Second Wind: Cadillac improves its entry-level car and proves in the process that the front office has undergone a redesign, too. BY DAVE VANDERWERP September 2007 Amazingly, each new product coming down the GM pipeline these days seems to signal that the once-defining beancounter bureaucracy has finally been replaced by a genuine desire to create top-notch products. And this latest CTS is the most comprehensively integrated vehicle we’ve seen yet. GM’s confidence is so high that it flew a passel of 2008 CTSs from Detroit to Germany—at a cost between $20,000 and $30,000 each—to be test-driven by the motoring press on the highly challenging Nürburgring racetrack, just as it did six years ago with the original CTS, the first model to bear the knife-edged art-and-science design language of 21st-century Cadillac. Since the CTS spent extensive development time on the tortuous 12.9 miles of Nürburgring pavement, we asked lead development engineer Rob Kotarak how many laps he’d turned there. Quite a few, he said, but all of them from the passenger seat. That’s because he hasn’t acquired GM’s top driving certification and therefore is not allowed to drive at the German track. Meanwhile, a first-timer from Car and Driver gets to lap freely—what was that about a bureaucracy? Just so you know, Mr. Kotarak, your car is quite adept. Despite our inexperience with the Nürburgring (read “driving like a hack”), the CTS was planted and predictable and never did anything unexpected. The ’08 CTS retains a 113.4-inch wheelbase but adds 1.5 inches in overall length and swells almost two inches in width as do its front and rear track. That extra width means not only more handling prowess but much improved proportions as well. There were times when the first-gen CTS could look a bit awkward; it seemed tall and narrow from behind and not that desirable in profile. But there’s no bad view of the new car, from its attention-grabbing front end and better-integrated vertical headlights and taillights to its muscular fender flare. The redesigned CTS still might not stand a chance to be as responsive as the smaller and much lighter—by about 400 pounds—BMW 335i, but our favorite sports sedan has nothing on the Caddy’s aggressive looks. Tops on the CTS’s mechanical upgrade list is a 304-hp, 3.6-liter direct-injection DOHC V-6 that also resides in the ’08 STS. This new engine is, for now, the top choice and will likely cost $1000 more than the base non-direct-injected 258-hp version of this 3.6-liter mill that is carried over from the outgoing model. The old base engine, a 210-hp, 2.8-liter V-6, is dropped for the U.S. All-wheel drive is offered for the first time, but only with an automatic transmission. In relaxed driving, the new V-6 is smooth and quite muted, as Cadillac has attacked the noise problem in just about every way—triple door seals, sound-deadening covers on the engine and high-pressure fuel pump, and numerous other acoustical treatments. But push a little harder, and the engine starts to sing at about 4000 rpm, pulling enthusiastically to the 7000-rpm redline. Our 304-hp manual ran 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and blew through the quarter-mile in 14.6 at 97 mph, more than a second quicker in the sprint and 0.6 second fleeter through the quarter than the last non-V CTS we tested. That’s quick enough to run with a Mercedes C350 or BMW 328i, but a twin-turbo 335i reaches 60 mph a full second quicker. Initially, it was surprising that the new Caddy is just a 10th quicker through the quarter than its big-brother STS with the same engine (but with the six-speed automatic tranny) until we plopped our CTS onto the scales: 4032 pounds, no thanks to the nearly 100-pound penalty of the optional sunroof. That’s 252 more than the outgoing model and just 68 shy of the five-inch-longer STS. The suspension retains the same basic aluminum-intensive control-arm-front and multilink-rear suspension, with slightly modified geometry, but it only took the three characters “PS2”—as in Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires—to clue us in to how serious Cadillac is about the sporting nature of the new CTS. This is GM’s first time using these summer-only, super-performance street tires—arguably better tires than the Goodyears the Corvette wears—which are generally used on all-out sports cars like the Porsche 911 and Cayman. These tires, although in an almost too modest 235/50R-18 size (Cadillac promises larger wheels are coming), are a part of the most aggressive suspension package, called FE3. All three suspension choices use the same spring rates, but the FE3 option includes larger brakes and anti-roll bars as well as revised dampers. The others, FE1 and FE2, ride on all-season tires. We spent most of our three days in Germany with the sportiest FE3 package, and the most impressive thing about the ’08 CTS is its ride-and-handling balance. Tightly controlled body movements keep it buttoned down, and the rear-drive CTS’s ride never feels harsh, either. Even in full-blown Nürburgring mode, the car is balanced, and not once did it respond with excessive understeer, although oversteer is hard to come by as well. The upsize brakes could use more of an initial bite, but they’re strong, with predictable, linear response, and in our exploits they never yielded even once to fade. The huge brake-cooling ducts up front certainly deserve some of the credit. On the street, our initial impression is that the CTS is more comfortable than a Sport-package-equipped BMW 3-series or Infiniti G35 without giving up much ultimate performance, although rain during our testing day kept us from verifying Cadillac’s skidpad claim of 0.86 g. The FE2 car we briefly drove didn’t feel much softer, but over an undulating stretch of unlimited autobahn, it moved around enough to make us want the stiffer setup. The upgraded rack-and-pinion steering is linear and now offers more feedback, although its weighting is on the light side of perfection. We appreciated the friendly on-center behavior at triple-digit speeds, but the off-center response could be quicker. A revised version of the Aisin six-speed manual carries on with modified ratios to alleviate a previously large gap between second and third gears. But even with a new shift linkage for shorter throws, the manual isn’t nearly as fluid as those from BMW. The CTS’s ho-hum shift action teams with an abruptly engaging clutch and a slightly too high center console to make the row-your-own option less than satisfying. Add a drink in the cup holder (directly behind the shifter) to that combo, and you’re constantly whacking it with your elbow. Suddenly, BMW’s dash-mounted cup holders make a lot of sense. The new well-behaved six-speed automatic—it’s no wonder BMW buys this GM gearbox—will likely be the more popular choice anyway. It offers smooth shifts when you want them, but thump the throttle, and it gives a prompt multigear kickdown. Slide the shifter into the sport setting, and it quickly gets bold, dutifully holding gears—even when the engine is just 500 rpm shy of redline—and aggressively downshifting under braking. Comfortable seats with surprising thigh and upper-back support—especially considering the limited 10-way adjustability—will likely please the masses, but during exuberant driving, we wished for more lateral support. How about an optional sport seat, Cadillac? Possibly the most dramatic improvement to the CTS is the upscale and coherently flowing interior, complete with classy materials and top-notch fit and finish. Cadillac’s least-expensive car certainly doesn’t feel that way, and it upstages the ’08 Mercedes C-class. It also doesn’t hurt that even with a steeply raked rear window, the CTS offers a much larger and usable back seat (the smallest Caddy is similar in size to a 5-series BMW) than those in the smaller luxury sedans it competes with price-wise. The infotainment system is also new and includes a trick feature: a TiVo-like function that allows you to skip forward and backward through AM, FM, or XM radio. Don’t want to miss a song? Just hit the record button before exiting the car, and it will be waiting when you return (the system stores up to 60 minutes’ worth). The CTS has all the other up-to-date electronic goodies: an optional 10-speaker Bose 5.1 stereo with a 40-gig hard drive that stores music, an impressive-looking eight-inch touch-screen navigation system that rises from the dash when in use, and an auxiliary plug and a USB port to handle any music-storage device. Cadillac says it will soon add Bluetooth hands-free calling as well, shying away from having OnStar as the only option. The first-gen CTS exceeded sales expectations, moving 60,000 units in its best year, although BMW sold twice as many 3-series in 2006. Prices will be up a few thousand to account for the more powerful base engine, so expect a starting price of about $34,000 that rises to maybe $42,000 for our loaded test car. But with more style, power, and features, we think the new CTS—and the new GM, for that matter—is destined to be even more of a winner. THE VERDICT Highs: Well-sorted chassis, bold exterior design, lots of passenger space, the best interior yet from GM. Lows: Still-unsatisfying manual transmission, two-ton weight, could use a more supportive seat option. The Verdict: Cadillacs continue to get better-looking and more impressive.