2009 Cadillac CTS car reviews

2009 Cadillac CTS DI-V6 AWD Automatic

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Personality German sport sedan, Cadillac style
Why we’d buy it Quick, corners well, quiet, AWD
Why we wouldn’t Firm seats, gas mileage
Mileage EPA, 17/26 (with AWD)
Reviewer David Zatz

The Cadillac CTS has an Opel chassis, but it feels like a “real” Cadillac. With excellent sound insulation, the car feels heavy and rock-solid, and on the road it damps out pavement problems nicely, even with the peformance package. The optional 3.6 liter direct-injection engine produces 304 horsepower, putting it into V8 territory, while the standard powerplant is good for 255 hp. Finally, as you’d expect, this car is made at an assembly plant in Michigan which only builds Cadillacs.

The CTS breaks from Cadillac tradition mainly with its size; Americans tend to expect that luxury cars will be fairly large, and the CTS remains stubbornly in the mid-sied category, aimed at the BMW 3 series, Audi A4, and Lexus GS. It makes some concessions to American needs, such as a front seat that can be moved almost as far back as the rear seats; if your arms and feet can manage it, you can drive with your head next to the center pillar.

Traction is very good indeed; the days of Cadillac being equated to “land barge” are long over, at least in terms of cars. The CTS grips the road tightly and doesn’t let go; you can do amazing and stupid things before the Stabilitrak system takes control. The heavy feel of the Caddy doesn’t promote such activities, but if you want the feel of a luxury sedan with the grip of a sports car, you can get it. (Some of that grip was due to the performance suspension option on our test car, but even base models have strong cornering.)

The base engine is GM’s 3.6 liter V6, but our test vehicle had the new direct-injected V6. It has the same displacement, but the direct injection system adds nearly fifty horsepower, at the cost of a little gas mileage. Either way, you get a choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic, the former supplied by Aisin, the latter by GM itself. The manual has a “sport” mode (manumatic), where you choose the gears; getting in is as simple as knocking the gearshift over to the right, then pushing it forward to move up a gear or pulling it back to drop down a gear. When you get bored, you can knock the gearshift back to the left, and the transmission will shift more or less perfectly.

Generally, the automatic ends up in the right gear at the right time; it does have a tendency, at times, to hang around in a lower than needed gear, in case power is suddenly needed. That comes in handy with the rev-happy engine, which is a little less than ideal in the lower revs, but is eager indeed at over 4,000 rpm. On the highway, hitting the gas results in a mild delay while the transmission downshifts, then a quick zoom forward once the engine digs in at around 5,000 rpm (redline is around 7,000 rpm). Experimenting with the manual override showed us that the engine makes very little power until around 3,500, when it starts to build quickly; if you stay in gear, the Caddy is sluggish at highway speeds, though it’s fine around town. It starts well from launch; with all wheel drive, there is no squeal or loss of traction, even starting strong around a turn. The AWD may be worth the cost just for that — though perhaps the gas mileage hit will give pause.

cadillac logoGeneral Motors claims that the CTS, with the direct-injection six and aggressively-geared manual transmission, can do 0-60 in a respectable 5.9 seconds (no figures are given for the heavier AWD version, or the automatic). That’s better than, for example, the V8 Hemi-equipped Dodge Charger or Chrysler 300C, for which due credit must be given to the efficient six. As with many luxury cars, though, the pursuit of smoothness erases much of the sensation of acceleration. This is not a muscle car, though it’s quicker than many muscle cars; like the Lexus GS, you can get from 0 to 75 twice as fast as cars that feel quicker. Between the sound insulation and the smooth-shifting transmission, much of the sensation of speed is lost; but freeway entry ramps are no challenge at all, and it’s easy to get around that guy at the tollbooth or pass on the highway.

The engine is normally quiet while driving, but under heavy load it has takes on the sound of a racing engine. At idle, the engine is loud from the outside, but well muffled inside the cabin.

Gas mileage was moderately good for the class, with an EPA-rated 17 mpg city, 26 highway for the higher-horsepower AWD-DI model. Those numbers seem a tad optimistic, but a good driver with a correctly broken-in engine should be able to achieve them. Buyers of base direct-injection models may find it easier to achieve that kind of mileage than we did, given the extra equipment in our car — bigger tires and wheels, bigger stereo, all wheel drive, and more luxury gadgets.

The base engine with rear wheel drive has a slightly mileage rating of 18/26; manual transmissions drop both engines down to 16/25. If these numbers all seem low, they are around the same as those of the BMW 335 and Mercedes C300, so Cadillac is by no means a dinosaur. What’s more, unlike some competitors, it takes regular gas — not premium — with either V6, and with AWD.

A separate model, the CTS-V, builds on the CTS but has much more power. In either case, rear wheel drive helps increase performance by taking some of the load off the wheels that have to steer, and putting it in back (unless you opt for the all wheel drive). Traction control and stability control are standard across the board.

Our test car had an interesting twist on the new “keys-in-pocket” system that has become popular among automakers; you do not need to take the keys out of your pocket or purse to open the door or start the engine, but instead you need to pull on a handle to unlock the door (competitors let you just touch the handle). If you pull on any handle other than the driver’s door, it unlocks all the doors; but you have to release and re-pull the handle to open the door. For the driver’s door, you can, if you pull slowly enough, unlock and open the door with a single pull. A convenient handle is built into the conventionally located ignition switch, so you can keep your keys stowed (most competitors use a pushbutton start). Unlike other systems, though, this one has no way to lock the car; you do need to pull the keys out of your pocket to do that.

Our test vehicle came with two packages, both of which rejected the standard seats: the Performance Collection ($3,705) and the Performance Luxury Package ($2,765). The seats that we ended up with were highly adjustable, with ten-way adjustments for front seats, but also very thin and hard. They provided some side-to-side support, but deeper, more comfortable seats would have been welcome. The Performance Luxury package provided temperature relief with seat coolers and heaters, both of which had three levels of performance; thus, if you get leather, through this package, you also get a solution for the leather’s temperature issues. The leather itself was not especially soft. If there was any major criticism we had for the CTS, something that would knock it out of the running for our personal car, it was the seats.


The instrument panel was clear and easy to read; the non-adjustable (until nightfall) white backlighting clearly showed the large 160-mph speedometer, tachometer, and the three mini-gauges in a third pod, showing temperature, oil pressure, and gas (with the actual units). Underneath the speedometer was a clear light-on-dark LCD panel showing the compass heading and whatever else the driver wanted — distance to empty, average gas mileage, etc. That display was also used as a status report for error messages (e.g. “Service Charging System”), and as a guide for setting user preferences. There were an extensive set of things that could be set, including the usual lock and light behaviors; moving the seat back for entry and exit; tilting the mirrors down for parking; and retracting the steering wheel for entry and exit.

It was good that Cadillac provided for easy exit and entry, because the CTS is somewhat restrictive for the driver. The dashboard comes down further than usual, and it can be hard to swing one’s feet underneath it; while driving, one can find insufficient knee room on the right, due to the intrusion of the center stack. Not everyone will have these complaints.

Controls are generally well designed, considering how many features the CTS has. Window, lock, and mirror controls are in their usual location on the door; the driver’s door cannot be locked if the door is open, though, and there is no manual lock control. The trunk release button is also on the driver’s door, sitting by itself, black-on-black but not lit at night.

Temperature controls are cleverly placed on the diagonal-side of the center stack, with the driver and passenger each having a separate set; the seat vent and heater controls are there as well, if ordered. Other climate controls are in their conventional location at the bottom of the center stack. The fan and vents are set by pushbutton, an insane, driver-distracting system, especially since the status display for both is about as far from the windshield as one can get. That’s especially odd given that the stereo status display takes up prime space near the top of the dashboard, and has a good amount of empty space on either side of the outside temperature.

That brings up the optional stereo (which replaced the nav system), which has an unusually good set of controls given the complexity of the system. Our test vehicle had the optional hard-disk stereo, with an excellent iPod interface. The iPod had a padded resting place in the glove compartment, with a simple universal dock and audio connector; once there, it could be controlled from the standard radio controls, avoiding a major source of distraction. The hard drive music navigation was similar to the iPod navigation; not simple, but not overly complicated, either.

displaysMuch of the stereo setting was done via semi-softkeys —  a row of six physical buttons lined up underneath the LCD display at the top of the dash. The big print was easy to read, and the system very easy to use. To set bass, treble, balance, etc., one could either press the tone button repeatedly and go by feel, or press the tone button once and then use the softkeys to select what parameter one wants to change, and then move the tone dial to change it. Changing the digital signal processor settings (driver, centerpoint, rear, and off), one did need to use the buttons.

The high-mounted, clear, and easy to use system, which lets drivers feel the buttons, was a step in the right direction in itself; but there’s more. Above the main stereo controls, on either side of the Chrysler-copy analog clock, were twin buttons, for volume/power, and for tuning stations and tone. These knobs have long been the standard for audio control, and for good reason: they work well. Drivers need never look up when changing the station or the settings.

The main stereo panel included two extra buttons, beyond the ones normally used even with hard-drive stereos: Record and Delete. Pressing Record while a DVD was playing brought up a dialogue asking whether one wanted to record a single song, or the whole CD, saving time; but you can't listen to either while a CD is being recorded to a hard drive, and recording takes a surprisingly long time. Trying to record an un-encrypted song from the iPod brought up a dialogue saying you can only record from USB.

center stack

The Delete button was unsurprising but an unusual convenience for eliminating songs from the hard drive — giving a choice of killing a single song, everything by an artist, everything on an album, or an entire playlist. It's a time-saver. So is the big knob/button in the center, which lets one sort through all those XM radio categories quickly and easily, though it took a while to get used to the idea that the obvious knob was just used for that, and that other functions used the Config button (or the Tone button at the top of the stereo). Hey, note to GM — make your Holden guys play with these stereo controls for a while.

steering wheel controlsJust in case the stereo wasn’t easy enough to work with yet, audio controls were mounted on the steering wheel. Here, GM goofed a little; they decided that if two buttons were good for each side of the wheel, three would be better. So on the left you have the cruise control — on/off, resume/set — and then a third button for cruise cancel and stereo source. On the right, up/down, volume, and telephone. The buttons are too small to use with gloves, too numerous to easily remember, and have no tactile differentiation (e.g. nubs) to help drivers quickly locate the right one. There’s a reason everyone else puts one set of buttons on the front of the wheel and another on the back. (To be fair, the CTS-V uses the back of the wheel for Tap Shift.)

As with nearly all GM products, two more points of insanity were present: a bright yellow warning that the passenger airbag was on (or off), which was always lit, and the eccentric approach to headlights. While in most GM vehicles, a nonsensical warning light tells you that the headlights are off, in the CTS a warning light tells you when the headlights or parking lights are on, assuming you don’t have automatic headlights on. Daytime running lights use the brights on nearly full power; you can shut them off by twisting the tiny headlight control band on the stalk back and letting it rebound to Auto, or by switching on the parking lights manually. And why not let drivers twist the full end of the stalk, as they do on nearly every car, instead of having a narrow band with tiny markings to control headlights and another band, of equal size and texture, to control the fog lights?

With the optional high-intensity-discharge lights, the headlights were, as one might expect, power, if not all that well focused. The backup lights were the real surprise, acting (as they’re supposed to, but rarely do) as reverse-facing headlights, with unusual brightness. Interior lights were conventional for the most part, and not especially bright. At night, white accent lines lit up around the door and dashboard (but not the glove compartment release).

Other controls generally made sense. A series of six half-hidden buttons on the left side of the dash operated the trip computer and let drivers change settings; GM’s unique computer-controlled oil life indicator, which can help people slash (or increase) their number of oil changes based on monitoring of engine conditions, is easy to reach this way. The rheostat only works when a sensor tells the car night has fallen, to prevent people from overriding the backlight strength during the day. Finally, the parking brake release is clearly marked, and while it is very close to the hood release, it has a different shape and feel. A dead pedal is half-heartedly molded into the floor.

The shifter eliminated the gates affected by some manufacturers. Going into Drive and knocking the shifter to the right brought up Sport mode, which essentially held gears longer and preferred lower gears so the engine would be closer to its power band. As soon as the shifter was moved forward or back from this position, manumatic mode was entered, where the driver could select the gears; pick an inappropriate gear, and the gear number blinks on the dashboard but nothing happens. The CTS does, apparently, let you redline if you select a gear and don't upshift when you should.

Storage was a mixed bag. On the one hand, each door had map pockets, and there was a two-level center console and the usual covered cupholders; on the other hand, none of these storage areas was particularly large. The map pockets in front are big enough for a map or two and an EZ-Pass; the center console top level was very shallow, and the bottom one is likely to be taken up by three CDs (which will fit) or an iPod on its side. The glove compartment was just big enough for the owners’ manuals. The ashtray-like compartment was the size of an ashtray, and while all these compartments were padded, none were big enough for serious storage. Fortunately, the trunk was nicely sized (13.6 cubic feet, sensibly shaped).

Rear passengers get their own climate-control vents (without controls), their own ashtray-sized compartment (with power outlet), and a fold-down center armrest with miniature cupholders (front cupholders aren’t generously sized either). The rear seats fold down so you can take home that section of quarter-round from the hardware store.

The OnStar and hands-free cellphone system was integrated into the mirror, in standard GM fashion; it was easy to use and, in our test car, included turn-by-turn directions. This is a clever system that allows people who don't want to have a big, awkward navigation system in their car to get the main benefit, which is finding their way to hard-to-find spots or getting rescued when lost. The driver calls OnStar HQ, and the operator sends programmed directions to the car, which talks the driver through.

The optional “Ultra-View” double sunroof deserves some attention; it’s a double-sized unit, with an oversized front glass that slides up over an oversized rear glass. Like any sunroof, you can tilt just the back to vent the car and maintain some rain and leaf protection. The rear pane is fixed closed. Since reaching back and pulling a sliding piece of carpet-covered cardboard is out of the question with a huge sunroof that reaches from the front to the back of the car, a single press on a switch will move a fabric cover all the way from front to rear, or vice versa. Pressing again at any point stops it at the desired spot, or restarts it. The system is simple, easy, and convenient.

Visibility is less than ideal, with the stylish design creating an absolutely immense rear pillar; the external rear-view mirrors are shaped for style more than function. While the rear view mirrors have a European-style folding capability, they only seem to be able to move around 30 degrees.

One of the primary feelings of the CTS is weight. The doors feel heavy, the glove compartment lid feels heavy, the car feels heavy. This seems to be a characteristic of modern German cars — Volkswagens and Mercedes feel the same way — and it’s an interesting trend back to the way Cadillacs used to feel, albeit with far superior cornering and much stiffer suspensions.

The interior of our test car was black, with fake carbon fiber accents, the same kind used on entry level cars; leather was used extensively, on the seats, on the top of the doors, and across the top of the dashboard, with thick, light-gray stitching to prove that it’s leather. Base models, incidentally, appear to get the real sapele pommele wood — which seems to be deleted with one of the packages on our vehicle.

There are some interesting options available for the CTS which we didn't get, including the magnetic suspension, navigation system with real time traffic and weather, and all wheel drive. For the most part, though, our CTS was fully loaded, with just about everything else short of an actual CTS-V.

Direct injectionThe base CTS is a reasonable $34,420. That includes the 254-hp V6, a six-speed manual transmission, hand-stitched accents covering the instrument panel, door trim, and center console, traction and nav systems, side curtain airbags for front and rear alike, 17-inch aluminum wheels, air conditioning, power locks, windows, and mirrors, 8-speaker CD stereo with MP3 capability and built-in satellite radio, and OnStar with one year of Directions & Connections service — and a four year, 50,000 mile bumper to bumper warranty supplementing the conventional 5/100 powertrain warranty.

Our test vehicle, with all wheel drive and the direct injection V6, started at $40,880. That included the automatic transmission, four wheel antilock disk brakes, tire pressure monitor, leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls, eight-way driver’s seat, power heated outside mirrors, cruise, trip computer, head curtain side airbags (in addition to the usual side-impact airbags) front and rear, active head restraints on the front seats, and everything that comes on the base CTS. There’s no spare, just a sealant kit.

Our test car weighed in, all told, at $51,000. The additions came from six options:

  1. The Performance Collection ($3,705), including 18 inch wheels, high-intensity discharge headlights that swivel a little to aim where you’re going, headlight washers, limited-slip differential, sport tuning, fog lamps, leather seats, ten-way power front seats with memory and heat, Bluetooth phone support, cargo net, and universal home remote. As you might have noticed, not all of these items are really performance features.
  2. The Performance Luxury Package ($2,765), including an alarm, six-disc CD changer, automatic wipers, “interior ambient lighting” (the LED-created lines we noted earlier), heated/cooled front seats, split rear folding seats, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, keyless access, and rear park assist.
  3. The sound package ($1,000), which adds a Bose 5.1 surround-sound ten-speaker system and 40-GB hard drive music player.
  4. UltraView double sunroof ($900), premium paint ($995), and 18 inch polished aluminum wheels replacing the Performance Collection’s painted 18 inch wheels ($750).

Certain features we noticed, for better or worse — the faux carbon fiber accents replacing the wood, the USB and audio port in the center console, and the iPod adapter — are mysterious in their origin; they might be standard or they might be part of one of these packages and options.

On the outside, the CTS is clearly a Cadillac regardless of model, with unique styling across the body and a grille that goes nearly down to the ground, going so far as to scrape it periodically just to make the point.

It’s hard to summarize the CTS. It’s more enjoyable to drive than the Lexus GS, but the thin, hard seats can be problematic and it’s not easy to swing one’s legs underneath the dash. Some features (the auto unlocking) are awkwardly implemented while others (the stereo) are a pleasant surprise. The engine seems to lag at times, particularly when caught in low revs, but full-throttle runs are more enjoyable in the Cadillac. The BMW sacrifices more creature comfort for a stronger performance feel, and the Mercedes C300 is outclassed by the CTS.

This is a tough class to compete in; Cadillac deserves credit for making it there, even with some flaws. Buyers, though, should be careful when ordering options, to make sure they don’t end up with something they don’t want — such as replacement of the wood trim with plastic.