2008 brings the second chapter of the success story that is the Cadillac CTS. The first-generation CTS, which debuted in 2003, set new standards and brought new hope that Cadillac could once again regain the prestige it once had amongst American buyers -- a position that Cadillac long ago lost to brands like Lexus, Infiniti and BMW. 2008 brings the introduction of an all-new Cadillac CTS. Is the new car a move in the right direction, or has Cadillac taken a wrong turn? Read on. $33,490 base, $45,295 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 16-18 city, 25-26 highway.
First Glance: A handsome car gets even better looking
The CTS story started in 1997, when General Motors began importing their European-market Opel Omega to the US and selling it as the Cadillac Catera. The idea of a six-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive, European-engineered Cadillac may have been a good one, but the addition of an egg-crate grille and wreath-and-crest logo wasn't enough to convince the buying public that the dull-looking Catera was a proper Cadillac. GM was smart enough not to make the same mistake twice, and when the first-generation CTS debuted in 2003, it kept the driver-oriented mechanicals but dropped the boring duds for an entirely new look -- and man, was it a jaw-dropper.
2008 brings us an all-new CTS, and I think Cadillac's stylists have managed to make the car look even better. Up front, the grille has been extended down into the bumper, while the headlights are more angular. The sides have been re-sculpted to emphasize the lines of the fenders. Out back, the CTS has finally been given a set of proper Cadillac taillights (link goes to photo) with vertical rows of LEDs, while the center-mount stop light has once again been made an integral part of the design. And the wreath-and-crest logo on the trunk lid is bigger than ever, as if to signify that it's once again cool to own a Cadillac. Overall, it looks as if the old CTS has undergone a tight regimen of diet and exercise. I loved the way the old car looked, but the new one blows it out of the water.
In the Driver's Seat: So beautiful, I can even deal with all the buttons
Inside, the new CTS' interior bears almost no resemblance to the old car. I love the new CTS' cabin, both for its artful design and its functionality. I'm not usually a fan of button-happy stereo and climate controls, but Caddy has gone the Lexus route of using large, well-labeled buttons. Driver and passenger each get their own climate control mini-panel, complete with small LCD monitor, to control temperature and (optional) seat heating and cooling -- very cool.
My favorite feature is the semi-retractable color touch-screen, which pops up for full stereo and navigation control but also displays stereo information in the retracted position. The navigation system is one of the best I've used -- it's easy and quick to program, displays directions clearly, and the voice prompts even pronounce the street names (the pleasant female voice tells you to "Turn left on Main Street" instead of the usual "Turn next left".) The XM Satellite Traffic system displays traffic information via green, yellow or red dots along your route, though it wasn't all that accurate; I suspect this new technology still needs a bit of work.
The CTS offers a variety of option packages; my tester had the most expensive one, which included Bose surround-sound stereo, navigation system, huge sunroof, wood-trimmed interior, rain-sensing wipers, heated and cooled seats, power-adjustable steering column, keyless entry and ignition, power-adjustable passenger seat, and genuine leather seats (in place of the standard faux leather), all bundled together for just over $8,000.
On the Road: High-tech engine, almost-great handling
The CTS is offered with two versions of GM's 3.6 liter V6, a standard version that produces 263 horsepower and 253 lb-ft of torque and a direct injection version producing 304 hp and 273 lb-ft. (Read more: Direct fuel injection - what it is and how it works) Normally I'd say the 263 hp engine is sufficient, but thanks to the direct injection system, there's virtually no fuel economy penalty for the 304 hp engine -- EPA fuel economy estimates are just 1 MPG lower in the city and identical on the highway. My test car had a 6-speed automatic transmission (the CTS also offers a manual - way to go, Caddy!), and I averaged just over 17 MPG in mixed driving and low 20s on the road -- not very impressive, but par for the course in this class of cars. But the CTS has the advantage of using regular fuel, whereas most of its 300 hp rivals require pricier premium gas.
My rear-drive test car came with a $1,740 performance package that included a sport-tuned suspension, all-season performance tires, and limited-slip differential. The CTS was a good fun in the curves, though I still felt a very slight disconnect between me and the car -- the steering wasn't as precise as I'd like and there was very little seat-of-the-pants feedback to tell me whether the tires were gripping or sliding. (The electronic stability control system left me alone most of the time, so I assume they were mostly gripping.) Still, the CTS was quite agile, and considering how well it handled, the smooth, quiet ride on the open road came as a pleasant surprise.
Journey's End: Best at the dealership -- but is it best in class?
No question, the 2008 CTS is the best Cadillac in decades. But the CTS isn't competing against other Cadillacs -- it's competing against the best small luxury cars from Japan and Europe. So how does it stack up? Well, the CTS doesn't lead the class, but neither does it trail behind. It's a front-runner in a race of equals -- quite an accomplishment for Cadillac.
Which car is the best in this class depends on your preferences. If a quiet, comfortable ride is most important to you, I recommend the Lexus IS250/350. If you want a four-door sports car, go for the Infiniti G35 or BMW 335i. But if you want a pleasant compromise between the two, the CTS is the way to go -- it's more fun than the Lexus, more comfortable than the Infiniti, and better looking than the BMW. If I had to pick the closest rival for the CTS, it'd be the Mercedes C-Class; like the CTS it provides a quiet, smooth ride with surprisingly good agility in the curves. The CTS has a much nicer interior than the C, but it lacks the hewn-from-solid-stone feel that one gets from the Benz.
I can't say I totally fell in love with the Cadillac -- I value the fun-to-drive factor above all else, so my pick in this class would be the Infiniti G35. But I still think the CTS is an amazing car. The styling is brilliant, the interior is well laid out, it offers plenty of room for four people, and it knows its way around a curvy road. If Cadillac can build more cars like this, Lexus, Infiniti and BMW might well have something to worry about. -- Aaron Gold