Driven: 2011 Cadillac CTS coupe

David ZenleawriterAndrew Yeadonphotographer

The Cadillac CTS coupe is a car for realists. Sure, it looks like a concept car that took a wrong turn leaving the convention center, but, in fact, it's an entirely logical and even conservative step in a brand renaissance that's changing course. After a decade in which Cadillac reached for the stars with sexy halo models and pie-in-the-sky concepts like the Sixteen, General Motors' luxury division is adjusting its ambitions to reflect new realities. So, whereas Cadillac's last two-door car, the now-defunct, Corvette-based XLR, was an ambitious, low-volume sports car with an oversize price, the CTS coupe is a natural progression of the brand's most successful model. Since it shares its sheetmetal from the cowl forward and almost all of its mechanical components with the CTS sedan and wagon, the coupe is an easy way for GM to target a segment currently dominated by BMW, Infiniti, and Audi.

But the coupe almost never happened. Cadillac says that although it always planned a CTS sedan and wagon, it decided to produce a coupe only after designers mocked up a concept. Regardless of how true that is - it's hard to imagine that no one outside the design studio thought of doing a mid-size two-door when so many premium competitors have one - the coupe is positively gorgeous. Several cues, including the rakish roofline, slab-sided doors, and shaved door handles, reprise the Art and Science theme that Cadillac debuted way back in 1999 with the Evoq concept, but a new level of attention to detail keeps this car fresh. For instance, the CHMSL is mounted on the deck lid in such a way that it reduces lift at highway speeds, eliminating the need for a rear spoiler, and the high-flow mufflers vent through distinctive squarish tips integrated into the center of the rear fascia. (The CTS-V coupe, which will come out a few weeks after the V-6 model hits dealerships in June, gets larger, nonintegrated round outlets better suited to handle the V-8's extra heat.) In terms of pure looks, the CTS coupe should rocket to the head of the luxury pack, especially since competitors such as the Infiniti G37 coupe and the Audi A5 have already been out for a while. Potential buyers, at least the ones we encountered as we drove around upscale Scottsdale, seem to agree. It's pretty common to catch lots of stares when testing a radical-looking new car - less so to have those bystanders come up and try to find out exactly where and when they can purchase one.

Considering the excitement generated by the coupe's exterior, it's a bit of a letdown to find that the cabin carries over pretty much unchanged from the sedan and the wagon. Although the CTS interior was a breakthrough for GM when it debuted nearly three years ago and still has very few overt faults, the addition of a significant new body style halfway through a model cycle seemingly would have been the perfect time to introduce some updates. Instead, the only real change of note is the availability of the CTS-V's Recaro seats in any coupe or sedan. We'd personally stick with the standard seats, though, which are firm and very comfortable and offer excellent lumbar support. At least the lack of changes should ensure top-quality fit and finish. Even our nonsalable development mule was free of the issues one usually finds on early-build models.

The sedan's mechanicals, which were already updated slightly during development of the wagon, also carry over, although there are a few key tuning changes. The coupe's body is two inches wider in the back, which facilitates the use of wider rear tires. Engineers offset that change with a thicker rear antiroll bar, resulting in more overall grip without hurting the car's handling balance. The direct-injected 3.6-liter V-6 is unchanged from the sedan but is paired in rear-wheel-drive coupes with a numerically higher, 3.73:1 final-drive ratio and a standard limited-slip differential (the sedan's 3.0-liter base engine will not be offered here). Fuel economy ratings remain the same as the sedan's, with automatic-gearbox coupes earning EPA ratings of 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway and stick-shift cars rated at 16/25 mpg. No matter the transmission, the two-door can sprint to 60 mph in about six seconds, according to Cadillac. That's slightly quicker than the sedan, thanks to the gearing advantage and a nineteen-pound weight reduction, but still at least half a second slower than the G37 and the BMW 335i, which are both half a size smaller and significantly lighter than the CTS.

And yet overall, the CTS coupe gives up nothing to its Japanese and German competitors simply because this time around, Cadillac has gone to finishing school. For instance, the deck lid 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 those of the G37 and 3-series coupes. Most important, when it hits some curves, the Caddy coupe is every bit as sporty as its fighter-jet looks promise. The uprated FE3 suspension on our test car manages the coupe's 3931 pounds with supreme confidence, keeping body motions in check through quick switchbacks. All the extra time that engineers spent tuning the car pays off with exceptional balance, as the rear end slides around hairpins smartly and predictably despite its staggered Continental performance tires. This, just in case you were wondering, is where the CTS coupe would leave a V-6-powered Chevy Camaro for dead, despite the fact that the Chevy uses an identical powertrain and weighs about 150 pounds less. The precise ZF steering rack, unchanged from the sedan, is as communicative as that in any German car, although there's still a bit too much power assist.

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 instead of the standard six-speed manual, but by the time we reached the end of a particularly thrilling 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. Other cars do this, but few we've experienced do it so well. Indeed, the way the transmission 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 dual-clutch automatics. Strong, perfectly progressive brakes round out the package. Keep in mind, though, that very little of this capability is unique to the coupe. The sedan and even the much-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.

That's pretty much the effect Cadillac wants. "The coupe is relevant as a statement of confidence," says Bryan Nesbitt, Cadillac's new chief. "It's a visual manifest of everything that we want to achieve with the brand." With CTS sales slumping of late and the wagon adding only a few hundred units per month despite critical acclaim, this statement is no small gamble. Cadillac recently showed a preview of the replacement for the DTS and the STS, the XTS Platinum, and the company has confirmed that it is hard at work on a smaller rear-wheel-drive model to compete more directly with the BMW 3-Series. But for now, and for 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 that this injection of style is a better investment. We do, too, but not just because we're seduced by the new coupe's sexy profile. Rather, the striking design finally gives the CTS the halo it needs to draw attention to what has long been a very satisfying car.

The Specs

On sale: June
Price: $40,000 (est. )
Engine: 3.6L V-6, 304 hp, 273 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel

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