidō tomorrow. To make that happen, we'll need to open the taps a bit and see if Japan's highways live up to their Midnight Racer rep. And that's why, with Konoske asleep in the passenger seat, we make our way north out of Tokyo at a safe and sane 125 mph.

The guy in the Alfa Romeo 156 started it. There I was, minding my own business, when he pulled alongside, hung there for a moment, and then bolted for the horizon - the universal signal that it's on. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't fall prey to such a sophomoric challenge, but right now I've got the honor of a nation to uphold. If I don't floor the gas on this bitchin' Caddy and fill that guy's rearview with the hungry maw of my grille, then every Japanese dude with an Italian sedan and an attitude is going to think he can poke Lady Liberty in the eye and get away with it. Not on my watch.

It turns out that those Alfa 156s are faster than you think. At least, this one was. It's a dead heat up to nearly 140 mph, at which point we settle into a high-speed, two-car convoy blazing north through the Honshū night. Domo arigato, Mr. Robautobahn.

The fact that Konoske sleeps through this triple-digit blitz is a testament to the CTS's high-speed solidity. It's also a testament to how ridiculously tired we are, and when the Alfa exits the highway and the adrenaline recedes, I discover that I can't make it much further. It's time to call it a night, so I take an exit at a town with an airport icon on its sign, on the theory that a town with an airport will also have a bunch of business hotels. This isn't a great theory.

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