Take Two: Cadillac CTS Review

Justin Berkowitz
by Justin Berkowitz

Ever sit around on a Sunday around noon with your buddies and say "I could go for some Domino's or Papa John's." You know that obviously neither of the two is up to Michelin guide standards, and in fact neither one of them is even real pizza. But damn man, they really hit the spot. Well that's the new Cadillac CTS. It's snazzy looking, it's fun to drive, it's got all the toppings you could ask for. It's just not a Cadillac.

The CTS’s exterior has all the trappings of a modern luxury car. It's dripping with shine and sparkle– like it just stepped out of some kind of chromium-shower. The massive grille overtakes the entire front of the car, sporting a brash design language. You might just call the car vulgar and gaudy, like a pair of rhinestone-covered Gucci sunglasses. Or you could say that it's resolutely nouveau-riche.

But step back and admire the profile and the back end, and the CTS is undeniably elegant. The first generation CTS, Cadillac's exercise in "ultra-modern" styling, mimicked the F-117A stealth jet (which entered service in 1983). But it was starved for details. The “new” CTS rights the old wrongs. I'm ashamed that I like the thin chrome vent on the fender because its fine lines balance the slab-sided sheetmetal. Same goes for the C-Pillar. Yes, it's as abrupt and sharp as stiletto glinting in a dark alley. But the pillar gives the car's angled motif new definition and meaning.

The deal sealer/deal breaker: does the CTS stand out on the road? In 1959, you'd have to be blind [from snacking on lead paint chips] to confuse a Cadillac Eldorado with anything else. By this metric, the Cadillac CTS comes up short. While it's far more than another generic sedan, it fails the "mom" test. Would Mom know, on sight, that the CTS is a Cadillac? Even when considering a wider demographic, the odds of the CTS garnering quintessential Caddy props are none to slim.

And then there's the interior. When peering into a CTS through the window of an example parked outside the geriatric specialist's office super cool young person nightclub 7-11, the cabin looks exceptional. In both appearance and execution, it's GM’s best effort in decades. The pleather covering the CTS' dash, finished with "French-stitching," and the charming chrome chevron symbols on the seats embody the interior’s tasteful elegance. The design is miles ahead of most competitors, and the build quality is a lot more than merely adequate. If this was an interior from another manufacturer, we'd be all set.

But it’s a Cadillac. It's supposed to embody and project superiority. The press kit boasts that "world-class was the target. There was no plan B." So why do some of the buttons feel Impala flimsy? Why does the analog clock look only slightly more classy than a Chinatown Fauxlex? What's up with the 1992 font on the buttons and shift-gate?

When it comes to driving, the CTS is the un-Caddy. Fire-up the silent spinning 3.6-liter six. Mash the gas and the 263-horse base engine growls with accelerative intent. Click the shifter into manual mode, hold those revs, and the needle races to redline like a Civil War veteran sprinting the final 100 yards to his homestead. Let loose the dogs of Detroit, explore the outer reaches of the torquey powerband, and the CTS simply annihilates the asphalt. Unless you've got Stirling Moss in your family tree, this is not your grandfather's anything.

Without the sports-package, you get a King David suspension, neatly walking the line between luxury pampering and corner-carving hoonery. The CTS will soak-up most of the nasty stuff under foot and then romp through the twisties like a sharp-toed greyhound. The steering strikes a similar balance. The CTS isn't a Lotus Elise (a rabidly unfair comparison), but neither is it a one-finger driver.

In sum… This is where things get uncomfortable. The CTS is 96 percent there. The question is, where? What is this thing? Before you hit the comment box suggesting I take some Valium and crank-up the Pink Floyd, hear me out. The CTS is an almost perfectly executed automobile. But the bigger issue (if the smaller percentage) is the car's identity crisis.

Is the CTS a luxury car? A sports sedan? It's great at both but magnificent at neither. So we're left with a good looking, comfortable, fun-to-drive American sedan. A solid sales hit. But a car brand can't sustain itself (or keep buyers coming back for more) without some kind of identity. As GM's great hope for the once triumphant, archetypal Cadillac brand, the CTS needs to be more than 96 percent something. It needs to be 100 percent Cadillac. And that it ain’t.

Justin Berkowitz
Justin Berkowitz

Immensely bored law student. I've also got 3 dogs.

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  • Jr37mam Jr37mam on Oct 08, 2009

    Picky, picky, picky! I am 72 and spent every Sunday at the drag strip in my younger days. I still like to goose it and my 2009 CTS is the best car I ever owned. Yes, it's even better than my 2006. Lots of zip, good ride & handling and it's very quiet. So there!!

  • Revolver1978 Revolver1978 on Nov 17, 2009

    I'm a little late to this commentary, but all "standard of the world" aside, the CTS wagon will be my next vehicle - used of course. I still can't believe they went ahead and started selling it here. . . . hopefully it does well enough to live for awhile. With sporty wagons, there really aren't many to choose from.

  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)
  • 1995 SC I'm likely in the minority, but I really liked the last Eldorado best. That and the STS.