Noise, Vibration, Harshness: From Northstar to Deathstar

Smaller, more efficient engines are surely the way to go. It's something of a minority viewpoint in this great, thirsty land of ours, but even if it wasn't, I've got a feeling I'm not the only one who's pained to learn that Cadillac won't replace its aging Northstar engine, having decided to punt on the whole business of building its own V-8s. The new signature for America's oldest luxury division will be a spruced-up version of General Motors' house-blend, 60-degree DOHC V-6.

Not a bad engine at all. But not a V-8.

In the same way that General Motors used to buy engines from Honda for the Saturn Vue, this latest development is one that must make sense on a spreadsheet yet somehow scans as deeply wrong. In an age of potent industrial symbols, losing the V-8 is a self-inflicted symbolic wound that deals a blow to the corporation's dignity while insulting the memory of Henry Leland, Boss Kettering, Ed Cole, and 100 years of great GM engine designers and manufacturing geniuses.

What is the world coming to? Did I actually just say "no Cadillac V-8?" Soon you'll tell me the Canadian loonie is worth as much as the U.S. dollar. It is? See what I mean?

There are many rational arguments to be made for V-6 engines, turbocharged if necessary, to produce horsepower sufficient to scare the bravest luxury customer witless. Hot fours are nice, too. And an additional performance bonus arrives the day when true lightweight engineering comes to Cadillac. I can even imagine a hydrogen-powered Cadillac.

But the luxury-car business is not about rational. Waving around your engineering swizzle stick is mandatory if you want to be a player. If not job one, it's close. And, amusing though it is, Cadillac's fraternal ability to borrow Chevy's long-lived pushrod V-8 (circa 1955) for the rest of time, in whatever its latest iteration may be, won't cut it against the wizards of Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Until that hydrogen Eldorado hits the showroom floor, Cadillac needs to design and build big, modern, molto engines - gasoline and diesel - if it is ever to be thought of as belonging in the same class as those who do. Bob Lutz's idea for a Cadillac V-16, long since gone down in flames, was the right idea. Cadillac can and should be a beacon for GM, the highest expression of the corporation's capacity for engineering excellence, to impress and inspire not just those outside its fortress walls but those within as well. To do so, it's got to compete, which means aiming for iconic heights on the engineering side.

Yes, swinging swizzle sticks can go awry. Arms races breed excess and are rarely pretty.

The Germans accidentally Tasered their customer-satisfaction indexes a few years back when they got carried away trying to top each other with ever more incredible electronic gizmos. It turned out that many of their cars' functions couldn't be accessed by people of ordinary intelligence, since the features operated only in the fifth dimension (when they operated at all).

These outlandishly complex systems kept one in constant contact with the owners' manuals. Problem was, you'd likely run out of warranty coverage before you finished reading all 16,211 pages of those hefty tomes, the tragic implications of which you'd fathom after learning that code for your luxobarge's electronic architecture was still being written at the factory in Germany after you'd sent your car back to the dealer on a flatbed.

But these were failures born of overreaching ambition. What we have here is the opposite: underreaching. Cadillac is shrinking in the face of one of the most traditional throw-down conventions of automobiledom - show us your V-8. An internationally recognized essential in the luxury-car business, it's as American as apple pie and more central to the Cadillac brand than the tail fin ever was. (Cadillac introduced the world's first production V-8 - a 5.2-liter engine - in 1914 for the 1915 model year.) The V-8 engine speaks so elementally to the American psyche that the thinking man in me wants to stop writing and instead directly ask Cadillac, "What kind of pussies are you? Cadillac's not good enough for eight cylinders? Hello?"

One might ask the same of Lincoln, which has also indicated that it plans to ditch V-8s. But we expect less of Lincoln. Years of pitiful mistreatment have forced this once majestic Ford division to lower its engineering Jolly Roger and go on shore leave long ago, so call it sad (and yet another disgrace to Henry Leland's memory) but less surprising. Cadillac had seemed like it was on a roll.

Given how much the dashboard of the stately DTS reminds me of a 1990s Audi A6, I suspect that Cadillac has looked to Audi for inspiration before. It's reassuring to know that GM has had the good taste to crib from Ingolstadt, for the German example holds the key to Cadillac's recovery. Audi has done the impossible, vaulting itself to the front of the pack of luxury autos, just as Ferdinand Piëch once promised it would. People guffawed at the time. But the good doctor doesn't look so crazy now, does he?

OK, no need to answer that.

Audi has done what Cadillac must do by using style and technology to power its climb up the mountain. Needless to say, Audi has a boffo V-8 at its disposal and makes liberal use of it, in regular and extra picante versions, along with zingy V-6s and thrifty turbo fours. There's a wild-hair V-10 and, lest we forget, the massive W-12 to round out an intensely comprehensive powertrain lineup, with at least six distinct engine choices for America-bound Audis - and that's just on the gasoline side. Diesels are on the way, too. By comparison, Cadillac will have . . . a V-6. (Lurking elsewhere in the Volkswagen Group's closet - a W-16.)

We could go on, but Audi's new A5 and S5 are the kinds of cars America used to build so well - big, fat, fast, mean, and very buttoned down. Just like Cadillac coupes of yore (except for the buttoned-down part) and only about 100 times better. Naturally, there's a V-8 option.

Insiders reveal that some meaningful steps are being taken. The CTS coupe is coming to market next year (but where's the wagon and the convertible?), and the whole line is being positioned upward as a BMW 5-series fighter. Coming, too, is a combined DTS/STS replacement to man the bunker in the monster-luxury class. But that we're still waiting means there's been too much dithering. And the lack of a Caddy V-8? Mystifying.

Sure, it'll take a lot of engineering to meet the challenge - which is to make Cadillac a world-class operation - and that costs money.

But nobody said being the Standard of the World was going to be easy.

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