How time flies. Five years ago the second-generation Cadillac CTS had just debuted at NAIAS. While prettier than the original, it was also fresh, exciting, and proof that Bob Lutz’s General Motors could turn out a damn fine car when it really wanted to. People who hadn’t owned a GM product for decades bought one, my father among them. Five auto shows on and we’ve glimpsed Cadillac’s future with the 2013 ATS. Does the 2012 CTS seem well beyond its sell-by date? Or does the old car, with a new 3.6-liter V6 engine and a new Touring Package, retain some compelling advantages?
The CTS casts a considerably larger shadow than the ATS: nine inches longer (on a four-inch-longer wheelbase), an inch wider and two inches taller. The additional inches enable sheet metal that is both more dramatic and more graceful than the new car’s, with more athletically flared fenders and a less severely truncated tail. The leaner ATS isn’t an unattractive car, but it won’t induce double-takes the way the CTS did five years ago. It doesn’t make a strong enough statement to establish an instantly recognizable design language for the brand. But since two generations of the CTS have already accomplished this difficult task, the ATS will get by with toned down Cadillac cues attached to a body that could otherwise be mistaken for a Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Aside from its headlights, nothing marks the ATS as the (much) newer design. Then again, if we had first seen the CTS this year, it would have still looked fresh. But of course we’ve seen it plenty. The “new” ain’t coming back without much more significant exterior changes than GM has made over the past half-decade. Even the Y-spoked chrome-plated wheels included in the new Touring Package have been available on the car since the 2010. The Touring Package’s spoiler-shaped CHMSL? Borrowed from the V.
Inside, the CTS’s age is much more evident. The silver-painted plastic flowing down the center stack appeared downscale and dated even in the car’s first year. The cleaner center stack in the ATS doesn’t make the same mistakes, with piano black trim and touch-sensitive controls (much like those first seen in the 2011 Lincoln MKX) instead of mechanical buttons.
And the retractable display used in the CTS? It’s from a bygone era where nearly every interaction with the car didn’t involve a screen. (Some new Audis still employ this gimmick, but what’s the point when the thing will have to almost always be deployed?) Bluetooth is now standard in the CTS, but perhaps because the controls were designed when GM was still putting all of its eggs in the OnStar basket, I never figured out how to access it. (Yes, I know, RTFM, but this hasn’t been necessary with other cars.) The Touring Package mildly dresses up the cabin with metal pedals and black-stained wood trim. Want an interior that’s not gray, black, or tan (the latter not available with the Touring Package)? Then wait for the ATS.
Like the ATS, the CTS was designed to compete with the BMW 3-Series. So while the older car is roomier than the new one inside, it’s not a full size class roomier. The largest difference: an additional two inches of rear seat legroom. But these additional inches aren’t enough to make the CTS’s rear seat suitable for long-distance adult occupancy, as the seat is small and mounted low.
Trunk space? The CTS’s 13.6 cubic feet only seem commodious compared to the ATS “is that a typo?” and its 10.2 cubic feet. Opponents of conventional hinges have a new poster child:
The official specs don’t tell you everything. From the driver’s seat the two sedans seem quite different. You sit about an inch lower in the ATS behind a more compact instrument panel and a smaller-diameter steering wheel. An inch difference in the “H-point” has a much larger impact than you might think. Partly because of this, the new car seems much smaller and more agile even when not in motion. (How it feels in motion will have to await some on-road seat time.) On the other hand, the CTS’s higher driving position and larger interior components fit the car’s brash, muscular personality.
The CTS’s standard front bucket seats, apparently patterned after those in the Corvette, have never seemed substantial enough for the car. The Touring Package replaces these with the allegedly optional Recaros you’ll find in just about every V. The power-adjustable thigh and seatback bolsters of these “high performance seats” provide as much lateral support as you can stand. Despite four-way power lumbar adjustments, they’re not comfortable. Even towards the end of my week with the car I kept tweaking the lumbar adjustment in search of a setting where I didn’t feel a rod pressing uncomfortably into my lower back. My brief time with the seats in the ATS suggests that they’ll provide decent lateral support and more comfort than either of the CTS’s seats.
In the past, if you’ve wanted both the sueded steering wheel and the Recaros in the non-V CTS you were, to employ another acronym, SOL. Unlike in the V, where the suede requires the Recaros, you had to choose between one or the other. This year both are only available together, as parts of the Touring Package. The clear lens taillights that previously acoompanied the sueded tiller did not survive the rehash.
For 2012, the CTS’s 3.6-liter V6 has been thoroughly revised, gaining 14 horsepower (for a total of 318) in the process. The new V6 sounds a little pedestrian at part throttle in the midrange, but transitions to a tone worthy of a premium sport sedan if you open up the throttle and wind it out. Acceleration is strong enough that few people will feel the need for the 556-horsepower V. (Just don’t sample the V, or you’ll become addicted to its excess. That car made me do bad things.) But the ATS should feel considerably more energetic. Cadillac acquired some serious weight-saving religion during the more compact sedan’s gestation, and packed it full of aluminum and magnesium. Consequently the same 3.6-liter V6 will have over a quarter-ton less to motivate. Unimproved with the new V6 are the EPA fuel economy ratings, which remain at 18/27 mpg city/ highway.
Unfortunately, a six-speed manual won’t be available with the new V6 in either car. In the ATS devotees of the third pedal will have one choice, a 270-horsepower turbocharged four. In the CTS the manual is now available only with the underwhelming 3.0-liter V6. The CTS’s six-speed automatic is slow to react to manual shifting. Smallish buttons hidden on the backside of the steering wheel spokes require hands at nine and three. Prefer ten and two? Well, it might be best to let the transmission call the shifts anyway. In the ATS, large magnesium paddles will be available—much better.
Since its launch, the regular CTS has been available with three different suspensions, FE1, FE2, and FE3. With the FE1 suspension the car feels vague and even sloppy. Discouraged by reviews of the FE3, and without the ability to sample it in advance, my father ordered his car with the FE2, billed as offering the best ride-handling balance. That was a mistake. He ended up getting rid of the car because the FE2 suspension doesn’t sufficiently control body motions. On the wavy highway that leads to his house, the car provoked severe “head toss” over every undulation. On such roads, the firmer FE3 suspension actually rides much steadier, while remaining well short of harsh over patchy pavement. The FE3 car also feels tighter and more precise. If only we’d known back in the fall of 2007 that this was the suspension to get. One downside: The FE3 is only available with the 19-inch high-performance summer tires (specifically 245/45ZR19 ContiSportContacts). If you live where it snows, you’ll be investing in winter treads.
Even with the FE3 suspension and a limited-slip differential (bundled with the summer tires), the CTS lacks the character of a precision instrument. Instead, even in non-V form, it’s a two-ton linebacker of a sport sedan with a more overt character than you’ll find in competitors: big, bold, and ballsy. Vigorous control inputs aren’t the smartest, fastest way to drive, but the CTS invites them. While I’ve yet to drive the new ATS, my discussions with the engineering team (plus the much lower curb weight and lower seating position) suggest that it will feel tighter, lighter, and more precise – especially with its FE3 sport suspension, which will include magnetic ride control shocks like those standard in the CTS-V but not available in the regular CTS. You’ll also find a more refined chassis (perhaps to a fault) in the front-wheel-drive Buick Regal GS.
The hydraulic-assist system in the CTS feels much like that in the V, providing a level of tactility rarely found in today’s cars. At first touch, the system has the same insulated, numb feel found in the typical luxury sedan, but layered below is a more direct connection and even nuanced feedback. I cannot recall another car (aside from the V) with similarly multi-layered steering. Unlike in the CTS-V, engaging “Competitive Mode” does not reduce the level of steering assist. Assist will vary by mode in the ATS, but the system will be electric rather than hydraulic.
Not that you have to use the steering wheel to rotate the CTS. The rear end’s lateral slip can be progressively modulated with the throttle. At a steady speed through turns the CTS’s nose feels a little reluctant to hold a tight line. A little throttle balances the chassis nicely. Overcook it, and the stability control system cuts in almost seamlessly. Don’t need the nanny? It can be completely turned off, but even “Competitive Mode” bumps the threshhold enough that the car can get seriously sideways. Use with care. The stability control might have led you to think you’re a better driver than you actually are.
At first glance, the $2,810 Touring Package is a bargain. The seats and suede alone list for $3,700 in the V. The package deletes a heated steering wheel and folding rear seat that aren’t available in the supercharged sedan. GM may have feared a sale-proof window sticker, but then perhaps they shouldn’t have restricted the package to the top spec CTS. Add $995 “black diamond tricoat” and the bottom line nudges over $55,000.
Seem steep? A similarly-equipped BMW 335i will set you back about the same. But then BMW isn’t known for reasonable pricing, especially not on heavily equipped cars. The Infiniti G37 has long been the value play in this segment, with a sticker price over $10,000 below the others. Even after a $2,200 adjustment for the Cadillac’s additional features (as calculated by TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool) the CTS checks in nearly $8,000 higher. If you can do without the Touring Package’s sueded steering wheel and Recaro seats, then the pricing shifts about $2,500 in the Cadillac’s favor (the tool accounts for power adjustments, but not the Recaro label).
The advent of the ATS highlights the CTS’s shortcomings, most notably dated controls, passé silver plastic trim, and an extra quarter-ton of curb weight. If you want the latest tech or the most agile handling, wait for the truly compact Cadillac. And yet, even in its fifth model year the CTS retains a striking exterior and engaging personality. The ATS doesn’t have the same visual impact, and might lack the same driving dynamics as well, in a bid to beat the polished Europeans at their own game. To this the Touring Package brings all of the CTS’s sportiest available features together for the first time in the same non-V car. If you no taste for the latest tech, and prefer the character of a linebacker to that of a point guard, then no need to wait for the ATS.
Disclaimer: Cadillac provided the car for a week with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.