Thursday, December 5, 2013

Test Drive: 2014 Cadillac CTS AWD V6 Luxury

To say that the CTS is an important car for Cadillac is a bit of an understatement. The last generation CTS became the bread and butter car in Cadillac's line-up and was one of the early signs of a struggle for life from a then disintegrating GM. This 3rd generation car needed to do a number of things for Cadillac: one, grow the CTS to properly compete with the BMW 5-series and Mercedes E-class; two, continue to expand and improve Cadillac's reputation for performance as established by the recently introduced ATS; three, demonstrate that Cadillac has been listening to its customers and fix the issues of the previous generation cars. With its recent string of successes in the form of the ATS, Impala, and Corvette, GM approached the redesign with great care and what has resulted is honestly a genuine piece of art. But as good as it looks, can it really go toe-to-toe with the established German competitors?

From the first reveal of the concept and prototypes, the new CTS took the Art and Science design motif to a whole new level. The new long-nosed short-decked look gives the car an amazingly aggressive stance, yet somehow recalls the proportions of classic cars from the early days of the automobile. In certain colors, the sharp creases and clean edges reflect light just right, making the car look like a gem gleaming in the sunlight. The bulging hood and prominent grille give the CTS a menacing, yet stately look - think a bodybuilder in a tailored suit. Unfortunately, that suit is accessorized with some chintzy flair. The choice to use satin chrome for the window surround and door handles is an unfortunate one because, just as on the ATS, it looks garish and actually cheapens the otherwise exceptional exterior. Perhaps moving to a darker color or adding a touch of patterning to give it some more texture would improve the appearance.

Inside, the CTS is leaps and bounds better than the car that it replaces. The materials all over the cabin are dramatically better and the design is cleaner and much more attractive. Leather is used heavily on a variety of surfaces, broken up by patches of identically colored sueded microfiber. All of it feels very premium to the touch and everything has a nicely damped feel. The rear seats offer good space for the two outboard passengers, but the huge hump in the floor makes the center position suitable only for those without legs. A couple of slightly superfluous touches, like the motorized cover for the cup holders and the motorized flip up face of the head unit, offers a bit of panache in an otherwise conventional interior. Unfortunately, Cadillac saw fit to include two things that keep this from being a pitch perfect interior - the horrendous CUE system and an instrument cluster that looks like it came out of a cheap toy. I have already made my opinions clear on CUE, so I will simply say that this latest iteration has not addressed any of the system's shortcomings. As for the instrument cluster, the dials just look cheap and the large digital screen, despite having a relatively high resolution, has extraordinarily outdated graphics. This is a serious weak point of this interior and might just be a deal breaker for some.

Firing up the motor, I eased the Caddie into the heavy afternoon traffic, the low-hanging sun to my back. Within moments, one of the new features that comes standard on the CTS made itself known to me in a rather alarming manner. As I eased up behind a car, a bright red light flashed at the base of the windshield, a tone sounded, and the seat started to vibrate. This is the forward collision warning system and actually startled me at first since I was not expecting it. You get used to it, but I still found the feature rather intrusive and probably only necessary for those people who have a tendency to not focus on driving when behind the wheel. And while I did not get a chance to test it, my understanding is that the CTS also includes the rear cross traffic alert, which warns of oncoming cars from the sides when the car is in reverse.

Finding some open roads, I nailed the throttle and the big Caddie promptly delivered a dose of creamy smooth power. The naturally aspirated V6, which is the middle tier motor and is likely to be a big part of CTS sales, does not make a great deal more power than the 2.0L turbocharged engine, but is so much more satisfying to drive. GM needs to benchmark this iteration of the direct injected 3.6L V6 when deciding what their engine dynamics should feel like because it is excellent - silky smooth and devoid of flat spots. Even though it is mated to a comparatively simple 6-speed automatic, the power train does a great job of delivering the luxury experience that a Cadillac should. In fact, it possibly does it too well as the transmission is so smooth, you simply cannot get it to disturb the passengers no matter how hard you try. Of course, this also means that sport is not at forefront of the character of this power train combination. I am looking forward to the upcoming turbocharged version of this motor that is forthcoming in the CTS V-Sport because all indications point to that iteration maintaining all of the good characteristics of this naturally aspirated version, just with nearly 33% more power.

Approaching a large roundabout, I threw the car into the sweeping left hander, the steering wheel weighting up nicely in my hands. As the wheels clawed for traction, it was possible to just make out how much grip each wheel was exhibiting, although the whole thing still felt a bit muted for my taste. Still, the steering actually felt more responsive and accurate than the BMW 535d that I tested a few weeks ago. The chassis sets quickly and without much body roll, despite the heft, and the balance is quite neutral with just a touch of initial understeer. A little further down the road, a car darts out from an off-ramp and into traffic causing me to have to pull a quick emergency lane change, which the Caddie handled with aplomb. Best of all, despite the great handling, the ride is not compromised and still absorbs the bumps comfortably, but is not so soft as to be squishy. All of this on the base suspension and not even the magnetic dampers that come in the upgrade packages.

In all honesty, I genuinely enjoyed the CTS. It feels every bit a better car than its predecessor. Everything from the interior, exterior, suspension, and drive train are well executed and there is much to love. It is by no means a perfect car, with some of the infotainment issues the most glaring errors, but it is a great car and has a tremendous amount of character, certainly more so than the somewhat soulless BMW 5-series. In creating this car, Cadillac has demonstrated that it is serious about competing with the Germans and has the engineering and design chops to do it. Everyone looking for a $50k+ sedan should absolutely take one of these for a spin.

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