What is luxury? In the American car market, that question doesn’t have an easy answer. Driver-focused performers like BMW’s 3-series sell well here, but so do feature-loaded versions of mass market sedans, like the Lexus ES. Blinged-out baroque still has its adherents, but as the Napa Valley hotel where the Cadillac CTS Coupe was launched proves, a more subtle, sophisticated version of luxury is gaining popularity as well, differentiated by the use of recycled materials and environmentally-friendly technologies. So where in this fragmented and changing category does the CTS Coupe belong?
The last time Cadillac sold a traditional coupe, it bore the heritage-laden Eldorado nameplate which, by its last year of sales in 2002, was grasping at the tatters of a long, once-proud legacy. The Eldorado name may not have launched the “Personal Luxury Coupe” segment (this honor goes to the Ford Thunderbird), but by the dawn of the new millenium, it was keeping the old-school, front-drive, waft-all-day luxury coupe flame alive. Barely.
In the eight years since the Eldorado got lost in the shuffle, the CTS nameplate has ushered in a new era at Cadillac. With the return of rear-wheel-drive and concessions to performance and dynamics, the brand seemed desperate to leave its legacy of large, squishy touring coupes behind. Unfortunately, this meant abandoning the coupe segment altogether, leaving a fundamental element of the brand unrealized for nearly a decade.
Until now. After a few bankruptcy-related false starts, the CTS Coupe that debuted at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show is now sitting in the forecourt of a $450/night hotel, looking nearly unchanged from concept form, and entirely at home. Which is to say, it looks good. In dark colors, it’s Darth Vader meets Don Draper: a symmetrically-creased exercise in sleek, bunker-windowed coupe-dom. From the shortened overhangs, to the faster windshield, to the langheck echoes of the gracefully curving C-pillars, Cadillac has taken the CTS design to what feels like its logical conclusion.
And though Cadillac aptly calls its Coupe the “ultimate expression” of its Art-and-Science styling, there are some pleasing echoes of Cadillac’s past baked into the design. The proportions are classic “Personal Luxury” coupe: kicked-back cabin, long doors, bold face, clean rear-quarter. Viewed side-on, there’s even a hint of Mitchell-era Eldorado about the angular C-pillar, and the rear-deck’s three peaked taillights (the middle of which apparently generates downforce) are as close as a Cadillac’s come to having tailfins since Mitchell took over. Only the shortness of the front and rear overhangs, and the almost cartoonish ratio of steel to glass give the proportions a more purposeful, modern feel.
The promise of this neo-classical look is, of course, that this Cadillac Coupe will do things that no two-door Caddy has done before. Though the two-inch lower roof and sharply-raked windshield are purely aesthetic changes, the shortened overhangs and one-inch wider rear track are meant to do more than introduce a pugnacious profile and gentle, organically-swelling rear fender bulges. Along with a revised axle ratio (3.73:1 replacing the sedan’s 3.42:1) and thicker rear stabilizer bar, these changes were made in hopes that the odd auto journalists might rehabilitate the old “Caddy that Zigs” tagline.
But before getting the chance to test the Coupe’s zigging ability, you have to get into the thing. Touch-button locks keep the exterior looking clean, and work well once you’re used to them. Inside, the interior is unchanged from the CTS sedan, meaning there’s a lot of design, a lot of materials, and a very adequate sensation of luxury. Here, more than anywhere else, Cadillac has a few things to learn from its choice of launch hotel, which managed to make reclaimed wood and rusting steel seem luxurious, and the Caddy’s interior seem downright garish.
Interior dimensions are predictably hampered by the Coupe’s crisply-tailored suit. At about six foot one, my head resolutely grazed the headliner until the driver’s seat was at its lowest setting. Even then, spirited driving over bumpy roads caused the occasional annoying head-tap. The rear bucket seats are surprisingly spacious… below shoulder-height. Hip and leg room are more than adequate, but head and shoulder room are non-existent for the post-pubescent. But then I don’t seem to remember Don Draper or Darth Vader ever volunteering their personal luxury coupes for carpooling duty.
Fire up the standard 3.6 liter V6, pop the shifter into drive, and the Coupe pulls into traffic with ease. The lower axle ratio is immediately noticeable when pulling away from stops, but probably only if you just got out of a CTS Sedan or Sportwagon. Don’t expect noisy burnouts though: the difference is manifested more as a slight annoyance with the sedan than a sense that the Coupe is a drooling, snarling beast. In fact, cruising through the small towns and curving roads of California’s wine country at the speed limit is a quiet, refined experience. The only thing missing from the smooth, revvy V6 is some soft V8 burble. Otherwise, this coupe has more horsepower (304) and only 27 lb-ft less torque than the old Eldo’s Northstar, and makes a great wafting companion. Things have changed in eight years, but Cadillac Coupes are still best when cruised graciously from luxurious destination to luxurious destination.
And what if a few curves appear? Slide the shifter towards the passenger to activate sport mode, and “turn off” the traction control, and the CTS loses its bourgeois decorum faster than a sorority girl at Señor Frogs. Though Cadillac does not re-map engines for sport-mode, the transmission changes alone are downright surprising. Not only will it hold a gear until you’ve wrung every last raspy gasp from the V6, but it’s far more aggressive in its downshifts than you’d expect. In fact, once in this so-called “competition mode” the drivetrain absolutely insists that you abuse the right pedal, punishing half-hearted pokes at the throttle and brakes with deep downshifts and soaring revs. Nail it hard, and it will stay right with you, keeping a low gear gear coming out of a corner, when other “sport modes” would have short-shifted mid-corner. Technically there are paddle shifters located behind the steering wheel, but most owners will either never know, or quickly forget that they’re there at all.
Unfortunately, the drivetrain’s playfulness is never quite matched by the steering and handing. In fairness, the steering is better weighted than other GM products, and the chassis (tested with FE3 sport suspension) is generally competent at both cruising and cornering. But with the engine and transmission begging for a spanking, it’s all too easy to find the CTS getting flummoxed. There’s grip aplenty from the optional summer tires and uprated suspension, but there’s no respite from the physics of nearly 4,000 pounds trying to hold onto the road. Thanks to the wider rear track, there’s little scope for tail-wagging, and you’ll probably find the Coupe pushing on its front tires as often as it slips its rears. Grab a line and power through a sweeper, and you’ll want for nothing from this loaded example. Try to string several smooth corners together, however, and unless you’re a truly seasoned driver, you’ll end up with more tossing and thrashing than you’ll get out of certain competitors. Weight, visibility and damping deficits keep this Cadillac firmly in the “competent” category of cornering coupes.
And somehow that’s quite alright. Sure, Cadillac wants to be perceived as the equal to a BMW or Mercedes, and clearly this Coupe could do more to flatter the driver around tight roads. But the CTS-V Coupe is being launched later this summer, and its extra 250-odd horsepower and adaptive suspension should fulfill the performance promise of a range-topping luxury coupe. Meanwhile, the standard CTS Coupe is available at a base $38,990, with prices ranging to our loaded tester’s $51,825. Like the Buick Regal we tested recently, the CTS Coupe shows GM’s new approach to luxury: Ride and handling that are refined for commuting duty yet up for some occasional fun, wrapped in a distinctively-styled, modern body.
Unlike the Regal, however, the CTS Coupe hits its styling cues to perfection, and manages to fuse the brand’s future to its past in terms of both style and abilities. It’s a car that makes a distinctive and undeniable fashion statement that you either love or hate. This is the kind of Cadillac that you’d buy after landing a big client, or crushing a nascent rebellion… and if it had been launched in the midst of a go-go economy, it would doubtless sell like hotcakes. In today’s brutally-competitive luxury market, however, it’s neither extra-refined and luxurious nor a therapeutic joy to fling around a windy road. As such it has the same work cut out for it that the CTS sedan still does, some 8 years after it was first launched.
Cadillac paid for our airfare and accommodation for this new product launch, including several delicious meals and an open bar. Since it took place in California’s tony Napa Valley, none of it was cheap.