Around the 'Ring, with the electronic fun police switched off, the CTS was about as good as a sedan this size gets, tackling corners in a pleasantly neutral stance that is easily adjusted with the throttle. StabiliTrak works well with the traction control switched off, because you can generate some slip angles and wheelspin without falling off the road. (One criticism: There's too much pedal interference when braking hard with the StabiliTrak engaged.) The ride is well controlled and damped, particularly on big inputs, but it's not so composed over small-amplitude, high-frequency bumps. In that respect, it almost feels Germanic, except that the road noise is much better isolated than in most German sedans, and wind noise is well controlled, too.
Fine-tuning is what separates the men from the boys in this sport-sedan class. In the CTS, the pedals on the manual version are properly placed for heel-and-toe shifts, the seats hold you well in high-g cornering, and the brake pedal has a progressivity that is inspiring when you make a hurried stop from 130 mph. The brakes are very powerful, and the anti-dive geometry built into the front end gives additional confidence. The manual shift is smooth and quick, if a touch notchy through neutral, while the automatic shifts are instant and well damped, just like a good Japanese car's.
The engine feels good, too. The 3.2-liter V-6 isn't as smooth as some of its rivals, but it emits a throaty growl at the top end and provides meaningful torque from as low as 2500 rpm, with additional grunt above 4000. Cadillac estimates a 0-to-60-mph time of just under 7.0 seconds, and we managed 7.8 seconds with a driver and a passenger and way too much tire smoke. Top speed in the States will be limited to 128 mph for cars equipped with the base tires, but Sport models will run to 147 mph.
The CTS is a fine car. Corporate personnel as far up the food chain as Ron Zarrella, president of General Motors North America, are proud of it and think it's in the ballpark. In some ways, it is more than that. The chassis feels better than everything except the 5-series, performance is class competitive, and the interior and exterior styling are distinctive. Well equipped, the CTS will run between $35,000 and $38,000, "which is the sweet spot for this segment," says Cadillac's general manager Mark LaNeve. (The price also undercuts a BMW 530i.)
Cadillac is evaluating options for a high-performance version of the CTS, perhaps with a supercharged six. Until then, we can celebrate the news that there's an American car that runs with the Europeans in this competitive segment. As for whether Cadillac needs a smaller car, the CTS is good enough to attract younger buyers to a nameplate that has lost its luster. Changing the perceptions of people like me can only be a good thing, because I'm in the right demographic to give Cadillac a long-term future. All Cadillac needs now is an interior-detail czar with enough confidence to fend off the cost accountants in order to make the brand's cars feel as finely honed inside as their European opponents. In this market, tangible quality is more important than value for the money.