Nrburg, Germany As a Brit growing up in a land of Minis and Morris Minors and all sorts of itty-bitty cars plying narrow roads, I always thought Cadillacs held the promise of another world, where gasoline was cheap, the roads were never ending, and space was wide open. To a teenager in the early 1970s, a Cadillac Eldorado was the very definition of an American car, something you could imagine taking for a cruise into the desert, one arm around your honey, one fingertip on the wheel, with Elvis crooning away on the eight-track.
To me, Cadillacs were always the biggest of the big, whether you looked back into the mists of the 1930s at the gorgeous V-12s and V-16s, or at the befinned extravaganzas of the late 1950s, or even at the front-wheel-drive boats of the following decade. And Cadillacs were also synonymous with the best of American styling, exuberant displays of self-confidence.
So Cadillac's Catera never quite did it for me. A smaller, plainer Cadillac never struck me as kosher, any more than the idea of a small Rolls-Royce did. As for a Cadillac that drives like a German car, shouldn't that be left to the Germans? Cadillac doesn't think so, and part of the thinking (apart from selling more cars) could come from perception. Put a car like a DeVille into a comparison test, and it will come out near the bottom, because we'll always favor cars that talk to us best. Yet, taken on its own merits, the DeVille is a very fine highway machine.
This fetish for winning magazine tests has led to a few anomalies, particularly Mercedes-Benz abandoning what it did best--solid, beautifully engineered cars that would run all year at 150 mph on the autobahn--to produce more stylish automobiles that drive like BMWs but aren't quite as good and feel cheaper. Blame that on Mercedes wanting to do as well in magazine comparison tests as BMW and also wanting to attract younger buyers. (Why can't a car company be happy with older, more affluent buyers, one wonders? Where did this cult of youth come from?)
Perhaps the biggest anomaly of all is now upon us. Cadillac, provider of floppy, ill-handling land yachts from the 1960s to the 1990s, has built a new entry-luxury car that handles really well. Cadillac says the price of entry into this market is a chassis that's comparable to the Europeans'. That, executives say, puts you on people's shopping lists, because buyers expect any car to perform as well as a BMW or a Benz, even if they never find its limits. This seems to miss the point that BMW and Audi also do the quality part of the luxury-car equation supremely well.
The CTS takes off where the Catera failed. American buyers quickly figured out that the Catera was neither an American near-luxury car nor a particularly good European one. An Opel Omega isn't an Audi or a BMW, no matter how you disguise it--and Cadillac really didn't make the Catera look different enough. There are no worries on that score with the CTS. The first manifestation of Cadillac's "Art & Science" design, the CTS is crisp, imposing, and very distinctive. It's a bit slab-sided, but the stance is good, and it's refreshing to see something different, rather than a generic design job such as the Lincoln LS.
The CTS will be priced between BMW's 3-series and 5-series, starting in the low $30,000s. It's sized close to the 5-series, which means that there is a lot more interior room than in the 3-series, particularly out back. The interior decor doesn't look like anything else on the market, in an attempt to use modern American design instead of drawing on the past. Some of the finishes are very cool, such as the crosshatch texture on the dashboard and the modern weave on the headliner, but the effect is diminished by some low-rent interior pieces--the column stalks, for instance. Automakers such as Toyota and Audi have a much classier parts bin to raid than does General Motors (or Ford, for that matter), and it always shows at the major interfaces between you and the car. Cadillac says that a nontelescoping steering wheel saves mass, for instance, but, of course, it also saves money.
The CTS will be well equipped, however, with standard leather, an in-dash CD player, and a power driver's seat. Four steering-wheel-mounted buttons are programmable, and the optional navigation system has a huge screen. The CTS comes with sixteen-inch wheels and H-rated 225/55 tires, traction control, and conventional power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering. Options include Premium and Sport packages, the latter with seventeen-inch wheels and V-rated 225/50 tires, self-leveling rear dampers, steering with variable power assist, and StabiliTrak skid control.
Like the outgoing Catera, the rear-wheel-drive CTS uses GM's 54-degree DOHC V-6 engine (see sidebar below). The engine grows from 3.0 to 3.2 liters, with increases from 200 to 220 horsepower and from 192 to 218 pound-feet of torque. The numbers aren't startling, but they are competitive. The V-6 is mated to either a Getrag 260 five-speed manual transmission or a Hydra-matic 5L40-E five-speed automatic. Save for the hated Cimarron, this is the first time Cadillac has used a stick shift since 1953. The automatic, which is expected to account for 90 to 95 percent of U.S. sales, has a performance shift mode and adaptive shift patterns.
The main focus of excitement among the Cadillac folks is the CTS chassis, which is the first use of the Sigma architecture that will be the basis of the next-generation STS and the upcoming LAV crossover vehicle. The platform is notably stiffer than the Catera's and uses sophisticated independent front and rear suspension (see sidebar on next page). Depending on transmission choice, the car weighs 306 or 247 pounds less than the admittedly portly Catera. More important, it's within 20 pounds of the benchmark BMW 530i. The StabiliTrak system on the Sport model is tuned for fun, but, like the traction control, it can be switched off.
Cadillac is very proud to have developed the CTS on the fabled 12.9-mile Nrburgring in northern Germany, so that's where we went to drive it. The 'Ring is both the best automotive playground on the planet and also one of the better places to learn whether a car's damping is up to snuff. Plus, unlike on public roads, there isn't anything coming the other way.
Our time on the track and the twisting roads around the 'Ring confirmed that Cadillac has produced a car that is not only stylish and roomy but also darned good to drive. Unlike most American cars, except the Ford Focus and the Chevrolet Corvette, the CTS drives better the harder you push it, with body control and feedback that are closer to BMW than to Audi or Lexus. The chassis is fluent and changes direction with poise and precision, featuring very good damping control. Correcting mild initial understeer in fast sweepers or power oversteer in tighter bends is natural, because the steering has linearity and feel, if not quite the communication of a 5-series.
Around the 'Ring, with the electronic fun police switched off, the CTS was about as good as a sedan this size gets, tackling corners in a pleasantly neutral stance that is easily adjusted with the throttle. StabiliTrak works well with the traction control switched off, because you can generate some slip angles and wheelspin without falling off the road. (One criticism: There's too much pedal interference when braking hard with the StabiliTrak engaged.) The ride is well controlled and damped, particularly on big inputs, but it's not so composed over small-amplitude, high-frequency bumps. In that respect, it almost feels Germanic, except that the road noise is much better isolated than in most German sedans, and wind noise is well controlled, too.
Fine-tuning is what separates the men from the boys in this sport-sedan class. In the CTS, the pedals on the manual version are properly placed for heel-and-toe shifts, the seats hold you well in high-g cornering, and the brake pedal has a progressivity that is inspiring when you make a hurried stop from 130 mph. The brakes are very powerful, and the anti-dive geometry built into the front end gives additional confidence. The manual shift is smooth and quick, if a touch notchy through neutral, while the automatic shifts are instant and well damped, just like a good Japanese car's.
The engine feels good, too. The 3.2-liter V-6 isn't as smooth as some of its rivals, but it emits a throaty growl at the top end and provides meaningful torque from as low as 2500 rpm, with additional grunt above 4000. Cadillac estimates a 0-to-60-mph time of just under 7.0 seconds, and we managed 7.8 seconds with a driver and a passenger and way too much tire smoke. Top speed in the States will be limited to 128 mph for cars equipped with the base tires, but Sport models will run to 147 mph.
The CTS is a fine car. Corporate personnel as far up the food chain as Ron Zarrella, president of General Motors North America, are proud of it and think it's in the ballpark. In some ways, it is more than that. The chassis feels better than everything except the 5-series, performance is class competitive, and the interior and exterior styling are distinctive. Well equipped, the CTS will run between $35,000 and $38,000, "which is the sweet spot for this segment," says Cadillac's general manager Mark LaNeve. (The price also undercuts a BMW 530i.)
Cadillac is evaluating options for a high-performance version of the CTS, perhaps with a supercharged six. Until then, we can celebrate the news that there's an American car that runs with the Europeans in this competitive segment. As for whether Cadillac needs a smaller car, the CTS is good enough to attract younger buyers to a nameplate that has lost its luster. Changing the perceptions of people like me can only be a good thing, because I'm in the right demographic to give Cadillac a long-term future. All Cadillac needs now is an interior-detail czar with enough confidence to fend off the cost accountants in order to make the brand's cars feel as finely honed inside as their European opponents. In this market, tangible quality is more important than value for the money.