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 you 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.
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.
The new Cadillac Escalade is a mission critical machine. It's one of the few remaining General Motors products whose sales don't depend on Mexican-sized kickbacks and/or a Day-Glo "Closing Down, Everything Must Go" sticker on the windshield. What's more, as a badge-engineered Chevrolet Tahoe, it's only slightly more expensive to build than a Chevrolet Tahoe. In other words, the 'Slade's is a cash cow on factory double dubs, trying to keep it real for GM's ten point six billion dollar man, Rabid Rick Wagoner; know what I mean? No? Let me spell it out for you: if the 'Slade ain't da bomb, it's a nail in the General's coffin. Well guess what? RIP.
Clock those side vents. At the precise moment when Caddy's luxury SUV should swagger into town with unabashed American style, the 'Slade arrives with its main design cue "borrowed" from Land Rover's Range Rover Sport. While the cynical amongst you might assert that the Escalade's target market is no more likely to connect the two vehicles than smoke crack and drive (as if), the fact remains: the porthole plagiarism betrays a staggering lack of confidence and originality. Of course, badge engineering a Chevrolet Tahoe betrays a staggering lack of confidence and originality, but, um… where was I? Something about the enormous gap in the SUV's wheel arches making the 'Slade look like a punk ass bitch? No… that wasn't it. Or was it?
I like Cadillac. Theirs is the perfect American success story: a failing luxury car company saved by hard work, clever engineering and gang bangers. By now, the brothers' mainline manufacturer is safe and the word is out: Cadillac is back, and it's bling. Even old white men in shiny shoes know that the Escalade is all that, the XLR is dope, the CTS is fly, and the SRX is SWASS (Some Wild Ass Silly Shit). So why-oh-why did Caddy brew up this four-wheeled Forty Dog?
For some reason, they based the STS' design on the arrow-sharp CTS– minus the sharp. While the STS' front and back ends retain a welcome measure of the CTS' aggression, the overall result looks like a fat mobster in a Brioni suit. The STS' sloping swage lines and ever-so-slightly bulging wheel arches can't disguise the fact that it's a slab-sided luxobarge from the old school, with all the blingosity of a Lincoln Town Car. Granted, that may have been the point: to build a luxury car conservative enough for Cadillac's traditional clientele, yet– no wait, that's it; that's the whole story.
Pistonheads believe cars have personality, character and yes, soul. Putting the pedal to the metal in a Cadillac CTS-V, it's hard not to agree. The 5.7-liter powerplant bellows, the tires squirm and the V charges at the horizon with all the determination of an enraged bull heading for a matador's cape. Redline Caddy's 400-horse four-door and she'll give you everything she's got. And man, she's got a lot. The V rockets from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds and completes the ¼ mile in 13.1. If the V was a bull, I'd want to be one very fast matador.
Amazingly, the CTS-V is not all about brute force. Unlike its rip-snorting cousins– the Dodge Viper, Chevrolet Corvette and Dodge SRT10– the V is a seriously agile whip. As hard as it is to comprehend, the CTS-V, a Cadillac, could well be America's finest handling car. Yes folks, it's true: Detroit has finally produced a car to rival a BMW.
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!
Driving in the US state of Rhode Island is like being in a Mad Max movie. All lanes are passing lanes. Road rage is a given. Serious accidents are everywhere. To say you take your life in your hands is misleading. In fact, you put your life in the hands of madmen, fools and incompetents; drivers who alternate between homicidal and suicidal tendencies. To avoid the endless threat to life and limb, skill is not enough. You need luck, bravery, caffeine and a Cadillac Escalade.
Despite the Escalade's epic dimensions— six feet high and 16.5 feet long— its protection against the slings and bumpers of outrageous driving has nothing to do with the acres of sheet metal adorning its body-on-frame chassis. Like all SUV's, the Escalade is a truck. It's exempt from US automotive safety legislation, which mandates life-saving technology like passenger safety cells. Bottom line: when push comes to crash, you're at least as safe in a medium-sized German saloon. If not more. Lest we forget, the Escalade's high and mighty stance gives Caddy's big rig a genetic tendency to fall over when things go seriously sideways.