As I closed the rear door of the top spec Cadillac DTS, I watched the side light above my head literally sputter and die. And there you have it: proof positive that the bean counters have been hard at work on The General's luxury brand. You want the lights to slowly fade up and down? Why? Anyway, we don’t have that part. What else do you need? Actually, despite the death by a thousand cost cuts, the DTS has almost enough upmarket mojo to make it. Only luxury carmaking isn't horseshoes or hand grenades. Almost doesn’t count.
Let me be clear: Cadillac isn’t Audi, BMW, Lexus or Mercedes. Before I illustrate this point in depressing detail, here’s what I want out of a Caddy: Texaguido style, a magic carpet ride, enough room to schlep the wife and three full-grown kids, and a trunk that’ll fit two dead Mafiosi. That’s it. That’s all a Cadillac has to do to earn my respect. Anything else is nice, but surplus to requirements. The DTS fails at the first hurdle.
What IS this thing? While the brand’s nose is distinctive enough, the protruding five-mile-per-hour bumper (remember them?) indicates some kind of badly synthesized graftwerk. The four door's rear has all the sinister charm of Joseph Stalin's limo. The sedan’s profile offers the only side-on sheetmetal I’ve ever seen that’s more generic than a Toyota Cressida. The Performance Pack’s 18’s are lost in the wheel wells and the shiny alloys are hideous.
The DTS is based on GM’s vintage front-wheel-drive G-platform, also underpinning the phenomenally unsuccessful Buick Lucerne. Enter the cabin and the downside is immediately obvious. Although the front chairs are large enough for inveterate pasta-addicts, the limited back row width restricts capacity to two well fed paesans. On the positive side, the aniline Tehama leather is wonderfully soft and supportive– but not as fragrant as the standard cow hide. In fact, it’s odorless.
This same anodyne character and lack of attention to detail applies to the rest of the DTS’ interior. Buttons snick with all the precision of a Botswana Army drill team. The beige hard touch plastics, pedestrian-looking gauges and cheap ass door ajar bong all speak the language of rental car Hell. There are plenty of fat rich guy toys on offer: remote start, Intellibeam headlamp system (auto high beam / low beam switching), rain sensing wipers, etc. But the seat massager that gently annoys your lower spine embodies the DTS’ underlying cut rate ethos.
Fortunately, the beast drives well. Even/especially after 15 years, Caddy’s Northstar V8 is a jewel. The 4.6-liter engine’s pitted against 4000lbs. (plus Florida retirees, goombas, gang bangers, golf clubs, AK47’s, etc.). Even so, the Performance Pack’s 292hp is enough juice for mindlessly swift progress. (Though the DTS is slower than the lighter Lucerne.) Throttle response is exemplary, the brakes work and the Northstar emits a lovely little growl when provoked.
Despite its nose heavy front wheel-drive chassis, the DTS corners quickly– without 70’s cop show tire squeal or scenic understeer excursions. All praise to GM’s Magnetic Ride Control, which virtually eliminates body lean. Unfortunately, the DTS’ numb (but accurate) steering is a killjoy, and the flat, puffy seats ensure that rapid left hand corners leave cheek marks against the laminated glass.
In a straight line, bump suppression is brand compliant– though not without a slight jarring effect over bad surfaces (and noticeably less Novocained in the lower spec models). At 80mph, the DTS cruises serenely– except for some wind noise around the front window and a strange pulsing feeling through the tiller. With only a four-speed Hydramatic gearbox swapping cogs, highway overtaking means lots of noise and little alacrity.
And so to the trunk, whose lid swings as freely as members of The Black Key Club. Yes, it’s big (the trunk). But it’s ugly. Perhaps the only thing nastier than the DTS’ mouse pelt headliner is the rancid rabbit fur covering the rear cavern. And then there’s the trunk mat. Good idea: rancid rabbit fur on one side, rubber on the other (for “wet work”). But the colors don’t match.
And therein lies the tale. Never mind the DTS’ po-faced design. Never mind the lack of interior refinement. It’s obvious Cadillac can’t be bothered to sweat the small stuff. If you clock the DTS’ price against a same sized, similarly equipped German or Japanese rival, the $41k and up Caddy will be the lowest-priced alternative, by a large margin, without incentives. So what? The DTS is not as good a car. Even within its own remit, it falls short.
Unless GM stops stiffing Cadillac’s designers and engineers, unless they start with a clean sheet of paper, once again, the brand has peaked.