THE NEW CADILLAC DEVILLE DTS: IT'S LARGE BUT STILL SPORTY

There was a time in Cadillac's history when virtually every model screamed, "Yo, look at me." Fins, chrome, whitewalls, gaudy paint (yellow and pink among chosen hues), and sheer size turned up the visual volume.

How then to explain the 2000 DeVille DTS - big but unimposing, staccato rumble burbling from its twin exhausts, yet quiet and silky smooth, subtle but possessed of an attitude, as in (with apologies to Ratso Rizzo) "Yo, I'm drivin' heah"?

There is nothing finned, abrupt or gaudy about this new Caddy. It's bigger than today's sports sedans, but it has the same crouched-on-steroids look they have - not too long at the nose, hunched and muscular in the middle, high and chopped at the rear.

Even the view from the driver's seat has changed from the Cadillac of old - you no longer peer down an endless expanse of hood. Instead, there is a subtle hump at the center of the windshield and the fenders drop from view.

It's like the Lincoln LS - but bigger. Like German luxury sedans - but bigger. And it's very luxurious.

Standard equipment includes variable, self-sensing suspension, traction control, front- and side-impact air bags for driver and passenger, the OnStar emergency-convenience communications system, 12-way power leather front seats with power massaging lumbar, adjustable headrests, and heated front and rear seats. You get this for about $45,000; add a navigation system ($2,000), Night Vision (at $2,000 the only such system offered on an American car right now), a sunroof (a bit pricey at $1,500), and other goodies such as a garage door opener and rear parking alarm sensors, and you can quickly be into the mid-50s.

Inside, this is a huge car. Big doors let you in. Big seats greet you. Legroom and headroom are superb - particularly headroom for the rear seat where the roof is scooped above the seatbacks for crucial extra inches.

The seats themselves are theater-quality with lateral side supports for trunk and legs forming stiff flanks for front buckets with wide butt and back surfaces. The rear bench holds three adults comfortably - not common in "five-passenger" sedans these days.

Audio and navigation controls are easy to read with big buttons and touch-screen features that you can learn to use without glancing constantly from the road. Climate control buttons are large as well.

Storage is ample with bins in all four doors, a big, two-level bin between the seats, and major pouches built into the backs of the front seats. The glove compartment, however, is lost to the CD changer.

All this size and luxury, of course, does not come in a lightweight package. We're talking a little more than 2 tons here.

To get the DeVille on down the road, it's powered by a 4.6-liter, DOHC, V-8 Northstar engine. It's heavy on aluminum - cylinder block, heads, pistons - and even has a nylon intake manifold. It is also heav y on the horses - 300 - and moderately hungry for fuel (I got 16.1 miles per gallon).

Booted up for passing on the highway, the engine sounds more NASCAR than luxury sedan, a nice touch. Straight ahead, there was nothing distinctive about its handling, slightly light up front like many big American cars. But the front-wheel drive seemed to dig in when it was pushed into corners and it was surprisingly firm and agile for a big sedan. You get the cruiser of old with a good taste of some of the best handling features of the sports sedan of today.

And the front-wheel drive made what could have been a tricky machine in the snow (hopefully the last dumping of this spring) into a sure-footed, strong rig that moved stubbornly through the slop.

Keeping the weight and performance in balance are a front suspension with independent struts, coil springs and antiroll bar, and an independent rear with semi-trailing arms, coil springs, electronic level control, and antiroll ba

Brakes are vented discs with ABS and they stop this heavy rig straight and sure in a way smoking old brake shoes never could have matched.

The four-speed automatic, with overdrive, was smooth through the sequence - better than what I've seen in Lincoln automatics. But why, oh why, in a luxury car, do they drop the shifter into a notch-plate on the center console made of cheap plastic? Wood or aluminum would add so much more class and probably not affect the profit margin all that much.

Nice touches:

- The thin wood band that bisects the dash and continues its line through leather along the interior side panels of the front and rear doors.

- The individual reading lamps for rear-seat passengers.

Annoyances:

- The placement of a cheap, loose flap of rubber in the dash bin just ahead of the console.

- The placement of the coin holder-sorter at the back of the bottom level of the console bin. Hard to reach, impossible to look at while cruising into a toll both.

The numbers

Base price: $45,095

Price as tested: $55,675

Horsepower/Torque: 300/295 lb.-ft.

Wheelbase/Overall length: 115.4 inches/207.2 inches

Width/Height: 74.5 inches/56.7 inches

Curb weight: 4,047 lbs.

Seating: 5 passengers