The Cadillac CTS

Review Notes: 2003 Cadillac CTS Automatic - Sport Luxury Package (3.2 V6)
and 2004 Cadillac CTS Automatic - Luxury Package (3.6 V6)
Personality Looks like a Cadillac, performs like a BMW but smoother
Quirks Some odd control placements, sometimes indecisive transmission, exterior is Cadillac but interior isn't
Unusual features Loads of gadgets
Above Average:  Handling, ride, technology
Needs Work In:  Automatic transmission tuning (2003), some controls, feel of some interior items
Gas mileage 18 city, 25 highway (3.2 V6); 18 city, 28 highway (3.6 V6); 16 city, 25 highway (V8)

The CTS is offers Cadillac styling and amenities along with excellent handling, respectable acceleration, and more gadgets than you can shake a stick at. It has indeed been a long time since Cadillac rocked and rolled - but it's back now.

Some may claim that a true sport-luxury sedan needs a V8, but GM has already shown with the TrailBlazer that the number of cylinders is not as important as how they are used. The standard 220 horsepower 3.2 liter dual-cam V6 puts out enough zoom to get the CTS to sixty in about 7 seconds, with good pickup at just about any speeds, while a larger (but, according to the EPA, not thirstier) 3.6 V6 is available as an option. Enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the CTS actually has rear wheel drive, which had been all but abandoned by GM's cars - and a 5.7 liter (350 cid) V8 engine is available as of January 2004.

The base engine is generally satisfactory, while the 3.6 provides greater acceleration, supposedly with greater gas mileage which may be the result of different gearing (we never got over 20 mpg in mixed city/highway driving, but the EPA is much more optimistic). There's not a massive punch, since the engine makes more power at higher revs, but it's quiet and the transmission shifts appropriately to provide strong acceleration at any time.

The 3.2 V6 can be coupled to a heavy-duty Getrag five-speed transmission, but we tested the five-speed automatic. This transmission includes settings for being manually limited to second, third, and fourth gear, but not first; there is also a winter mode, which puts the transmission into second when you start and keeps gear ratios high, for better traction, and a sport mode, which hurts gas mileage but makes the transmission feel much sportier by shifting later and holding off on downshifts. The transmission on our 2003 model, with the base engine, sometimes felt indecisive and slow in normal mode, but not in snow or sport modes, while the 2004 model, with a larger engine, seemed to read our minds and always be in the right gear. The buttons are large and placed at opposite ends of the shift console to make it harder to press the wrong one.

Handling is excellent even without the help of the Stabilitrak stability control system and all-speed traction control. We did appreciate the help of those features, though, on the rare occasions when they were activated, because they mostly eliminated the squealing tires that can bring the attention of the law. By watching the navigation system, we were able to tell when the Stabilitrak, traction control, and antilock brakes were used - and it was fairly rare.

We could toss the CTS around fast turns without a care, and most of the time, the active suspension wasn't even needed. On those rare occasions when it was used, it may have provided that extra edge that makes the difference between a sports car you trust, and one that leaves you in a ditch if you go just a little too far (as many Rabbit and Viper owners will attest.) The Cadillac will give most people all the twisties they desire, and then some, making comparisons to the BMW 3 series no idle boast. The Cadillac has an edge there, given its comfortable, roomy interior and extra amenities.

Despite the light feel of the car, which makes it easy to take turns at high speed, few will reach the CTS' limits, except on wet roads. Then, the traction control and Stabilitrak will prove very handy, given the CTS' fast engine, which wants to push the rear end around. Traction control cuts in rather suddenly, keeping the car on the right path. It's quite a handy feature, and though you usually don't need to be told when it's active, the navigation system still displays "Stabilitrak Activated" or "Traction Control Activated."  While the CTS isn't a terrific snow car, it's much better than some others - the Audi TT comes to mind - which simply can't deal with the white stuff. The CTS tends to rely on the traction and stability control systems, but it does get through the snow.

Visibility is very good for the most part, in our case aided by high-intensity discharge headlights and automatically dimming rear-view mirrors (inside and out). There is a sizable blind spot on the rear passenger side, though. The side mirrors can be folded in electrically, and can be set to tilt down on reverse.

The interior takes more cues from BMW than past Cadillacs, with a plain charcoal grey dashboard, clear, large, and plain gauges, and beige leather and door panels. The center console includes a small covered bin, hinged over an open bin, and two primitive but effective cupholders. There is also a small area for coins, but none for gadgets like EZ-Pass boxes. The center consoles feel a bit cheap, and the entire area is ripe for improvement; saving money is all very well, and BMW and Volvo have been known to have cheap interior parts, but this is a Cadillac. The interior has several lights, but the dark leather in our model soaked up the light, leaving the interior dark.

With so many gadgets, the CTS designers seem to have placed buttons wherever they could. Stereo controls are on the steering wheel spokes (along with audio input for the navigation system), OnStar is on the mirror, and the instrument light rheostat is actually on the roof by the sunroof controls. With the navigation system, there are two rows of buttons lining the sides of the viewscreen, two knobs below them, and buttons beneath them. The climate control is likewise framed with buttons. Fortunately, both are relatively easy to use.

[Click here for in-depth descriptions of Stabilitrak, OnStar, and other GM gadgets]

Both of our CTS test cars had luxury packages: the luxury-sport package in 2003, and the plain luxury package (but with the optional engine) in 2004. While expensive, the luxury packages make the CTS into a real Cadillac, rather than an Americanized Opel: they include wood on the steering wheel, shift lever, and doors, as well as power passenger seat adjustments, multiple-driver memory, compass, speed-sensitive steering, load-levelling rear suspension, and, oh, yes, that wonderful Stabilitrak system, the one that keeps Corvettes and Camaros pointed in the right direction when their massive engines want them to make impromptu U-turns. The sport-luxury package also includes bigger tires and wheels and a sport-tuned suspension.

The base Cadillac CTS, at $29,350, is reasonably priced, but frankly, we don't think it should be offered at all: Cadillac is a luxury brand, and the base CTS, while capable, doesn't have the look of an American luxury car inside (though BMW owners would find it to be just fine). Indeed, even with the luxury package, the interior doesn't look as luxurious as that of the Chrysler 300M or many other, lower-priced cars. Then again, many pricey German cars don't have imposing interiors.

Those who want a Cadillac ride should go with the base or luxury package, since the sport-luxury option lets you feel many of the bumps, albeit while cushioning occupants from severe jolts. The plain luxury package provides all the luxury items, including the wood steering wheel and other features that make the difference between a Cadillac and a "standard" car. The luxury package has the added advantage of providing a very smooth ride, not devoid of road feel but certainly capable of making bad roads feel like good roads. The days of the "rolling sofa" on excessively cushy springs are gone forever, except in the Toyota Avalon, but thanks to progressive spring rates, the CTS can provide an equal level of comfort, without the loss of performance.

Our 2003 test vehicle also had a $2,700 Bose music system with a navigation system, five-speed automatic transmission ($1,200), sunroof ($1,100), high intensity discharge headlamps - incredibly bright, with a blueish tone imitated by unprincipled makers of normal headlights ($500), and heated front seats ($400). The total list price, including destination, ended up just shy of $40,000. That's quite reasonable compared with, say, a Mercedes - and we suspect the CTS will have higher build quality, based on Mercedes' recent debacles in that arena. Our 2004 test model, which also had OnStar, the luxury package with wood and such, the navigation system, a larger engine which adds quite a bit of horsepower, and the HID headlights, ran to $42,000. Keep in mind that the base price is around $34,000.

The navigation system is worth quite a few words:

Far superior to those used by Toyota, it has many useful features, including several different map views, countdowns in feet to the next turn, voice navigation assistance, extensive points of interest, and easy access to all these functions via clearly marked buttons and a large knob. Typing in addresses was far easier than with some other systems, including the one in the Escalade, but it didn't seem possible to simply type in the name of a business (you could put in its category and then its name, or use its telephone number). Three map views - constant North, map turning to have the car always pointing upwards, and 3D - are available to meet driver tastes. Our only major complaint with the system was its slow speed and the need to agree to pay attention to the road each and every time the car was restarted (it did allow full access to the stereo without that agreement).

While we generally are not fans of combined radio/navigation systems, since they force drivers' eyes off the road, at least this one was relatively logical and easy to read, so you could drive while changing radio stations or adjusting audio quality. Four buttons on the steering wheel allowed for rapid access to favorite radio stations across bands, so you could switch from an AM traffic station to an FM news station to two XM satellite radio music stations without going to the radio controls.

Speaking of the radio, the navigation system/stereo also had a digital signal processor which allowed music to be optimized for the driver, passenger, rear passengers, or everyone in the vehicle. Equalizer (bass, treble, midrange) settings can be memorized along with station presets, though we never figured out how to save this along with the seat and mirror preferences.

The navigation system also has an area for various car statistics - average gas mileage, average speed, battery voltage, oil and transmission fluid life, that sort of thing - voice memos, and an address book.

The maps, points of interest, and other details are in a series of DVDs supplied with the car, and loaded from one of two slots by the unit (the lower slot is a CD changer). The DVDs overlap so if you live on a border, you don't have to constantly switch. The navigation system is a bit slow to calculate routes, and the system takes some getting used to, but you don't necessarily need a manual.

Finally, the navigation system makes it easy to access driver customization systems - for example, telling the CTS to lower the side view mirrors when you back up, or to unlock all four doors at once, etc.

The climate control system is easy to learn and operate, with separate controls for driver and passenger - which may be easily shut off. Annoyingly, pressing the defrost button turns the fan up to maximum, where it is surprisingly noisy. The side vents must be switched to demist manually to clear up the side windows quickly.

There are a variety of microphones, for OnStar, for a memo recorder built into the sun visor, for the navigation system's memo recorder, for telling the navigation system what to do with a limited number of voice commands (press the button, wait, say "Radio." That sort of thing.)

The sunroof has a very clever dial control - twist one way and the vent opens, twist the other and it opens part way or completely. Just one movement is needed to open and close it, making it safer than "keep your finger on the button" designs.

Interior space is sufficient for most people, without the massive space once thought necessary for Lincolns and Cadillacs, but not too crowded, either. The CTS will seat four large people in comfort, five in a pinch. It's certainly larger than its German competitors, and more comfortable as well.

Overall, the Cadillac CTS is an amazing achievement, with excellent handling, good acceleration, and a roomy interior. We'd easily recommend the Cadillac CTS over the Lincoln Continental, Mercedes E Class, and, unless you are a seriously demanding high-performance driver, the BMW 3-series. Take a serious test drive, put the car through its paces, and you may well decide to buy American next time around. Given the strong sales of the CTS - and the number of Mercedes and BMWs dealers are getting as trade-ins - you'd be in good company.