Nrburg, Germany As a Brit growing up in a land of Minis and Morris Minors and all sorts of itty-bitty cars plying narrow roads, I always thought Cadillacs held the promise of another world, where gasoline was cheap, the roads were never ending, and space was wide open. To a teenager in the early 1970s, a Cadillac Eldorado was the very definition of an American car, something you could imagine taking for a cruise into the desert, one arm around your honey, one fingertip on the wheel, with Elvis crooning away on the eight-track.
To me, Cadillacs were always the biggest of the big, whether you looked back into the mists of the 1930s at the gorgeous V-12s and V-16s, or at the befinned extravaganzas of the late 1950s, or even at the front-wheel-drive boats of the following decade. And Cadillacs were also synonymous with the best of American styling, exuberant displays of self-confidence.
So Cadillac's Catera never quite did it for me. A smaller, plainer Cadillac never struck me as kosher, any more than the idea of a small Rolls-Royce did. As for a Cadillac that drives like a German car, shouldn't that be left to the Germans? Cadillac doesn't think so, and part of the thinking (apart from selling more cars) could come from perception. Put a car like a DeVille into a comparison test, and it will come out near the bottom, because we'll always favor cars that talk to us best. Yet, taken on its own merits, the DeVille is a very fine highway machine.
This fetish for winning magazine tests has led to a few anomalies, particularly Mercedes-Benz abandoning what it did best--solid, beautifully engineered cars that would run all year at 150 mph on the autobahn--to produce more stylish automobiles that drive like BMWs but aren't quite as good and feel cheaper. Blame that on Mercedes wanting to do as well in magazine comparison tests as BMW and also wanting to attract younger buyers. (Why can't a car company be happy with older, more affluent buyers, one wonders? Where did this cult of youth come from?)
Perhaps the biggest anomaly of all is now upon us. Cadillac, provider of floppy, ill-handling land yachts from the 1960s to the 1990s, has built a new entry-luxury car that handles really well. Cadillac says the price of entry into this market is a chassis that's comparable to the Europeans'. That, executives say, puts you on people's shopping lists, because buyers expect any car to perform as well as a BMW or a Benz, even if they never find its limits. This seems to miss the point that BMW and Audi also do the quality part of the luxury-car equation supremely well.
The CTS takes off where the Catera failed. American buyers quickly figured out that the Catera was neither an American near-luxury car nor a particularly good European one. An Opel Omega isn't an Audi or a BMW, no matter how you disguise it--and Cadillac really didn't make the Catera look different enough. There are no worries on that score with the CTS. The first manifestation of Cadillac's "Art & Science" design, the CTS is crisp, imposing, and very distinctive. It's a bit slab-sided, but the stance is good, and it's refreshing to see something different, rather than a generic design job such as the Lincoln LS.