Every time I slid behind the steering wheel of this car, I put my foot on the brake pedal, turned the key, and waited for the CTS to start, but the 3.6-liter V-6 never ignited. Why? Because this particular CTS was equipped with the new-for-2005, six-speed manual transmission, but my brain still could not compute the equation of "Cadillac" and "clutch pedal." This despite the fact that the late and unlamented Catera was offered with a five-speed manual transmission-the first in a Cadillac since the really unlamented Cimarron-a gearbox that migrated, along with the Catera's 3.2-liter V-6, to the CTS when it debuted for 2002.
The 3.6-liter V-6--a thoroughly modern, double-overhead-cam, variable-valve-timing gem that is making its way through GM's premium product offerings--was new in the CTS last year but presented potential buyers with a conundrum: If you wanted to shift your own gears, you had to settle for the old 3.2-liter V-6 and five-speed manual or pony up for the far more expensive (but hugely desirable), V-8-powered CTS V. The 3.6-liter was offered for 2004 only with a five-speed automatic, which made for a nice powertrain, but not necessarily what BMW 3-series cross-shoppers had in mind.
This year, Cadillac finally has a CTS powertrain lineup that effectively competes not only with the 3-series but also the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-class. A new, 210-hp, 2.8-liter V-6 is the price leader ($31,000) and is the direct counterpart to the German cars' smaller engines. Both it and the mid-level, 3.6-liter V-6 from which it is derived are available with either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission. The CTS V continues as the top dog. Thus Cadillac's CTS 2.8L/3.6L/V-spec lineup neatly overlays the BMW 325i/330i/M3, Audi A4 1.8T/3.0/S4, and Mercedes-Benz C230/C320/C55 AMG offerings. This sort of market positioning would appear to be a no-brainer, but it often takes Detroit a while to figure out, and act on, the obvious.
Once my left foot figured out, and acted on, the obvious, I turned the key in the ignition of our silver CTS with ebony interior, the V-6 came to life instantly, and I palmed the chrome-topped, leather-and-wood gearshifter. With both the engine and my brain now firing on all cylinders, I slid into first gear and released the clutch. The pedal moves fluidly, and take-up and travel are good. The shifter throws are a little long, but the gearshifter's actions are as precise as any BMW's, feel is good, and gear engagement is easy.
Unlike, say, a Toyota/Lexus V-6, which is so refined you hardly know it's there, the GM V-6 lets its presence be known with a bit of Detroit-style throb, but it's more tenor than bass. Press the accelerator and head into the upper reaches of the rev band (redline is an impressive 7000 rpm), and the aspiration of all those hard-working valves makes for a satisfying mechanical chorus.
The engine's 255 hp and 252 lb-ft of torque are not exactly headline material, given that the Infiniti G35 now offers 298 hp from its 3.5-liter V-6, but the Caddy V-6 pours on the power in first through fourth gears, and even fifth isn't a dullard on the freeway. Shift from fifth or overdrive sixth down to fourth, and you can squirt through packs of traffic at 80 to 100 mph with addictive ease. Exit onto a twisty two-lane, like Ann Arbor's Huron River Drive, and third gear will double the 35-mph speed limit rather quickly.
It was on Huron River Drive, on an early winter day when the sun was bright and the road was devoid of its usual bicyclists and runners, that I pushed this car as far as road conditions, prudence, and my abilities would allow. It never quivered. Pedal placement for heel-and-toeing is about perfect, and the steering has a direct line of communication with the chassis, even if some of the messages are muddied by a bit of body roll. The rear end of the car always keeps you informed of its intentions, so you can slide the CTS very nicely in a tight corner or even a long sweeper. When stability control is engaged, it doesn't spoil the fun but just alerts you that you're on the ragged edge of adhesion. The brakes are up to the task of hard driving, too.
We've long complained that the CTS's interior doesn't live up to the promises made by the edgy exterior, and Cadillac claims that the next generation will be markedly improved. Yet the CTS cabin is far from unlivable, and the ergonomics are pretty good once you figure out what the two vertical rows of buttons flanking the audio/navigation screen operate. It's easy to dismiss the CTS as a 3-series wannabe, and there's no doubt that BMW set the standards that Cadillac is trying to emulate. But while the CTS, overall, is not quite the equal of the 3-series, it is still very much in its league, more so than either the A4 or the C-class.
Just remember, when you get into a CTS with the new six-speed manual, that you have a left foot.