First Drive: 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe

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Leaving the Camaro V-6 in the dust

We know what you’re thinking at this point: the coupe is just another half-baked, pretty face from General Motors. Not true. Look closely, and you’ll see a whole lot of engineering going on here. For instance, the well-integrated CHMSL doubles as a rear spoiler, contributing to the coupe’s higher downforce. The deck lid under it opens wide and reveals a surprisingly deep trunk. From the driver’s seat, there’s the expected C-pillar blind spot, but otherwise the cabin feels far brighter and airier than both the G37 and 3-series coupes.

Most important, the coupe is every bit as sporty as the fighter-jet looks promise when it hits some curves. The FE3 suspension on our tester manages the car’s considerable weight with supreme competence, keeping body motions in check through quick switchbacks. The extra time spent on tuning pays off with exceptional balance, as the rear end slides around hairpins smartly and predictably despite its staggered tires. This, just in case you were wondering, is where the CTS coupe would leave a V-6 Camaro choking in its dust, despite the fact that it uses an identical powertrain and weighs about the same. The ZF steering rack, unchanged from the sedan, is extremely precise and is as communicative as that in any German car, though there’s still a bit too much power assist for our taste.

A brilliant six-speed automatic

The biggest surprise though, would have to be the transmission. We were disappointed at first to find our test car equipped with a six-speed automatic, but by the time we reached the end of the paved mountain road and turned around for another pass, we were glad to have it. In sport mode, the transmission’s programming adjusts the shift pattern according to acceleration, braking, and lateral g-forces. Lots of autos do this, but few we’ve experienced do it so well. Indeed, the way it slammed down a gear the moment before a hard right-hander and avoided an upshift through a long banked turn was enough to make us wonder why other sporty cars bother with the complexity of a dual-clutch unit. Strong, perfectly progressive brakes round out the package. Keep in mind, very little of this capability is unique to the coupe. The sedan and even the 200-pound-heavier wagon will acquit themselves nearly as well if given a chance. In that sense, our spirited drive was less a revelation than it was a reminder that the CTS, regardless of body style, means business.

The weight of a division on its shoulders

That’s pretty much the effect Cadillac wants. Though decision makers are still not sure how much volume the coupe will add, there’s hope that the addition of a flashy new variant will encourage more people to walk into the showroom and discover the car’s virtues. With CTS sales slumping as of late and the wagon only adding a couple hundred units a month despite critical acclaim, this is no small gamble. We just saw a preview of the replacement for the DTS and STS, and Kewley and his team are hard at work on a smaller rear-wheel-drive vehicle to compete more directly with the 3-series, but for now and looking into the near future, the brand’s prestige and much of its volume rests on the CTS’s chiseled shoulders. The money spent on this coupe could very well have gone toward a thorough freshening, but Cadillac clearly thinks this injection of style is a better investment. We think so, too. The stunning coupe finally gives the CTS the halo it needs to draw attention to what has long been a very worthwhile car and is now a very competitive lineup.

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