Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: This review was written in September 2007 about the 2008 Cadillac CTS. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s changed for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Sporting creased lines and track-tuned handling, Cadillac’s original CTS led the revival of a brand many had perceived as stodgy. The second-generation model, new for 2008, doesn’t have quite as tall a ladder to climb, but it still needs to make inroads among import shoppers, including fans of the BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G35, Audi A4 and several other sport sedans.
After two days of hard driving across California, I think the CTS has a good shot at converting some of those shoppers. The cabin is marvelous, the driving dynamics are first-rate and the amenities are useful for real drivers, not just technophiles. The sedan is not without faults, but overall it’s a solid choice — competitive where it counts and distinct in a lot of good ways.
The CTS’ appearance is not nearly as shocking as its predecessor’s was, in part because the rest of Cadillac’s lineup now has similar lines. If anything, it looks softer than before, with wider fenders, brighter headlights and less of the outright severity that characterized the original. In person, the front end can come off as a bit busy: Between the fog-light insets, two-tone grille and bumper extensions below each headlight, there’s a lot to sort through. Give it some time — by the end of my second day with the car, I had grown to like the look.
Cadillac’s 3.6-liter V-6 serves as the base engine. It produces 263 horsepower and 253 pounds-feet of torque. An optional direct-injection version allows higher cylinder compression and improved fuel delivery, resulting in 304 hp and 273 pounds-feet of torque; more impressive, it retains nearly the same gas mileage and runs on regular unleaded gasoline.
One key note: The V-Series performance variant, the CTS-V, takes the 2008 model year off before returning in second-generation form.
A six-speed manual or six-speed automatic is available with either engine. Rear- or all-wheel drive is available, though the all-wheel-drive CTS comes only with the automatic. Despite the extra weight, gas mileage doesn’t drop in all-wheel-drive models.
| Drivetrains Compared
|| 3.6 liters
|| 3.6 liters
|| Six-speed auto (AWD or RWD); six-speed manual (RWD)
|| Six-speed auto (AWD or RWD); six-speed manual (RWD)
| Horsepower (@ rpm)
|| 263 @ 6,200
|| 304 @ 6,300
| Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
|| 253 @ 3,100
|| 273 @ 5,200
| Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
| Recommended fuel
Many sport sedans have base engines that leave drivers longing for more. That’s not the case here; the entry-level V-6 moves the CTS swiftly, with plenty of low-end torque and a burly exhaust note when the pedal is down. The uplevel engine feels about the same from a standing start, but it gets palpably stronger than its sibling as the revs build, and passing on the highway is fairly effortless.
Credit a lot of the power to the six-speed automatic. It’s remarkably adaptive, moving smoothly through gears at lower speeds and snapping off lightning-quick shifts under hard acceleration. I noticed some gear hunting when I kicked the pedal down on the highway, but once it picks a gear — likely third or fourth — there’s no shortage of acceleration, even with the base engine.
In Sport mode, the transmission engages a Performance Algorithm Liftfoot feature, which directs it to hold gears — avoiding power-robbing upshifts — during aggressive maneuvers. It took 10 seconds or so to kick in but then performed well, holding gears when I was off the gas and blipping the throttle for quick downshifts when I moved to the brakes. Bravo.
There’s a manual-shift mode should you decide to govern the gears yourself, but it’s fairly unexceptional. Prodding the accelerator hard prompts a downshift whether you want it to or not, and upshifts come at a leisurely pace. My advice: Keep it in auto with the sport mode engaged. Its intuitiveness will surprise you.
The CTS also comes with a six-speed manual, which I drove briefly, teamed with the direct-injection V-6, at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway. The stick shift allows the uplevel engine to shine: Hold a gear all the way down a straightaway, and there’s no trailing off of power or hoarse exhaust note — just abundant acceleration that never seems to run dry.
Less impressive is the gear shifter. It’s thick but tall, lacking the short, delicate throws of a G35 or the smoothness of a 3 Series or A4. Reverse gear is left and down of the first/second gate, and it’s easy for the shifter to catch in the leftward notch when you downshift from third to second.
The optional all-wheel drive uses an active transfer case that can send up to 100 percent of the power to the front wheels. The system defaults 75 percent of the power to the rear. I drove an all-wheel-drive CTS with the stronger V-6, and though the system adds around 250 pounds in that car, the extra weight never felt debilitating.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard. Optional performance brakes add larger discs all around. With either setup, the pedal feels a bit grabby but delivers strong stopping performance.
For either engine, buyers can choose between three different suspensions. The base setup employs stabilizer bars for both axles. Move up to the midlevel suspension, and you get thicker stabilizer bars, firmer shock absorbers and a limited-slip differential. It also includes a tighter steering ratio and swaps the base 17-inch wheels and P235/55R17 tires for 18-inchers and P235/50R18 rubber. A high-performance sport suspension, which comes only on rear-wheel-drive cars, offers summer tires, beefier brakes, and even firmer, load-leveling shocks.
I drove all three suspensions on the CTS. The base setup feels something like a sporty family sedan; it’s reasonably taut, but there is noticeable body roll when you take to a corner. Cadillac expects most buyers to choose the midlevel suspension, which is probably a good thing. The steering wheel turns with less effort than that of a 3 Series or G35, but give it a tug and the CTS changes course immediately without any of the lackluster turn-in you get with the base steering system. There’s also less body roll, giving the CTS a healthy dose of cornering confidence. I found myself tossing the car from one turn to the next. Even with elevation changes and rattle-inducing bumps, the wheels remained grounded and the chassis never lost its composure. In similar maneuvers, the base suspension came off sloppy.
Most drivers probably won’t need the high-performance suspension. It pays dividends on the track, but on regular roads it doesn’t offer much stiffness beyond the midlevel setup. All three suspensions yield relatively similar ride quality, though I did notice a little less road noise from the base 17-inch tires at higher speeds. Otherwise, the CTS is set for the long haul, with a compliant ride and excellent straight-line stability.
At first glance, the new interior looks risky. There are wood inlays and hand-stitched panels, and everything seems to intersect at odd angles — a great recipe for unsightly gaps — yet the CTS pulls it off. Wherever one panel joins another — the dashboard and doors, for example — there are tight fits and well-crafted details. Even the harder plastics have interesting textures, and the wood and metallic trim seem respectable for this price range. At night, an optional interior lighting package adds soft-white LEDs along the door handles and dashboard. Very cool.
GM would do well to spread the center controls from the CTS to its other cars. Though the panel looks a bit cluttered (I counted 40 buttons and three knobs in one) the controls are straightforward and expertly tailored, which I prefer over the one-knob-fits-all mayhem you get from BMW’s iDrive, Audi’s MMI and the like.
The optional navigation system motors up from the center of the dashboard, close to the driver’s line of sight. When lowered, the top inch or so remains exposed as a touch-screen display for audio presets and other basic functions. If you don’t need to see the full map, leave the screen down and keep track of essentials on the smaller display.
The navigation system has all the usual toys, with an auxiliary input jack, full iPod connectivity, and real-time traffic and weather reports. Available with or without the navigation system, an uplevel Bose stereo includes a 40GB hard drive that can rip songs off CDs in the in-dash player or media devices plugged into the USB port. It also records AM/FM radio and XM Satellite Radio in real time — think TiVo for the radio. Users can rewind, pause and fast forward over a period as long as 60 minutes; change the station, and it starts from scratch. It records even if the engine is off, so you can pause a baseball game to run an errand and come back to hear what you missed. Another nifty touch: XM Radio stores placeholders at the beginning of each song or commercial, which the rewind and fast-forward buttons automatically seek. The AM/FM feed defaults to 30-second snippets.
As small sport sedans go, the CTS doesn’t lack space. Much of that is due to efficient design. The front seats have “thin-seat” technology to enhance backseat legroom, the doors have sculpted cutouts for elbows, and the center armrest is low and narrow. These innovations have their drawbacks. The front seats are short on padding; sit down hard, and you can feel the entire chair flex. The side bolsters are relatively relaxed, yielding enough comfort but less cornering support than I expect in a sport sedan. Pinned low between the front seats, the center console storage compartment won’t fit much more than a Blackberry and a few CDs.
That said, the seats themselves offer ample room. The driver’s seat powers far enough back to fit anyone short of an NBA center; I’m 6 feet tall, and even with the optional panoramic moonroof, I had leg- and headroom to spare. The rear seat is a little short on headroom, but legroom is manageable.
Interior quality takes a modest dive in back — the doors retain the upscale stitching and soft-touch materials, but the middle air vents sit below some cheap plastic and sizeable hinge gaps, and the tiny head restraints feel like they were installed as an afterthought.
The trunk holds 13.6 cubic feet of luggage, which marginally beats most competitors. A 60/40-split folding backseat is optional.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are standard. The six standard airbags include side airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Optional adaptive headlights swivel up to 15 degrees in the direction of a turn to illuminate corners.
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash tested the 2008 CTS.
Without the destination charge, a CTS with the base V-6 starts at $32,245. Standard equipment includes an eight-speaker Bose stereo, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power driver’s seat, vinyl upholstery and 17-inch alloy wheels.
All trim levels start with the base suspension; note that the high-performance suspension is unavailable on all-wheel-drive models. Eighteen-inch wheels and fog lights are included with both packages.
Most basic luxury cars include a power passenger seat and leather upholstery. In the CTS, both of those features are bundled into a seating package for more than $2,000; the package also includes heated seats. At the very least, they ought to be included when you step up to the pricier engine or all-wheel drive. No such luck.
Other options include ventilated front seats, high-performance brakes, a power-adjustable steering column and rain-sensing wipers. Rear ultrasonic parking sensors are optional, but a backup camera and front sensors are not.
Cadillac expects the average CTS to go for $38,000. Check all the options, and a fully loaded model totals around $50,000.
Confident styling, an upscale cabin and innovative features should win the CTS plenty of buyers. As an all-out driver’s car, it isn’t quite as compelling as a 3 Series or G35, but it isn’t far behind — and in many ways it feels more livable day-to-day than either of those. Whether Cadillac can sway shoppers from the import fold remains to be seen, but this car certainly has a fighting chance.