Pros: passing power, ride, handling
Cons: standard 16-inch wheels look a little small, cargo room, trunk opening could be larger
The 2003 Cadillac CTS was first shown at the at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in August 2001. Cadillac's aim was to create a true sport sedan with a European driving feel. To achieve this, Cadillac spent a lot of time tuning the suspension and chassis at the famous German racetrack, Nurburgring. The CTS replaced the Catera as Cadillac entry-level luxury car.
EXTERIOR: The CTS's sharp, edgy styling, to me looks very strange. The large taillights look out of proportion with the small headlights. The steering wheel, with the half wood, half leather trim would look better if it did NOT have any wood. The center crease line that starts from the front of the car and goes up along the hood is a nice touch that also appears on the Cadillac LMP-1 Le Mans race car. The standard 16-inch wheels look a bit too small for a car this size, but this can be remedied with the optional Luxury Sport package which adds many features including a sport suspension and 17-inch polished alloy wheels.
INTERIOR: The engine is loud only under full throttle, but the like the exhaust note, does not sound very sporty. At highway speeds, wind noise becomes noticeable, but a normal conversation could still be held. With the optional 17-inch wheels available on the Luxury Sport package, tire noise becomes more noticeable.
The interior is very modern. The speedometer and tachometer are large and clear, even in sunlight. The automatic climate control is very easy to understand and the readouts are vivid enough to see in the sunlight. Speaking of climate control, the air conditioner cools the cabin very quickly.
Personally, I like the steering wheel audio controls because it prevents me from taking my eyes off the road just to adjust the volume. However, some of the steering wheel buttons have interchangeable functions. This can get confusing because I have the tendency to forget which function I had just programmed it to do! My tester came with the optional navigation system. It comes with a 212-watt, 8-speaker, Bose stereo system and costs $2,700. Although the navigation system takes over some audio controls, it is generally easier to use than most other systems.
Up front, the seats are roomy and comfortable. The bucket seats have excellent side-to-side support, but I would like to see Cadillac put some more lumbar support into their seats. The steering wheel has a very sporty feel to it. Although it has a tilt feature, the CTS's steering wheel does not telescope. The 113.4-inch long wheelbase really shows up in rear-seat room, where there is a generous amount of leg room and foot space. For a vehicle of this size, I would like to see more cargo room. With only 12.8 cubic feet of cargo space, a similarly-sized Acura TL offers more surface area in the cargo bay.
ENGINE: The CTS is powered by a 3.2-liter DOHC V6 engine which produces 220 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and 218 lb./ft. of torque at 3,400 rpm. Although it is far from slow, it weighs in at 3,509 pounds with the standard 5-speed manual transmission (3,568 w/automatic). This is a bit too much weight for a car touted to be a sports sedan, but there is more than enough midrange torque especially in the 35-65 mile per hour range. The manual shifter is very smooth and is obviously the pick among driving enthusiasts. The automatic changes gears almost imperceptibly, and will account for 90% of all CTS sales. I averaged 21.1 mpg on the recommended premium fuel.
HANDLING: With the base suspension and standard 16-inch wheels, the CTS handles fairly well for a such a large car. There is a noticeable amount of body lean in tight turns, and much of the 3,500+ pounds can be felt in tight low-speed corners. Conversely, with the Luxury Sport package, the CTS is rewarded with firmer steering, better grip in tight corners, and less body lean in rapid changes of direction. My test CTS with the 17-inch wheels had impressively strong brakes.
RIDE: The base suspension soaks up road imperfections like a full-size luxury car... which it is not! With the optional Luxury Sport package, the ride becomes noticeably stiffer, but is never harsh. For a sport sedan, in general, the ride is actually a little TOO calm.
RELIABILITY: My test CTS with the 5-speed manual made a "rattling" noise when placed into top gear. Other than that, no mechanical flaws. General Motors are more reliable than most other American automakers but usually cannot even compare to Japanese competitors in that respect.
VALUE: Although the CTS is fun-to-drive, it feels and looks more like a luxury car than the sport sedan Cadillac tries to market it as. The styling is quirky, but after a while is easier to live with. The CTS is very well-equipped with standard features for the price. Although a sub-$30,000 base price looks attractive, nicely-equipped CTS's will cost nearly $36,000, and fully-loaded, just over $40,000.