Seeing the import brands gaining ground in the near-luxury category, Cadillac made a countering move in 1997 with a repackaged rear-drive Opel known as the Catera. In making the transition to Cadillac, engineers added weight to the European-built sedan in the form of features and sound deadening, damping the performance of the modest V-6. Wrapped in dull sheetmetal, the Catera struggled along, never quite fulfilling the brand's hope to stake an American flag in the growing segment. A new strategy was used for the Catera's replacement model. The CTS was built Stateside off an all-new rear-drive platform named Sigma, which would underpin other Cadillac models to follow.
The car also introduced the razor-edged "Art & Design" styling that would be spread across the Cadillac portfolio in the ensuing years. The CTS' explosive launch party was conducted on the big screen in the 2003 film "The Matrix Reloaded," illustrating that things were changing at GM's premium domestic brand. With the 2004 addition of the high-performance 400-hp CTS-V, Cadillac has grounded itself as a major player in this red-hot segment.
The stealth-aircraft-inspired styling of the CTS is a blend of both forward-thinking design and traditional Cadillac style. The vertical lights, fore and aft, harken back to mid-Sixties models, yet the headlamps are truly modern, with a projector-beam type construction. The large, louvered egg-crate grille draws inspiration from 1930s Cadillacs, while the geometric sheetmetal is pure 21st century. The overall design effect was initially polarizing, but as this crisp-edged approach is applied on other models, the look is becoming more comfortably familiar and succeeds in being instantly recognizable as a Cadillac. The base CTS wears 16-inch aluminum wheels, with 17-inch wheels and even more dramatic 18-inch polished wheels available. The CTS-V model sports an aggressive front fascia, stainless-steel mesh grilles, lower bodywork extensions, and 18-inch wheels.
The first impression of the interior--especially in all black--is of a stark European office, with monochromatic surfaces and a center stack that protrudes from the dashboard like a rack of electronic gear. It's an interior that demands a leather jacket and driving gloves from its owner, in all but the tan "Light Neutral" palette. While the extension of the audio and climate-control systems toward the driver lends a claustrophobic feeling, the CTS actually has more legroom than competing Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz models.
The available moonroof brightens up the cavernous cabin a bit, but it also sheds light on design and trim details that aren't up to the standards set by German and Japanese competitors. The sharp-edged plastic covering the doors and dash isn't executed to near-lux levels, there are too many harsh surface textures, and the switchgear feels delicate. In a nod to German manufacturers, there's an overabundance of buttons labeled only with inscrutable pictograms. Most everything is standard, save for a split-folding rear seat, heated front seats, more-powerful stereos, and a navigation system.
For 2005, Cadillac made all previous safety options standard equipment. These include six airbags (front, side, and head curtain), OnStar, ABS, traction control, and StabiliTrak electronic stability control. Well equipped, the CTS is at the top of its class for bundled safety gear. The brakes are excellent, with large 11.9-inch rotors in front and 11.7 inchers in the rear. The brakes resist fade, even after a number of laps on a test track. For even more impressive stopping performance, the CTS-V features four-piston Brembo calipers that bite down on giant 14-inch rotors.
As part of a corporation employing an abundance of long-lived pushrod engines, the Cadillac division is a diamond in the rough. New last year was a sophisticated 2.8-liter DOHC V-6, which replaced an inferior 3.2-liter engine. Both this small-displacement 210-horse V-6 and the optional 3.6-liter/255-horse V-6 feature all-aluminum construction; have variable valve timing, with four valves per cylinder; and consume regular unleaded fuel. Although the larger engine lives up the CTS' performance potential, the new entry-level choice is merely adequate for average drivers.
On the enthusiast scale, however, even the larger 3.6L can't keep up with the muscular Infiniti G35, but it will stay with the rest of the sport-sedan pack in its price category, despite being louder at high revs. Both engines come standard with a six-speed manual gearbox, but the shifter throws are too lengthy, and the gears don't click home with the ease of the manuals in the BMW 3 Series or Infiniti G35. For those who prefer an automatic transmission, the CTS is offered with the well-crafted five-speed 5L40-E, which is also licensed by BMW for use in the 5 Series.
Where BMW has "M," Cadillac has "V"--the performance pinnacle for the product range, with a comprehensive powertrain, chassis, and cosmetic upgrade. For 2006, the CTS-V moves from using the 5.7-liter/400-horse LS6 engine borrowed from the previous-generation Corvette Z06 to a 6.0-liter/400-horse V-8 transplanted from the new, sixth-generation Corvette. Rowed through six-gears with a manual Tremec transmission, the CTS-V can race from 0 to 60 mph in 4.6 seconds, leaving many fancy German competitors in its Motown dust. The fact that the CTS-V is cheaper than its Audi, BMW, and Mercedes competitors furthers its appeal.
Being a Cadillac, the CTS leans more toward comfort than sport. Body roll is far more noticeable here than in some other more-athletic sedans, as this car is better suited to highway driving than curve carving. The brakes are excellent, and Cadillac's five-speed automatic transmission is buttery smooth, unlike the standard manual. The steering wheel is too large and thin for a modern sport sedan. And the navigation system is complicated to use, with vertical rows of buttons along each side. The same dashboard layout can be found in the SRX crossover, but that vehicle uses a much nicer touch-screen unit. Why have these two different systems, especially when one is clearly superior?
The CTS has a classic leather smell and plush seats, even if they aren't quite as supportive as they could be. If you're lucky enough to sit in the throne of the V-Series, the experience will be marked by one massive grin, from the moment you turn the key to point where you walk away and take one last look over your shoulder at the edgy sheetmetal and mean 18-inch wheels.
Above all, the CTS meets Cadillac's century-long standard as a stylish Motor City status symbol. The V-6 models are neither the fastest nor the most capable cars in their class, but they do show that America can compete in a market that has been dominated by the Germans for decades. The CTS may never reach the level of user-friendliness offered by the BMW 3 Series, but in many regards, it's just as good as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4. In its current form, the car is best suited to those who seek a premium American rear-driver. Those looking to experience a CTS that fulfills its sporting pretension should gravitate toward the new Sport Performance package, which combines more aggressive suspension tuning, 18-inch wheels, performance brakes, limited-slip differential, and Xenon headlamps.
The ride is naturally firmer with this package, but the car is more responsive and, dare we say, more European in feel. On the other side of the preference spectrum, buyers who like the CTS but need more space will want to check out the SRX crossover utility vehicle, which shares the same Sigma platform and many styling cues.
The CTS-V is the perfect reincarnation of '60s musclecars. It takes a midsize sedan and fits it with massive power. But unlike the originals, it uses modern technology to do much more than just go quickly in a straight line. This neo-muscle-car, surely to the amazement of John DeLorean's ghost, also turns and stops well.
America has entered the sporting-sedan game, and the CTS is leading the charge with more amenities and performance than ever.
Mean 400-hp CTS-V New Sport packages Edgy, modern exterior styling
Clunky manual shifter Base suspension too soft Edgy, cheap interior styling
Several added features mark 2006, with the most notable being the addition of two Sport packages. The Sport Performance package tightens the suspension, adds nine-spoke 18-inch wheels, performance brakes, a tire-pressure monitor, Xenon headlights, and a limited-slip differential. The Sport Appearance package further adds restyled rocker panels, dual exhaust tips, a sport grille, and a rear spoiler. Interior trim is now available in Cashmere and can be accented with burled-pattern appliques. The CTS becomes the first GM vehicle to offer XM NavTraffic with real-time traffic conditions in major cities displayed on the navigation system screen. Three new exterior colors are available: Radiant Bronze, Blackberry, and Infrared.
Enthusiast drivers will prefer the 3.6L engine and favor the Sport Performance package. Counter to conventional sports-sedan wisdom, the CT with the automatic transmission may be preferable. Key extras also include a Bose stereo and navigation system.