Isn’t this delightful? Under an early morning sky changing from indigo to azure, passing through a landscape with the varied green tones of pastures and woodlands, I’m whooshing across central Texas in a deep vanilla Cadillac XTS while listening via satellite and fourteen-speaker audio to Cher. Yes, I believe! A red-shouldered hawk flaps stiffly but rapidly over the road, flashing a wide white band near the tip of each wing. The tires’ sostenuto is muted, so the only sound of driving derives from the torrents of disturbed air passing the side mirrors.
This smooth and expeditious new stretch of Texas Route 130 is different things to different people. “Our autobahn,” quipped an employee of the Williamson County Sun, the twice-weekly newspaper published in Georgetown, where the superhighway spurs away from Interstate 35. The northern section, laid of concrete, opened in 2006. For those of us who endured fourteen years of the federally imposed 55-mph national frumpfest, a Nixonian torment that reached its worst with Sammy Hagar’s screeching “I Can’t Drive 55,” the permissible 80-mph velocity here is a delectation beyond imagining. But the southern section, a forty-one-mile sheet of glossy asphalt, was finished last fall. However the deal got wangled between the road’s partially Spanish-owned private development group and the state of Texas, the regulation was posted for 85 mph; indeed, while slashing through this blackland prairie, I’m adhering to the country’s highest speed limit. Not that any records are falling. Hennessey, the Texas-based tuner shop, saw an opportunity and, before the motoring public was admitted in late October, its hotted-up Cadillac CTS-V achieved 220.5 mph in a demonstration run on this very pavement.
To the rural residents whose land was expropriated, though, Route 130 is a bane. For much of the southern portion that begins at Mustang Ridge, it parallels U.S. 183, which will remain toll-free but with a newly decreased 55-mph speed limit. Then it veers to the southwest and joins I-10 at a somewhat desolate point about fifty miles east of downtown San Antonio. Given all the circumstances, this tollway is a new sort of road for Texas and foreshadows things to come.
It’s also the perfect opportunity to sample a novel sort of Cadillac. My first view of the XTS, at night in the airport parking lot, supported claims of a new kind of luxury. The exterior door handles are lit by internal LED piping, and the interior entry lighting is sublime. The 12.3-inch instrument display comes alive like a strong showing of the aurora borealis. Starting the car, I ignored for the time being the 8.0-inch display that’s the centerpiece of the Cadillac User Experience (Cue) and slugged through the darkness to my nearby hotel.
My second view of the XTS was before dawn the next morning. I managed to fire up the seat heater but couldn’t find the button to warm the steering wheel. (Of course, it’s in the most obvious possible position on the wheel’s left spoke.) Route 130 skirts around the Austin airport, so it was easy to find the highway and make a quick sunrise run northward to Georgetown. The XTS was immediately likable. It felt substantial, as it should, outfitted with optional all-wheel drive and weighing 4215 pounds. The driving experience it offers is surely more involving than any Cadillac’s that has surpassed 200 inches in length, unless we count the first DeVille with the Northstar V-8, in which the involvement, from torque steer, was an outbreak of mayhem that resembled an invitational wrestling meet. There was no wheel fight here, only buttery responses and the excellent direct-injected DOHC 3.6-liter V-6 that reminded me of a certain English literature professor who, much to my surprise, could snarl when told he was a bore.
In Georgetown, a city of about 50,000 with a funky old neoclassical courthouse, the photography crew and I enjoyed a knockout breakfast of gingerbread pancakes and huevos rancheros at Monument Cafe, which occupies the site of a former Ford dealership. Herbs grow in planters outside the building, while leafy greens sprout in beds to the rear. Everything on the menu, including the delicious breakfast sausage, is homemade.
Soon, it was time to get rolling again. It was my first chance to behold the XTS in daylight. Staunch traditionalists might say that even with the exaggerated shield grille, the XTS looks somewhat like an overinflated Honda Civic. It’s obviously based on a front-wheel-drive chassis — made, in fact, in Oshawa, Ontario, where its platform will be shared with the 2014 Chevrolet Impala. Even at a standstill, the XTS seemed to nudge forward, but with its dramatic lines, crisp creases, and bold details, it’s impossible to envision a set of longhorns affixed to the front. This is a different Caddy. In silhouette, the XTS has a somewhat curtailed stance with the rear wheels pulled ahead, but the roofline arches grandly, ending near taillights that faintly suggest the fins of 1948.
Once again in the driver’s seat, I was reminded that luxury for the next generation will include capacitive touch. What may sound like a way of flicking a ball a few hundred feet instead means the end of knobs and buttons; adjusting the climate control or radio is a matter of stroking the surface marked with an icon. Stroking the home key brings the basic menu into view on the central display. From there, adjusting advanced settings is a simple matter, much like using an iPhone. These aspects proved quick to master.
Even in daylight the instrument cluster’s panoply of dials and displays was something remarkable. A selector on the steering wheel makes it easy to bring up phone contacts and monitor tire pressure — a good idea because the low-profile left-front’s sidewall bulged menacingly after 9000 arduous press-fleet miles. With a bubbly tire, cruising over 80 mph would be fast enough. The XTS loped along, and thanks to Magnetic Ride Control it offered a supremely comfortable ride while delivering responses on the firm side. Wallowing and squashing are no longer part of American luxury-car comfort. What little steering was necessary on this taut ribbon of asphalt was met with good on-center feel and graduated effort. The lane-departure warning system delivered an occasional thumpety-thump from the Safety Alert Seat when the car drifted near the center stripe, leading me to think this feature will captivate readers of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Also known as the Pickle Parkway, after Congressman J. J. “Jake” Pickle, Route 130 measures only ninety miles in length. (In fact, when viewed against an outline map of Texas, it looks like an appendectomy incision.) So it wasn’t long after breakfast when I punched in the gate code at Briarpatch Ranch and drove into a porte cochere, noting a fleet of Cadillac Escalades, Chevrolet Avalanches, and a fiftieth-anniversary Corvette, upon which a couple of cats sunned themselves. Behind the big house’s massive, hand-carved wooden doors waited none other than Dollie Cole, a petite eighty-two-year-old with gleaming eyes and a playful smile. Speaking in a clear, youthful voice, Mrs. Cole welcomed me into the foyer, which had high walls of locally quarried white limestone. After some pleasantries, she commenced a tour of the house where she has lived for the last three decades.
In 1964, the former Dollie Ann Fechner McVey married General Motors executive Ed Cole, who at fifty-five years old was twenty-one years her senior. After Henry Leland, the pioneer of Cadillac’s concept of interchangeable parts in 1908, Ed Cole was probably the division’s most important engineer. He’d started as a General Motors Institute student in 1930, working for 45 cents an hour, and he stayed at Cadillac for about twenty years. In those days, besides automobiles that were the Standard of the World, Cadillac built armored vehicles. Solving propulsion problems in the M3 and M5 tanks earned Cole early distinction. After World War II, in addition to important work on the Walker Bulldog tank, he codeveloped the high-compression Cadillac V-8. In 1952 he became Chevy’s chief engineer. The success of the 1955 Bel Air with the new small-block V-8 led to his appointment as the division’s general manager. Cole ran a bootleg program to create the Corvair — which included an aluminum engine block — and stunningly won production approval for the car from GM’s top management. In 1959 he made the cover of Time magazine, and two years later, on his way to the company presidency, he assumed oversight of all GM automotive divisions. His capacity for work was so great that Mrs. Cole once told me in a phone interview that their wedding ceremony should have said, “I now pronounce you man and wife and briefcase.” Breakfast at their Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, home started at 5 a.m. daily. “Edward turned on the lights in the General Motors building,” she said.
We looked around her amazing, high-ceilinged house paneled in boards from an old mill she’d bought at auction. The library was rife with memorabilia, including a model of a Corvair Greenbrier van and a Dr. Pepper ad featuring the wholesome young Dollie Ann Fechner. She pointed out framed photos of herself with friends from the highest echelons of politics, show business, and auto racing. Leading through another door into her office, she showed me her husband’s desk from the GM building. Among her own many directorships, she has served on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum board and said she prizes snapshots of herself in “unusual” aircraft, one being the Enola Gay. “I just had lunch last week with John and Annie Glenn,” she mentioned.
Aircraft had another role in her life, too. In 1977, less than three years after retiring from GM, Mr. Cole died when the twin-engine plane he was piloting crashed southeast of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mrs. Cole found widowhood in Detroit awkward, so she eventually moved back to her native state.
When lunchtime arrived, we strapped into the XTS and drove out to the highway. Sixty acres of Mrs. Cole’s ranch were acquired for Route 130. She’d fought the acquisition until her lawyers advised it was futile. Now she seemed to ruefully accept the toll road, which here parallels U.S. 183. Arriving minutes later in Lockhart, once a stop on the Chisholm Trail and now the self-proclaimed barbecue capital of Texas, we went to Smitty’s Market for a feast. We sat at a plain table, spreading out sheets of heavy paper and each grasping a plastic knife, the only utensil. The big basket of meat was delivered beside a loaf of white bread, whole avocados, and Cokes. “Heart attack on a stick,” Mrs. Cole joked as we dug in. Midway through a session that Hieronymus Bosch, the painter of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” should have been witnessing, Briarpatch Ranch manager Edward Nicholas Cole, Jr. — Nick, as he’s known — joined us, bringing along a coworker right from haying. Between bites, Nick talked about his motorsports exploits at Thunderhill Raceway, including stock-car victories and an exhibition of school-bus fender rubbing that resulted in a glorious fireball and lurid rollover.
After a nutritious ice cream cone for dessert, we returned to the ranch and spent more time looking at the XTS. When I mentioned the copious number of passive restraints, Mrs. Cole was reminded of the time Mr. Cole introduced the airbag to the press. “My husband used me as the dummy,” she said. “It blew off my glasses and unbuttoned my blouse.” The heated-and-cooled front seats of the XTS made her remember the first time she drove a car — she thought it was an Oldsmobile Toronado — with seat heaters. This feature was still new to her. “My bottom got very, very hot!” She called Mr. Cole at work to report that the car’s undercarriage must have caught fire.
In a parting comment, Mrs. Cole proclaimed the XTS “absolutely gorgeous” but admitted it would take her a week to learn her way around Cue. We exchanged farewells and the journey resumed, heading southbound on the tollway’s Edenic, 85-mph stretch. No commercial development, weigh stations, rest areas, or police were to be seen. Pickups and large SUVs accounted for most of the sparse traffic, and none dawdled. Electronic sign displays at intervals along the roadside admonished that the left lane was for passing only. Incredibly enough, drivers observed this maxim. Other signs warned of wildlife. In recent years, feral hogs have overrun this part of central Texas, and since the road’s opening some unthinkable collisions have occurred. Today, though, neither road hog nor wild hog was a problem, and we ripped and snorted along, cherishing every aspect of the experience.
Although the XTS was capable enough at 85 mph, the occasional uphill grade showed that the V-6, rated at 304 hp, produces barely enough torque at 264 lb-ft. The muscular response I sought wasn’t quite there. And while the interior was elegant and appealing, the finishes had frayed in a couple of places. I tried to sweet-talk the voice-activated navigation, but it seemed afflicted with tinnitus; when I named my San Antonio hotel, the system produced a list of inns around the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
Beyond these trifles, though, the XTS rocked on every level. If it’s the antithesis of the traditional big Caddy, Sheryl Crow is the antithesis of Cher. “All I wanna do is have some fun,” she sang. “I got a feeling I’m not the only one.” Like a good beer buzz early in the morning, the end of Route 130 came too soon. I was just getting untracked in this Texas sweet spot.