The Cadillac CTS is not a car. No, really. It looks like a car, and it does all the things a car should - most of them exceptionally well - but it’s not a car. It’s a statement.
It says, loud and clear, to all the luxury sport sedans of the world, “Come and get me.”
The attitude you can infer from that statement is one of self-assured capability, and that’s just what you’ll feel behind the wheel.
Walking out to greet the shining 2008 Cadillac CTS at my doorstep, I was immediately taken by the flared, swollen fenders and the prominent, chrome-laden grille. This is no reserved, Sunday-trip-to-the-country-club Cadillac. This is a sports sedan.
Circling the car once before peering inside, the 306hp (228kW) V6 signified by the ‘3.6 Direct Injection’ badge on the CTS’ bluff tail excites further enthusiasm for its potential, but that’s quickly dashed as I see the automatic gear selector standing proudly in the center console. For many gearheads, swapping your own cogs is the only way to go, even if it’s not the most efficient, and I was looking forward to rowing the six-speed manual gearbox as the mid-size Cadillac reeled in my favorite stretches of blacktop. This slush-box would surely neuter what could otherwise be a brilliant car, I thought.
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But oh, how I was wrong. Leave the six-speed auto in ‘D’ and tool around town with pleasingly relaxed throttle response and smooth-as-butter shifts, but give the shifter a shove to the right and the satisfying ‘snick’ of the lever opens a world of performance possibilities.
Whether you feel like bumping the shifter yourself or letting the computer handle things, the sport mode six-speed is everything you could want it to be. Only the most hard-headed enthusiast would even attempt to make the argument that a manual ‘box is better suited to the task of muscling the mid-sized sedan through the twisties - and they’d still lose.
To call the CTS’ automatic a ‘slushbox’ is to call New York a ‘pretty big town’. It not only holds gears to redline as you lay the spurs to the 3.6L direct-injected V6 and sharpens throttle response to sports-car levels, it performs rev-matched downshifts under braking as if your brain is Bluetoothed to the ECU, no slap-shifting necessary. The car and driver are one, and tossing the nearly 4,000lb (1,800kg) sedan from apex to apex is effortless. This is an area where the CTS really shines, even against some of its more expensive and up-market competition, like Infiniti's larger M45S, which is itself a very competent performer.
I don’t get along well with most automatic gearboxes, even some that are generally well-liked and performance-oriented. Like many ‘enthusiasts,’ I prefer the solidity and control that comes from a manual transmission, and the satisfaction of hitting four perfectly rev-matched heel-and-toe downshifts in succession while trail-braking into a hard right-hander. But this six-speed auto in the CTS is simply brilliant.
In fact, a similar unit was so good that John Heinricy used it to drive the 550hp (410kW) supercharged CTS-V to a four-door record 7 minute 59 second lap of the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife. He chose the automatic because he knew it could do as good a job as he could, and he didn’t see any advantage in changing to a manual after having driven the automatic across most of Europe. The CTS-V’s gearbox has even more hardcore tuning to match the potential of the engine, but the unit in the CTS performs so well, one would have no trouble believing Heinricy’s statement.
Yes, it’s really that good.
So the transmission is brilliant, and as previously alluded, the engine is readily capable of launching the stout sedan along at extra-legal speeds. But it’s a little unrefined at the top end. There’s a coarseness to its sound and an intrusiveness of vibration that’s out of place given its docile in-town behavior. It’s a welcome feel for a sports car enthusiast, but it could easily startle a mid-level executive right into a lap full of coffee during an early-morning freeway merger.
Headed back into town, the solitude of driving this car sedately takes hold. Smooth, well-damped and compliant, the ride is comfortable yet still oddly communicative. The feel is every bit as connected as it was on the back roads, surrounded by cows and trees, but now, in the concrete canyons of downtown, the experience intrudes less upon conscious thought.
The sound in the cabin is excellent. A little tire and wind noise at highway speeds, but that’s to be expected - the side mirrors could house small families. Fuel mileage on the open road is good for a car of this stature, with the observed 24mpg (9.8L/100km) fairly close to the rated 26mpg (9.0L/100km), with the oppressive summer heat likely to blame for some of the lost efficiency. The 10-speaker Bose 5.1 channel surround system melds with the XM satellite radio, and listening to Albert King sing with his fingers is an engaging experience. So the CTS is a city car, too.
It’s not an economical city car - it only gets about 16mpg (14.7L/100km) in real-world use around town, just shy of its rated 17mpg (13.8L/100km) - but it has the vibe of urban life. With the windows up and the huge sun roof closed, it’s a steel cocoon insulating its occupants from the street-level din. Once the sun drops below the horizon, though, drop the protective barriers and the cool night air fills the car. Cruising the city streets, the CTS is attractive. People turn and watch as it passes to see it from behind.
The interior, from the seats to the dash, exudes a level of quality rarely experienced in an American car - in many respects it's comparable to the Jaguar XJ’s, down to the double-stitched leather surfaces and wood trim. It’s beyond anything the Japanese have to offer in the next several price ranges - even the Infiniti M45's generally excellent cabin is put to the test. It’s so well-made, so...precise...it’s almost, well, German. But there’s an air here that’s also uniquely American, a sort of bravado that doesn’t fit with Old World sensibilities.
Sure, the car has two-setting fully adjustable electronic memory seating with automated exit adjustments, rain-sensing wipers and automatic headlights. It even has the 40GB hard drive and a very capable navigation system as part of the premium luxury collection - features that are rapidly becoming de rigeur
for luxury sport sedans. Traditional elements like Sapele wood trim throughout the cabin and heated and cooled seats are also present. But there are other features that mark the CTS out as part of the new guard, rather than the old.
The not-so-subtle accent lighting throughout the interior shows off the details of the cabin like a country-club mansion’s spotlights. The two-tone leather and wood-grain details are offset by chrome and faux-metal switchgear. The GPS unit pops up out of the dash like an NBA player’s 84” HDTV pops out of the bedside bureau. This is an American car.
And perhaps that’s what brings the whole experience back to earth. The CTS is a solid, enjoyable car that matches performance with accommodation in equal measures, for a price that shames most of the competition. But in any democracy, there are compromises, and the CTS is no exception.
The back seats, for instance, are not suitable for taller adults or long journeys if the front seat occupants are over six feet tall. The front seats themselves, though almost infinitely adjustable, are narrow and overly firm for the car’s luxury deportment, though the stiffness of the seat certainly adds to the communicative feeling of the chassis. A narrow footwell makes for uncomfortable leg positioning for taller drivers, and the un-padded center console can make for a sore spot on the right knee.
Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find some hard surfaces that should probably be soft to the touch, and a few design elements, such as the glossy wood-grain steering wheel crown or the shiny chrome dash trim, both of which can be blinding during late-evening or early-morning commutes, that show a lack of focus.
But overall, the CTS backs up its ‘come get me’ attitude with a brisk pace and a full arsenal of features. For the $45,945 asking price, even the Germans had better start chasing. The CTS is on the loose.by Nelson Ireson
2009 Cadillac CTS review