Milford, Michigan -- General Motors' top management has had its ups and downs over the years, but the engineering and design departments have always been among the best in the world. When GM's suits and bean counters manage to do their jobs well, they give engineers and designers the resources necessary to fulfill their collective potential. A decade into the Cadillac division's struggle to once again build credible, world-class luxury cars, upper management seems to have let the creative people loose in their effort to catch BMW.
The latest evidence is the new, twin-turbo V-6-powered VSport variant of Cadillac's freshly minted third-generation CTS. With this larger CTS, Cadillac is quickly rising to the top of the mid-size luxury segment that the Mercedes-Benz E-class, Audi A6, and BMW 5-series have dominated for so long. The CTS achieves this in part by becoming the segment's biggest loser (the base model is nearly 250 pounds lighter).
Engineering chief Dave Leone, who deserves credit as much as anyone for Cadillac's renaissance, started with the new Alpha platform (ATS and next Chevy Camaro) and designed more elegant substructures. His team designed door structures, a hood, and other pieces of aluminum; made parts like the engine brackets of magnesium; and added loads of high-strength steel. Leone says the base car is 200 pounds lighter than a BMW 528i; the normally aspirated, 3.6L V-6 CTS is 350 pounds lighter than a 535i; and the twin-turbo 3.6L Vsport is 400 pounds lighter than a 550i.
The new car is 4.2 inches longer than the '08-'13 Sigma CTS, including a 1.2-inch bump in wheelbase, and is an inch lower and slightly narrower. The rear seat is placed closer to the rear axle, and the backs of the front buckets are scooped out to create more impressive rear passenger space than you'd expect from the increase in size. The styling difference between this new, longer, lower CTS and the last one is like the difference between an early Bill Mitchell Cadillac and a late Harley Earl Caddy. The single disappointment is the rear fender/taillamp design, dramatic on the old car but now too much like the XTS's -- or even the old DTS's -- tail, pandering to Chinese tastes.
Interior design and material quality is about up to 5-series or E-class standards, although in light colors the back seat lacks some visual dazzle. Up front, you still have to deal with the CUE system.
We had only the Vsport for our first drive, which included many laps of GM's Milford Road Course (known colloquially as the Lutzring) and a lap of the public roads surrounding the facility.
There's a slight hesitation at throttle tip-in, even with twin turbocharger. The 420-horsepower twin-turbo V-6 sounds great when angry and quickly settles down to a country club hush when it's not aroused. Credit that naturally created induction noise for tamping down the incongruity of hustling a large, comfortable American luxury car around this tight, technical test track. The Vsport's smooth, responsive Aisin eight-speed automatic works just fine in Sport mode – there's no advantage in clicking the paddle shifters. An eight-speed is the cost of entry in this segment, although it comes only with the base and twin-turbo 3.6L V-6s and rear-wheel-drive. If you get the all-wheel-drive normally aspirated V-6 (AWD is not available with the twin-turbo V-6) or either RWD or AWD with the 2.0L turbo four-cylinder, your transmission is a six-speed automatic.
The Vsport rewards those for whom handling comes first, acceleration second. The Vsport comes standard with Magnetic Ride Control (MRC), which is now optional on the base CTS; the system offers Touring, Sport and Track settings. Although the stability control can be turned off completely, it lets you rotate the car and steer with the throttle in normal Track mode. Try that in one of the German or Asian competitors. This lets you enjoy trailing-throttle oversteer. Overcook it in a corner, and stability control kicks in, but only long enough to make sure you're not swapping ends. It shuts down once oversteer is under control. This is easier than you think: you can feel the 50/50 balance in the CTS, which handles as much like a two-seat sports car as a big luxury sedan allows. On the road that rings the proving ground, ride quality and quietness are what you'd expect from a Cadillac.
"It's easier to give a good-handling car a smooth ride than to make a good ride handle," Leone says.
Although we still miss power steering pumps for feedback and feel, the electronic power assisted steering (EPAS) in the CTS is tactile. We've known for years that GM has benchmarked BMW steering, not in its current models but from a couple of generations ago, cars like the E46-chassis 3-series and the E39 5-series. Leone notes that the CTS's EPAS is mounted on the steering rack, not on the column, for minimal interference.
So Cadillac has met BMW at a crossroads where the American brand is making its luxury sedans more dynamic while the German brand is making its sport sedans more luxurious. Between the new CTS Vsport and the Maserati Ghibli, Germany's dominance in this field is facing a real, tangible threat.
2014 Cadillac CTS Vsport
|As Tested:||$65,000 (est.)|
|Engine:||3.6-liter DOHC 32-valve twin-turbocharged V-6|
|Horsepower:||420 hp @ 5750 rpm|
|Torque:||430 lb-ft @ 3500-4500 rpm|
|L x W x H:||195.5 x 72.2 x 57.2 in|
|Headroom F/R:||39.2/37.5 in|
|Legroom F/R:||42.6/35.4 in|
|Cargo Capacity:||13.7 cu ft|
|Curb Weight:||3965 lb(est.)|
|EPA Rating (city/highway):||17/25 mpg|