When GM dropped off a Cadillac CTS, the car came pre-loaded with a CD by rapper Obie Trice. I somehow doubt the General figured a taste of gangsta lyrics would help me understand Cadillac's brand transformation. Still, point taken. There was a time when a Caddy wouldn't function without a Carpenters' 8-track turning its middle-aged occupants' brains into mush – assuming the driving experience hadn't already done the job.
Even a cursory glance at the CTS confirms that customer mortality has forced Cadillac into a major re-think. It looks nothing like Grandpa's living room-on-wheels, or the front-wheel-drive, badge-engineered compact Caddies of yore. The CTS is all sharp creases, meeting at odd angles, in weird places. Like it or loathe it, the automotive origami looks sharp enough to draw blood. That said, the design suffers from Peter North Syndrome; once you abandon the head-on perspective, there's nothing much to see.
The CTS' minimalist interior represents another radical departure from the Chandelier School of Design. Zebrano tree growers may despair, but the cabin is no longer dominated by acres of wood polished to plasticity. The textured black plastic covering most major surfaces strikes the perfect balance between funereal and fun. All the displays – from the white-on-black speedometer to the gently glowing climate control pictograms – are equally somber, equally funky. Taken as a whole, the CTS' interior displays a restrained, post-modern sensibility – right down to its bespoke typeface.
The Caddy's cabin scores in two other areas where American luxury cars are regularly trounced by their foreign rivals: ergonomics and tactility.
The DVD nav exemplifies the manufacturer's newfound understanding of its consumers' cognitive function (or lack thereof). Clearly labeled buttons surrounding the central screen offer seamless transitions from BOSE blasting to route guidance, to warning messages, to telecoms and back. The Caddy's helm-mounted volume control thumbwheel should be an industry standard. And let's not forget OnStar. Their terminally cheerful, internet-savvy operators provide the ultimate hands-free information service.
And guess what? Caddy plastic is no longer made of ground-up toothbrush handles. Fingers that once recoiled from cheap and nasty snickgear can now delight in smooth touch controls that respond with damped precision. Someone's also had a word with Cadillac's upholsterer. Where children once disappeared into the endless folds of cushy sofas, the CTS' chairs are firm, clearly delineated and superbly tailored. They even smell nice.
In short, provided you ante-up 12Gs for the optional 1SC Equipment Group and DVD Nav, you couldn't ask for a more convivial atmosphere in which to listen to musical tales of snub nosed .44s, crack dealers and women paid for sexual services.
The 1SC package elevates the CTS' bottom line to a little over $42k. At this price point, there's nowhere for the CTS to hide; the financial damage places Caddy's self-proclaimed "sports sedan" smack dab in the middle of BMW 330i territory. No surprise then that the 1SC upgrade includes a performance package – complete with monotube shocks, improved brake linings, Stabilitrak traction control and a 3.6 liter V6 engine with Variable Valve Timing.
The 255hp CTS accelerates to 60mph in 6.7 seconds— just a tenth of a second behind the 330i. In theory. In practice, the five-speed auto box is dim-witted. Give the CTS a serious throttle command and the engine responds with partial kickdown, followed by a lower gear and a sudden, frenzied lunge for the horizon. With 252ft. lbs. of torque available at 2800 rpms, the 3.6-powered CTS delivers maximum thrust at a variety of speeds. Yes, but… a CTS at full chat sounds like The Rental Car from Hell.
The CTS' handling reveals more dull DNA. Fling the Caddy into a bend and you immediately sense that the company couldn't quite bring itself to sacrifice low-speed comfort for high-speed control. Hence the 17" wheels, which earn neither style nor performance points. While the Nurnburgring-fettled "sports tuned" suspension helps tie things down, it can't compensate for numb steering and remote control chassis. All of which makes the CTS a talented GT, rather than Beemer-beating driver's car.
Is that important? Hell yes. Cadillac knows it can't compete against the Japanese. The Occidentals have built an enormous (not to say insurmountable) lead in the mass market for luxury sedans. Their customers want it all: comfort, toys, reliability, service and price. Sensibly enough, Caddy's aiming its products at a smaller, more emotionally-driven audience: the Euro-snobs. These customers are happy to pay a premium for style, prestige and performance. The rear-wheel-drive CTS nails the first, phones in the second and sniffs around the third.
I'm tempted to conclude by saying two out of three ain't bad. Instead, I'm left shaking my head. If only the CTS had a barrel-chested V8, better rubber, a six-speed manual and better handling. Oh wait, that's the new CTS-V. As Obie says, bring it!