Cadillac has used up its chits.

To have a high-mileage small car on the same showroom floor as its traditional low-mileage yachts, Cadillac brought out the Cimarron in 1982, a dolled-up Chevrolet Cavalier. Consumers didn't buy into the scam.

Then to have a low-priced Cadillac on the same showroom floor as its traditional high-priced yachts, Cadillac brought out the Catera in 1997.

Catera wasn't a Chevy in disguise. It was an Opel Omega designed to look like a Chevy. Consumers again kept their distance, as evidenced by sales of only about 17,000 last year.

Enter the 2003 Cadillac CTS, another attempt at an entry-level luxury sedan, but this time without looking or acting like a Chevy. It is built on an all-new rear-wheel-drive platform called Sigma that's been designated for luxury vehicles at General Motors. The CTS (Cadillac Touring Sedan) arrives in showrooms Jan. 2.

While Catera and Cimarron were frumps, CTS is modern and contemporary with a front end similar to that on the full-size Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle, a look that will become more common soon.

The Sigma platform will be shared by a variety of upcoming Cadillacs: The two-seat XLR roadster (that also will be shared by the next-generation Corvette); the LAV, or luxury-activity vehicle, (soon to get a real name); and the Seville STS, all of which will arrive between Jan. 1, 2002, and June 2003.

The Eldorado coupe is dropped after the '02 model run to make room for those new entries plus a high-performance version of the CTS with supercharged V-6 in two years and a vehicle Cadillac won't elaborate on other than to say it won't be built on the Sigma platform.

Most entry-level luxury sedans, especially the Japanese, are bland. The CTS is now the exception, unless you count the front end of the Jaguar X-Type.

When's the last time you looked at a Cadillac and uttered "Wow" over something other than the window sticker?

Upfront, ultramodern headlamps flank a grille that has been referred to as a louvered or sunshade pattern. In back, big and bold vertical taillamps look pleasant. Sheet metal has been chiseled for a distinct theme. If there is a shortcoming, and there is, the drama is all upfront and in back while the side profile lacks boldness. Super thin body-colored moldings don't deliver.

Cadillac officials hint that when the high-performance supercharged CTS arrives to compete with the AMG Mercedes and M-Series BMW, rocker-panel extensions and wheel-lip moldings will give CTS the needed styling flair.

CTS is powered by a 3.2-liter, 220-horsepower version of the 3-liter, 200-h.p. V-6 in the Catera. Plenty of muscle for passing or hill climbing. The 3.2 comes with a 5-speed manual as standard, a 5-speed automatic as optional.

Only about 5 percent of buyers will go for the manual, but Jay Spenchian, CTS brand manager, said it's offered to denote the sedan can deliver performance demanded by enthusiasts.

Of course, the 5-speed serves a couple other purposes. It gives Cadillac a manual just like Jaguar, BMW and Lincoln, and it lets Cadillac advertise an entry-level luxury sedan starting at $29,350, less than the $30,000 mark.

Once those 95 percent of buyers hand over $1,200 for the optional 5-speed automatic, they'll probably pick up on the pricing charade.

CTS is a midsize rear-wheel- drive sedan with a roomy cabin that has seats featuring seriously sized side bolsters to keep you tucked in place.

It comes with four-wheel anti-lock brakes and an all-speed traction control system as standard to allay the fears of Snow Belt drivers acclimated to front- or all-wheel-drive. The traction control gets you moving from the light on slippery surfaces and keeps you moving straight if you hit ice while cruising on the open road.

If you opt for the luxury sport package, you also get StabiliTrak for sure-footed all-season maneuverin applies ABS to any wheel that loses grip with the pavement.

CTS comes with a choice of two packages--luxury and luxury sport. Our test car had the luxury package, which runs $2,000 and includes such items as eight-way power adjustable passenger seat, Zebrano wood trim, memory settings for seats/mirrors, rearview mirror compass and programmable garage-door opener.

The luxury sport package at $3,500 includes all those items plus StabiliTrak, sport-tuned suspension, high-performance brakes, load-leveling rear suspension, speed-sensitive power steering and 17-inch polished wheels with speed-rated tires (16-inch radials are standard).

Luxury sport is the choice for those who tend to drive rather than ride and offers the optimum ride and handling suspension.

CTS base price is $29,350. Standard equipment includes front and side-impact air bags plus side air-bag curtains for front- and rear-seat occupants.

All the creature-comfort and power goodies are standard except for the $1,200 automatic transmission, the $1,100 power sunroof, the $400 heated front seats and the $1,275 sound-system upgrade to six-disc CD changer with cassette. So if you load it up, the $29,350 CTS becomes a $35,000 CTS.

Noteworthy items include a thick steering wheel for the feeling of control (a thin wheel was nixed); cupholders and power plugs front and rear; a turning radius so tight you could probably make a U-turn on a bike path; a hood over the instrument panel to prevent glare; breathable perforated leather seats; a spacious trunk with a first-aid kit and ski pass- through; two coin holders, trunk opener button in the driver's door; and an information center with miles per gallon and miles to empty readings.

You also get OnStar safety and security service free for one year, including automatic summoning of medical help if an air bag deploys as well as remote door unlocking and stolen vehicle tracking.

But a few changes would make CTS more appealing, such as deeper indents in the front seat backs to give rear-seat occupants more knee room; moving the wiper stalk farther from the steering wheel because it's so close you can activate the wipers when making a sharp turn; moving the radio volume dial on the steering wheel farther back because it can be struck by the driver's thumb; and quieting the V-6 at initial hard acceleration.

CTS has the styling, performance, room, comfort and luxury amenities to win over younger entry-level luxury buyers. But there has to be other models to attract younger buyers and give entry-level luxury consumers other choices when age and income levels rise--the reason those other models are coming out in the next 18 months.

Cadillac hopes to sell 25,000 CTS annually in the U.S. with a focus on Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas and New York, where 40 percent of the entry-level luxury cars are sold each year.