There's more riding on the 2005 Cadillac STS than just a new name-although it has one of those. As the Cadillac press kit lays it out after recounting highlights of the on-again, off-again forty-eight-year history of the Seville nameplate, "The Seville name and design remained in place until now. This year, Cadillac will launch the all-new 2005 STS, the first rear-wheel-drive model in twenty-five years." So, this Seville replacement is evidently not a Seville after all; it's an STS. And after three decades spent persuading Americans that front-wheel drive is really where it's at, Cadillac now would like to explain why it's not.
The letters STS, previously used to denote sporty Sevilles, put the newest Cadillac in nominal line with the rear-wheel-drive CTS below it in the range and the SRX crossover beside it. (Both share GM's thus far Cadillac-exclusive Sigma chassis.) Above the STS rides the venerable front-wheel-drive DeVille DTS. Ironically, Cadillac's biggest seller will soldier on for an indefinite period, though the DeVille part of its name surely can't be long for this world. Then comes the Corvette-based XLR as well as the heavyweight Escalade, which doesn't fit into the letter name scheme at all.
"OK, you got us," a Cadillac marketing person apologized. "We're making progress" on the consistent nomenclature front, "but we're not all the way there yet." The goal for now is to get us to think of the STS and the CTS in the way BMW's 5-series relates to its 3-series and the Mercedes E-class relates to its C-class.
In short, think German. The STS, along with its Sigma siblings, is a car built with an eye on Germany-German cars, German sensibilities, and Germany's clearly delineated market segments. It's quite a challenge. Like the American team turning up for international soccer matches, the Sigma luxury machines showcase American engineers engaged in a sport historically played best by foreigners.
In attempting a comeback in this arena, the natural instinct would be to crib shamelessly from the Germans' playbook-and GM does just this. While the new STS's not unhandsome lines make reference to Cadillac's distinctive creased-angle and vertical-headlamps design language from top to bottom, a close look inside suggests the car is the creation of design and engineering teams that spent more than a few afternoons hanging around the last 5-series BMW, probing, analyzing, and costing it down to the last micron, atomic subparticle, and cent.
If you have to copy someone these days, you could do worse than BMW. Seats, door panels, carpets all look as if they've entered a witness relocation program from an outgoing 5-series, while the dash and door-cap plastics, rather shiny on our preproduction test cars, also will ring a more muted Bavarian bell by the time they make it to the showroom floor.
The always excellent-looking flashes of Cadillac's trademark eucalyptus wood gracing the console, center stack, shift lever, door caps, door pulls, and steering wheel-warmer and more appealing than any German wood-grain effect-help remind us that we are not in a Teutonic ride, as do American-looking gauge fonts, the sat-nav system, and secondary controls. But, for all those touches, it looks like default interior design. One wonders what makes this obviously a Cadillac.
The engineers who met us in Monterey, California, got a laugh when they emphasized Cadillac's self-restraint in not larding the STS with dubious high-tech electronic gizmos like some German rival they were too polite to name.
At first glance, the STS does seem in less danger of disappearing up its own unnecessarily complicated fundament owing to its maker's hypercompetitive quest for supremacy in the automotive electronics arms race. But maybe not. IDrive or no, the STS still calls for long nights scouring the owner's manual. The STS thinks for the driver-with emergency brake assist and radar-controlled, distance-sensitive cruise control-and it heeds commands, with customized voice-memory operations among a never-ending bevy of useful and useless electronic functions one gets to behold or control.
Controls can be straight-ahead or rich exercises in counterintuition, complications arising in our preproduction test cars thanks to cranky Bluetooth telephone hookups and faulty en-hanced voice-recognition software. "Phone. Dial number. 212-554- . . . ," I intoned. "Phone. Dial number. 999-999- . . . ," said the disembodied voice commander as it prepared to dial a wrong number for me. Now, that's handy.
Like all the other players in this segment, which GM calls the Global Luxury Performance Market, the STS comes in six- and eight-cylinder form. Rear-wheel drive is standard, and cars with the bigger engine are eligible for optional all-wheel drive, a first for a Cadillac passenger car. All-wheel-drive sixes will show up, we're told, come 2006.
The five-speed manu-matic gearbox used by both engines (with some modifications) and all drivetrains is the very same Hydra-Matic unit found in BMWs, we are pointedly informed, though, unlike the Ultimate Driving Machine people, Cadillac will not offer a manual transmission on the STS. In a hard to fathom but likable throwback to the good old days, it does plan on offering a variety of rear axle ratios.
As with the German competition, upgrades are the name of the game with the STS, which starts at $40,995 for six-cylinder models, rises to $47,495 for the V-8, then sprints easily into the mid-$50,000s and even crests $60,000, yet always stays a respectful step behind the equivalent BMW or Mercedes. Serious tariffs are swiftly achieved with the availability of uplevel leather and wood choices, an optional 300-watt Bose 5.1 surround-sound audio system, two tiers of chassis tune, a choice of seventeen-inch or eighteen-inch wheels, a smorgasbord of different Michelin tires, and two different braking specs. (Would you like your ventilated discs bigger or smaller? European brake pads or no?)
All versions of the STS benefit from a fully independent suspension into which Cadillac put a generous amount of design smarts and weight-saving aluminum. The uplevel suspension adds a more sophisticated, speed-sensitive, ZF Servotronic II steering box (in place of the Visteon original) and GM's excellent Magnetic Ride Control damping. Staking cars so equipped to an improbably fine ride, Magnetic Ride Control guarantees near-absolute control over unwanted body motion, dramatically limiting heave, pitch, and roll. Gullies and dips in the road are approached at high speed, and the moment of nausea you instinctively anticipate as you prepare for your mount to bottom out and then perform an interpretive dance as it sets out to recover equilibrium never materializes. The lack of drama is surprising, at first, but enduringly wonderful. Here, then, is a car as capable of safe sustained high speed as any.
We've spoken of the German thing, but we also should mention the Japanese thing, specifically Lexus, Toyota's luxury juggernaut. Those pretenders to the luxury throne stopped pretending the minute they got started, building bulletproof interpretations of the world's best luxury sedans in one fell swoop. In terms of quality, it wasn't long before they pipped the Germans and stole customers. In terms of cushiness, they haven't helped Cadillac sales any, either. So it's only fitting, in homage to the Japanese masters, that the STS is a quieter, higher-quality car than its predecessor, with tighter shut lines, more elegantly damped interior fittings, and, best of all, smoother engines
Introduced last year in the CTS and the SRX, the 255-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 in the base STS is good for 252 pound-feet of torque, and, we are glad to report, it's no slug. Both the six and the V-8 profit from variable valve timing, the six revving to an un-GM-like 6700 rpm, while the 4.6-liter eight spins happily to 6450 rpm, making 320 horsepower and 315 pound-feet of torque.
One of the benefits of the rear-wheel-drive chassis is that, unlike some previous front-wheel-drive Sevilles, which suffered from prodigious torque steer, the traction and stability-controlled rear-wheel-drive STS always puts the power down smoothly and never sends you darting for the guardrail. All-wheel drive makes nasty surprises even less likely.
On the road, the new DOHC engines don't match the Germans for aural excitement and don't achieve the cream-coated delivery of the Japanese. But they lack neither smoothness nor power, the V-8 propelling the STS from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds.
Unexpectedly, we found ourselves preferring the six-cylinder car (with Magnetic Ride Control), which felt more enthusiastic on the many tight and sweeping curves of California's coastal Highway 1. It's an extremely likable car, but in truth, all five of the STS models we drove-six, eight, all-wheel-drive, up- and down-level suspensions-were superior automobiles, though none possessed the joie de vivre of a BMW or a Mercedes. The STS is no back-road stormer, it's more of a high-speed interstate sweeper. But if it's no turn-in monster, it's no barge, either. It is a compelling proposition overall.
If the STS faces a problem, it is simply this. Far from posing a challenge for cross-shopping 7-series intenders, as Cadillac suggests, the STS will have to slug it out with cheaper cars, such as the excellent Chrysler 300 and the very fine CTS, which resides below it in Cadillac's hierarchy yet shares the same architecture and V-6 engine, provides imperceptibly less passenger accommodation, and is available for considerably less money.
If we're still thinking German here, the STS begs the question of what comes next. If Cadillac really wants to go upscale, it's going to have to bring on a true 7-series/S-class fighter. With the CTS and the STS, the games-and the names-have just begun.