When I was growing up in South Africa, Cadillacs were gaudily chromed boats adorned with absurd fins. I thought they were stupid. I simply couldn’t reconcile Caddy's grandiose luxury land yachts with the small, sensible cars of my youth. As my horizons widened, as I learned about art, décor and design; I eventually “got it." I understood why enthusiasts waxed nostalgic about the great Caddies of yore, even though we saw precious few models in my corner of The Dark Continent.
So there I was, attending a ride ’n drive event for the Hummer H3. Instead of putting us behind the wheel of GM’s gangsta’ Chevy Colorado, the company’s PR flacks pulled the sheets off a brand new car and announced it was right here, right now: Cadillac! The erstwhile luxury brand’s brand latest and greatest model was now available in RSA, and we’d get to drive this Saab-based mid-size sedan. Here are the keys. Off you go.
Now cast your minds back to great Cadillacs of our collective imagination. Skip tracer Tommy Nowak’s 1959 convertible. The pearlized pink Caddies proudly gracing the driveways of Mary Kay’s super sales force. Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 Eldorado fearing and loathing the Nevada desert. Elvis’ 1955 Fleetwood 60 Special, or the pink Cadillac in his rockabilly classic “Baby Let’s Play House.” The Caddy ambulance in Ghostbusters. Now, behold: the BLS!
Actually, you can’t behold a car as pleb as the BLS. You can hardly look at it without turning away in schadenfreude-inspired shame. This “B-grade Luxury Sedan” (Cadillac’s designation, not mine) looks like nothing but a bunch of creased cardboard from a package designer seeking maximum rigidity. The BLS sports the high beltline that’s quickly becoming synonymous with the modern American cars. From the rear three quarter, the derivative design apes the Chrysler 300’s urban flava. ‘Art & Science’? More like ‘Compromise & Cowardice’.
Yes, modern BMW and Mercedes designers have overdone it on the concaves and convexes and swoops and fussiness. But Cadillac practically invented concaves, convexes, swoops and fussiness. The BLS has been sterilised of anything you could dislike– or like. It’s the gauda, the unwooded chardonnay, the Castle Lite, the Phil Collins of cars.
The BLS’ interior is equally anodyne. It’s better than a Ford or Chrysler’s cabin, but invites Audi and Volvo to an ergonomic pity party. The classy retro-feel dash-mounted clock’s attempt to jazz up a dour, drab space is about as convincing as double dubs on a Vee Dub. And then there’s the build quality by which a luxury marque lives, or in this case, dies. I sussed three different test cars with three different sets of dashboard rattles. One car’s wipers whistled at a workaday Karoo-eating 150kph. Another boasted a broken rear seat latch. Never mind. Only a masochistic full-sized adult would dare darken the BLS’ cramped rear compartment.
The Trollhatten-built BLS comes in four engine flavours: a 1.9-liter four-cylinder common-rail diesel, the same engine with a turbo, a 2.0-liter turbo Ecotec four and a 2.8-liter turbo V6. If you’ve driven Saabs, then you know the score. The diesel is the strong, silent type; the two-litre the sensible, boring sort; and the V6 has a bit of much needed swagger (0 – 60mph in 7.1 seconds).
The BLS sits on the same Epsilon platform underpinning the Saab 9-3 (Saabilac?), Opel Vectra (Opelac?) and Chevy Malibu (Malibac?). Saab, Opel, GM, Cadillac – someone tuned the BLS’ suspension to Euro-driver firmness. While the BLS’ initial turn-in is eager and its body control exemplary, the brakes and steering provide less feedback than the Home Affairs department to a telephone query. If you push the front wheel-drive Caddy (how great does THAT sound), you can get some dramatic tire-squealing understeer, but little in the way of agility or fun. It’s best to drive as if you’re not insured.
Compared to the comfort, ride, handling, performance and cachet of Europe’s midrange luxury offerings, the BLS is a joke. It isn’t on the same planet as a rear wheel-drive BMW, Mercedes or the well-poised (if somewhat crashy) Audi. No wonder the BLS hasn’t lived up to GM’s initial [and modest] sales expectations.
In fact, the BLS is another in a long line of badly judged badge-engineering bodge jobs that’ve been ruining The General's brands for decades. GM’s decision to export the BLS to South Africa and, gulp, Mexico, is a cynical attempt to see if car buyers in smaller markets are more amendable to mediocrity than the Euro Zone. If I can speak for the Mexicans, we aren’t. In fact, GM should kill this model before it pisses away any remaining respect for the once great Cadillac name, or teaches new drivers that Cadillac is the sub-standard of the world.