A Cadillac like no other

Is there any car, journalist, lousy review of Matrix Reloaded, or act of God that can stand in the way of the new 2004 Cadillac CTS? I wouldn’t bet on it. Cadillac contends the CTS is good enough to deliver what has become something of a Holy Grail in the US: top-drawer European performance and dynamics wrapped in an American luxury package.

Truth is, if Cadillac is to reinvent its brand image, the CTS needs to start something. It needs to erase memories of underdeveloped lash-ups like the Cavalier-based Cimmaron of the early ’80s, and the ’97 European-built 200bhp V6 Catera, which may have been miles better, but was still a long way from good.

So, armed with GM’s all-new Sigma rear-wheel-drive platform, a new body, an edgy new styling concept, a unique new 54-degree V6 engine, two new transmissions, a new factory in Lansing, Michigan, a new workforce, and the previous BMW 528i as a performance benchmark, Cadillac’s engineers went to work. Several thousand development laps of the Nürburgring, 15 minutes of fame in Matrix Reloaded later, the CTS is poised for world domination, ready to slug it out with all comers in the world’s most discriminating markets.

Kroymans, the Dutch-based importer with the contract to bring Cadillacs to Europe, sees the UK as potentially its second-largest market after Germany. It envisages selling 6500 Cadillac and Chevrolet cars in Europe in 2004, but with the addition of the SRX SUV and XLR convertible, the numbers are expected to increase. The CTS can be built in right-hand drive but GM hasn’t confirmed that it will be. Kroymans will still consider bringing it here if it stays left-hook only.

Apart from the fact that this is the first Cadillac ever to be offered with manual transmission, there’s nothing remarkable about the layout or specification. The CTS is a four-door, five-seat, rear-drive saloon of roughly 5-series dimensions that will cost nearer 3-series money should rhd versions head Blighty’s way.

Equipped with the standard 3.2 motor, our test car’s 220bhp is delivered at 6000rpm and supported by 218lb ft of torque at 3400rpm. No, not nearly enough to put the frighteners on a BMW 330, but Cadillac’s performance claims look respectable enough, quoting 0-62mph in 7.4sec.

Discounting the M5-baiting 400bhp V8 ‘V’ model that makes its European debut at the Geneva Motor Show this month, the CTS currently comes with three trim/equipment levels and our test car has the full Luxury Sport Pack. This means sport-tuned suspension with four-channel ‘StabiliTrak’ stability enhancement, high-performance brake linings, speed-sensitive steering, automatic rear suspension levelling and 17-inch polished aluminum wheels with P225/50R-17 V-rated tyres. Extra kit over lesser versions includes split folding rear seats, xenon headlights, a rapid-action sunroof and a 212-watt six-CD in-dash Bose audio system.

The CTS isn’t an instant head-turner. But any view that includes the front or back – especially the front with those huge, chiselled, vertically configured headlamps – is likely to be an instant opinion-former. Of the opinions formed and passed on to us, there were more ‘ughs’ than ‘aahs’. But the fact that there were aahs at all suggests Cadillac’s decision to go with the so-called ‘art and science’ origami school of design first showcased on the Evoq Paris show car resonates with the daring aspect of BMW’s adventures in Bangle-ism. Perhaps the subtlest flattery of all.

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Savour the thought because subtlety very quickly becomes an alien concept in the cabin. No, lightness of touch is not a cornerstone of American automotive design philosophy. Batting for the Yankies are powered seats and steering wheel with more positions than a sex manual, that nevertheless refuse to entertain the idea of working together to provide a truly comfortable driving position. The seats themselves don’t help – they look shapely and supportive, but feel flat and slidey. Nor could I, without referring to the handbook, fathom how to store my preferred, nearly right position.

The intended European feel is most successfully evoked in the dash architecture (bold, very three-dimensional, driver-orientated) and instrumentation (classic, large, clearly marked dials flanked by auxiliary gauges). There’s even a BMW-esque smattering of switches on the spokes of the leather ’n’ wood-rimmed steering wheel, though labelling the quartet of buttons to the left 1, 2, 3 and 4 isn’t terribly helpful. Shiny wood is nicely underplayed as well, being confined to the top of the steering wheel, transmission selector knob and the door pulls. Not much of the expected chrome either, just on the door handles, which seem to have been dramatically up-sized to compensate.

No, the shapes and switchgear are generally fine. Where it starts to unravel, from a strictly European perspective, is with the textures. There are at least three different, fearsomely cheap-looking plastics covering the surfaces, by far the most plentiful of which is the squidgy ‘soft-touch’ variety found in any current Vauxhall Vectra or Signum. Something of a fly in the otherwise classy ambience ointment. A pity, because build quality is satisfyingly solid, space in the rear more generous than in most European rivals and all-round visibility excellent.

Back to the good news. The engine/ transmission package is great. Virtually silent at tickover, the 3.2-litre V6 develops a naughty, hard-edged growl under load, yet remains smooth and decently hushed up to the 6500rpm shift mark. Part-throttle performance is pleasingly effortless, but nail it and the five-speed GM box is so slick and snappy it allows the Caddy to pile on speed with an almost thrilling sense of urgency.

Pull off the motorway and head for the twisty stuff and it’s easy to understand why Cadillac saw part of its CTS mission as realising a new level of driver appeal – and why it spent three years in Germany’s Eifel mountains to get it sorted. It’s said that the Nürburgring experience influenced pedal positions, brake operation, even seat design.

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The CTS might not be the fastest saloon on the planet, but it’s fast where it matters. Like all the best grown-up performance saloons, it blends dynamics and performance cohesively. The suspension’s clearly a big advance for Cadillac in that it marries a supple ride with good body control. In fact, the primary ride is extremely good, smothering large undulations with remarkable composure.

It isn’t so good at filtering out small bumps and high-frequency disturbances, but the suspension does work quietly and, on the whole, delivers a very attractive blend of virtues. The braking system is right on the money, too: powerful and tireless, with a firm, progressive pedal feel.

Despite some deadness in the steering around the straight ahead, the CTS feels agile, safe and predictable – though it’s better at riding the edge of its chassis abilities than pushing beyond them. With the traction control switched off it’ll oversteer like… well, like it does in Matrix Reloaded, though you’ll need to be something of a stunt driver if you want to keep the drama tidy.

The CTS is, indeed, a Cadillac like no other. It has a dashing, daring yet, by American standards, understated exterior. An interior that, if not exactly atuned to European tastes, won’t alienate itself from them. It has a strong, charismatic engine, brilliant automatic gearbox, five-on-the-floor manual as standard, and a chassis that justifies all the development work at the Nürburgring.

It’s smooth, comfortable, refined, solidly built and good to drive. In fact, it may well be the best American saloon ever made. One that isn’t embarrassed by its performance or chassis in the best European company, but still retains a likable American flavour. If the thought of being seen with a BMW in your drive is just too unpalatable, the CTS may just hit the mark. Any takers over here? I would imagine so.

David Vivian

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coralmuz 6 September 2019

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