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Finally, a premium American sedan for serious drivers

by mkaresh:      Feb 19, 2002 - Updated Aug 1, 2005

Product Rating: 4.0 Recommended: Yes 

Pros: Handling, distinctive styling that makes a strong statement, base price
Cons: Option pricing, no temperature gauge, glove compartment hits passenger's shins, rear seat a bit cramped
The Bottom Line: Finally, a premium American sedan for serious drivers. Light on luxury, the CTS is all about sport. Except with the manual transmission, which oddly makes the car feel less energetic.

For decades, Cadillac was the leading seller of luxury cars in North America. Its lead began to slip when its cars were downsized in the 1980s, turning off the brand’s traditional customers, and the new designs failed to win over new customers. In subsequent attempts to appeal to both old and new customers, it became unclear what a Cadillac was anymore. A couple of years ago, Cadillac finally lost its lead position, and fell not only a notch or two but all the way to fifth. It has become questionable whether Cadillac, which sells nearly all of its cars in the U.S., can even afford to compete with companies like Mercedes and BMW. These German companies sell a substantial number of cars in every major market worldwide, and thus have far more sales to fund the development of new technologies and models. In what may be a final test of the brand’s viability, General Motors has committed billions of dollars to the development of a new line of Cadillacs that it hopes will meet with worldwide success. The first car in this new line-up, the CTS, went on sale in January. My father was in town for the weekend, and together we took one for a test drive to gauge GM’s chances of rescuing a great brand.

Note: A number of revisions were made for 2004. My review of the results can be found here.

Cadillac CTS Reliability

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Exterior Styling

Realizing the dire nature of Cadillac’s situation, GM has cast caution to the winds with the CTS. It has forgone the safe route in favor of a design that makes a strong statement and that cannot fail to be noticed. For inspiration it returned to a source from the past, one that reflects American strength and international leadership: fighter aircraft. This does not mean a return of the scoops and fins of the fifties. Retro may be hot right now, but there is nothing even remotely retro about the new Cadillac design, except perhaps on a meta level in terms of the source of inspiration. GM wanted a design that reflected the future, not the past, and no aircraft looks more futuristic or makes a stronger design statement than the F-117 “stealth” fighter—even though this aircraft does not actually represent the future of fighter design as second generation stealth designs are much more streamlined. The F-117’s sharply intersecting planes and awkward, even jarring proportions have been effectively translated into automotive form with the new CTS. Few will find the resulting design beautiful, but many will nevertheless be attracted to the strength of the statement it makes if my father and I are any indication.

I personally applaud the marketing guts this design required. Many buyers in this market segment are women. The CTS’s predecessor, the Catera, was actually aimed at women. Women tend to prefer smooth, organic forms. For this reason, I suspect many will dislike the look of the CTS. As a rule, fighter-plane-based styling is masculine, even when based of streamlined aeronautical designs. The “stealth fighter” look of the CTS, with its rejection of harmony and smooth surface transitions, takes this to the extreme. This is easily the most masculine luxury sedan design on the road today. It is the un-Jaguar at a time when even formerly angular BMW has gone smooth and round. GM’s gamble is that enough people will be attracted by the distinct look that it will not matter that many potential buyers will be turned off by it. I believe this gamble will pay off. My main concern is that this theme may not age well, and that in a couple of years it may look hopelessly dated. If this concerns you, lease it.

In lighter colors, the CTS’s flat surfaces can look a bit plain. The CTS in the ads is silver, a poor choice. This car looks much better in the dark colors, especially the black and the blue.

A final note on the exterior styling: like the Audi A6 and many other current designs, the new CTS is a tall car. (To read my reviews of related vehicles, click on the blue hyperlinks.) Unlike most others, however, the angular styling not only does not strive to hide this, but accentuates it. As a result, the standard 16” wheels look undersized. Even the 17-inch wheels, not even found on sedans until the last couple of years, look just adequate within such tall, shear fenders. These wheels are only available as part of the $3,500 “luxury sport” package. More on this later.

Interior Styling

Quite often when a car’s exterior design is radical the interior styling remains quite conventional. After all, the interior is much more “in the owner’s face.” It’s much more important that people feel comfortable with it. In a similar fashion, homes that often appear radical from the outside are traditionally furnished. It’s public face vs. living space.

Cadillac has not taken this route. Unlike, say, the Audi A6, the interior is just as radical as the exterior, in terms of both style and materials. Much of the dash and door panels are covered with soft-touch vinyl that possesses a unique cross-hatch texture. The center stack of the dash, styled to resemble a tower-style PC, is very prominent. It stands very tall, and protrudes a few inches from the rest of the dash, with a bit of a cant toward the driver. Some front passengers will find it overly obtrusive. As with the exterior, contrasts are sharp and sharp edges abound. Again, the intent is to appear futuristic, and again the styling succeeds on this count. Once again, few will find it beautiful, but no one will find it common or boring, and many will be attracted by the strength and distinctiveness of the statement being made. You know you are in a unique car based on what you can see from the driver’s seat.

Gauges are one of the things I pay a great deal of attention to. The CTS’s are almost perfect. The gauge graphics strongly resemble those of the Chevrolet Corvette, especially when the yellow backlighting is on at night. The unique font borrowed from the Corvette is refreshing. Too many cars, even too many luxury cars, use a plain, boring font. The original Infiniti Q45 broke with this un-fashion, and this was one of the things I especially liked about that car. But when that car failed, Nissan figured that everything about it failed, and chucked this inexpensive means of lending a car character. In the CTS’s case, the use of Corvette-style gauge graphics successfully communicates that this truly is a serious driver’s car.

Frankly, the entire interior is making this statement. As a unit it looks and feels, with its cockpit ambiance, purposeful and serious. More so than that of any current BMW sedan, this interior oozes sportiness far more than it does luxury. In fact, my father and I agreed that it did not really feel luxurious at all—and that we did not care. Like I said, GM is taking some risks with this car. They have consciously designed an interior for a car in the near-luxury segment that does not look or feel particularly luxurious, gambling that the strong statement being made will win more sales than it loses. Remember, people only buy a car if it’s their favorite. A car that manages to be everyone’s #2 sells to no one. Better to be #1 for 20% of the market and #10 for the rest.

Alas, I said the gauges are “almost perfect.” I do have one fairly large issue with them: instead of a temperature gauge, useful for assessing when the engine is warm enough to push it a bit without shortening its life, Cadillac has included an analog clock. WHY? First of all, what is an analog clock doing in such a futuristic interior? Second, it’s not even an attractive clock. The red hands are short and thick, lending it the appearance of a cheap analog alarm clock from the 1970s. Or does it remind me of the timer on an oven in an old apartment? Either way, I know I’ve seen a clock that looked very much like this one before, and it’s simply not an elegant design. Third, does the clock even warrant such a prominent location in a serious driver’s car?

I implore Cadillac to make a quick and easy running change to the car. Put the temperature gauge back. As it stands, you cannot even learn the engine temperature from the multi-function, badly named DIC (driver information center). There’s a reason every other car that has a tach also has a temperature gauge—serious drivers want to know when the engine is warm, and when it is getting too warm. Make the clock digital, and put it somewhere else, anywhere else. If someone really wants it in the gauge cluster, put a digital clock in the tach that matches the digital odometer in the speedometer.

GM cars are often criticized for interior materials that look and feel cheap. Overall the CTS does okay if not stellar here. My father, a Lexus owner, did not think anything looked or felt cheap. (The Lincoln LS interior did not fare nearly as well in his evaluation.) All of the surfaces on the dash and doors are soft-touch vinyl—none of the hard stuff. That said, the pebbly-surfaced vinyl on the doors looks like it is hard plastic, even though it is not. (A similar material is on the doors in the Saturn VUE.) This is a first for me, a material that looks hard but is soft. Usually it’s the other way around. Either way, I don't like the look of these door panels, and suspect they will be part of the upgraded interior coming next year.

A final note on perceived quality: The doors do not make a high-quality sound when closing. They sound much like those on any other GM product. Given all of the attention given this factor in the industry press for the past two decades, you would think GM’s engineers would do something to match the Europeans in this area.


When I first saw photos of the CTS months ago, I noted the height of the hood and front fenders, and feared that this would result in a poor driving position, one in which the driver felt buried in the car. Gladly, this is not quite the case. Although I would personally like a lower cowl and beltline (base of windshield and side windows), with the seat raised a touch the driving position is passable. I could see out well enough to feel connected with what was going on, and not buried in the car. Update: After a second test drive I found the driving position even more agreeable—it seems to be growing on me.

The largest issue with the driving position for many people will probably be the tilt wheel. Unlike others in this class, this tilt wheel is manually adjusted in steps. The problem with this is that for many people none of the detents will be “just right.” For my father and me, the second lowest was too low, while the one above it was a bit high. Pay attention to this during the test drive.

The front seats are both comfortable and supportive. They are firm without being hard, and the bolsters are shaped and spaced such that they should hold both narrow and wide bodies in place. In hard driving I slid a touch, but never felt I was pushing through the bolster.

Although the CTS is not a small car, being roughly the size of an Audi A6, BMW 5-Series,or Lexus GS, due to the interior styling it does feel tighter inside than the specifications suggest. Overall this is a good tight (at least for the driver), one that again communicates that this is a driver’s car, one that makes you feel connected to the machine.

There are, however, some instances of bad tight. For example, when someone is seated in the front passenger’s seat the glove compartment only opens an inch or so before hitting them in the shins. This makes it awkward and just downright difficult to use. Could GM really not package the passenger side of the dash more efficiently? This issue aside, interior storage space in the glove compartment and center console is passable, but not great. There is at least much more of it than can be found in the Lincoln LS.

My father noted that the center console storage does not include a power outlet so a phone can be stored in it plugged in, a feature he appreciates in his Lexus GS. Cadillac, unlike BMW and Mercedes, also does not offer an integrated phone that can be used with the provider of your choice. The integrated phone, which appears to be analog, only works with On-Star, and its calling plans are very expensive.

The second instance of “bad tight” concerns rear seat room. Although the seat itself is well-shaped and comfortable, at least for two people, there is not much leg and head room. People taller than me (5-9) will have to scrunch a bit. I was a bit surprised by this, given the car’s long wheelbase and generous height.

At 12.8 cubic feet, the trunk is not large, but it is usefully shaped, and the hinges are of the fancy, non-luggage-crunching variety. A fold-down rear seat is a $300 option. I wish the size of the resulting pass-through were larger, but I personally use this feature often enough in my current cars to want it in any sedan I own in the future.

On the Road

Sitting still the CTS looks and feels like a driver’s car. Does it deliver on this promise? The first thing I noticed once in motion was the sound of the engine. Sourced from GM of Europe, the CTS’s 220 horsepower 3.2 liter sounds nothing like GM”s other DOHC V6, the 215 horsepower 3.5 found in the Intrigue and Aurora. I was quite disappointed when I drove those Oldsmobiles because the 3.5 sounds much like American engines traditionally have, with a great deal of intake and exhaust roar and little in the way of the sophisticated mechanical sounds that often emanate from the engines of the best imports. Aurally, the CTS mill delivers. It sounds much the way Mercedes engines used to sound before Mercedes sought to compete with Lexus. Like the rest of the car, the CTS’s engine does not seek to be quiet. Except when cruising, where it is thankfully hushed, this engine makes itself heard, and the largely mechanical noises it makes reinforce the pervasive sense that this is a driver’s car. Though I continue to have a hard time reconciling the character of these sounds with the Cadillac name, they definitely lend character to the car, and add to the driving experience.

Pleasing noises aside, the current engine is just adequate for this class of car when paired with the automatic. Even though this automatic is a five speed—it’s about time, GM—and thus first gear can be shorter, off the line the powertrain feels a bit soft in the all-too-typical European manner. Once over 15 MPH it never quite feels weak, and the flow of power is actually impressive when passing at highway speeds. Still, more low-end torque would be nice, and this engine generally fails to get the adrenaline pumping. The manual transmission should help here. Sadly, one was not available for a test drive. I personally prefer a manual, and hope to test such a car soon.

Let’s face it, we are living in an age when the lighter, much less expensive Nissan Altima is available with a 240 horsepower engine. Cadillac, in response, points out that the BMW 330I and Mercedes C320 are equipped with similarly powerful engines. However, though these cost about the same (actually, a bit more) they are smaller, somewhat less heavy cars. (Okay, the Audi with quattro is heavier.) Similarly sized cars include the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, and Lexus GS. In the case of each of these, the best selling model does have a similarly powerful six, one that competently moves the car but doesn’t exactly thrust the driver into the seatback. However, in each case more powerful engines are available.

To its credit, GM is aware of this competitive situation. The current 3.2 will be replaced by an all-new, 255-horsepower 3.6 liter six in the summer of 2003. For the 2004 model year, a roughly 400-horsepower V8 borrowed from the Corvette will be available in an AMG-type sport model. I welcome the additional power of these engines. Still, I fear they will not sound as nice.

GM may have finally made a five-speed automatic available in one of its cars, but it still does not offer a manual-shift feature. Though I am not sure how much people use these, even Kia offers such a feature these days. Some potential buyers are going to be disappointed.

A fairly large number of people who think they are serious enthusiasts gauge a car by its acceleration. I’m not one of these people. I believe that the most important element of a car, considerably more important than how it accelerates, is how it handles. Cadillac has been touting the handling of the CTS, stressing over and over how the suspension was developed on the world’s most challenging race track, Germany’s Nurburgring. I personally discount such PR. I don’t care where it was developed. The proof is in how the car drives when I am at the wheel.

Shockingly, given how often GM has disappointed me in the past, the CTS generally measures up to its PR. After years of trying to make front-wheel-drive work in a sports sedan, and never quite measuring up to the competition in the chassis dynamics department as a result, GM designed a balanced rear-wheel-drive chassis from scratch for the CTS. (The same chassis will be used for many future Cadillacs, including an X5-ish SUV and a Seville replacement). This chassis really does handle extremely well. It feels balanced at all speeds. It manages to both respond crisply and immediately to steering inputs and feel stable while going straight. It feels alive.

The “luxury sport package” includes variable assist steering. I am not always a fan of such systems. In the CTS’s system, the level of assist varies by road speed. I much prefer such a system to the more common engine-speed based setup because effort does not vary erratically. (See the Acura TL-S for an especially erratic variable assist system.) At parking lot speeds, the CTS’s steering is very light. Combined with a very tight turning circle, this makes navigating tight turns effortless. While driving through the sub at about 30 MPH (my sub has some nice curves) the steering still feels a touch on the light side. At 40 and up, however, the level of assist becomes flat-out perfect, firm and communicative without ever requiring an uncomfortable amount of effort. At highway speeds you feel directly connected to the road.

Once upon a time GM sedans with performance pretensions invariably rode terribly. Not so with the CTS. Road surfaces in my part of Michigan resemble some of the sorriest teenage faces, yet the CTS never reacted sharply except a couple of times at parking lot speeds. Generally, the ride felt firm yet supremely composed, even with the lower profile performance tires that come with the 17” wheels. These tires, Goodyear Eagle RS-As, are the same model on my wife’s Oldsmobile Intrigue. Even though hers are 60-series tires and these are 50s, the CTS rides considerably better, with much less jitteriness over minor road imperfections. The effect borders on the magical. It’s the sort of thing that Detroit believed was impossible just a few years ago.

The brakes are firm, linear, and powerful. Braking response perfectly matches pedal effort ant travel.

Update: In my third CTS test drive I managed to drive a manual. Sadly, I found this car considerably less satisfying to drive than the automatic. The transmission itself is not a problem. The feel of the stick is pretty good, nicely mechanical, light but not too light. I just wish the throws were a bit shorter and the stick itself was mounted a bit further forward. In its current position 2nd and 4th forced my arm rearward just short of the point of discomfort, and I position the seat further rearward than most people.

The real problem is with the engine. The automatic somehow masked a lack of mid-range torque. With the manual, the engine felt soft until over 4000 RPM, and then the sounds it made approaching the redline were hardly invigorating. In normal driving, shifting where it felt most comfortable, at about 3500 RPM, upshifts put the engine well out of its power band. In short, this powertrain felt lazy around town and also didn’t beg me to push it. While the acceleration numbers look competitive, I care more about how a car feels, and here this powertrain feel short. Compared to the automatic CTS, the manual felt listless. A manual BMW, especially a 330i, feels and sounds better. Hopefully next year’s engine will fix these issues.

A final problem I noticed in this test drive is that the tires squeal far too easily in moderately hard turns. I prefer my tires to remain silent until near the limit, so as to avoid disapproving stares.

Overall, I’d only give the manual CTS three stars, one less than the automatic.

A Couple of Quibbles

Sadly, all is not perfect with the CTS’s handling. In aggressive driving, the automatic hunted between gears a bit despite its performance-oriented programming. It generally did this in the middle of turns. Not appreciated. Simple fix: Get the manual.

The other problem with the car’s handling took me a second test drive to sort out. In aggressive turns I would feel power cut to the engine, killing all the joy. At first I suspected the stability control (anti-skid) system, “Stabilitrak” in GM-speak. After all, the DIC announced: “The stability system has been engaged, press clear to continue.” (There was no need to press clear—the message went away after a couple of seconds.) This was bad news, since this system cannot be disabled. The only way to get rid of it is to not get the luxury sport package, but that would also mean no 17” wheels and no sport-tuned suspension.

Luckily, a little reading of the brochure implied that Stabilitrak only operates the brakes. I felt engine power being cut, so the traction control (which keeps the drive wheels from spinning under acceleration) must also have been coming into play at the same time. (If it comes into play alone, it gets its own DIC message—hence my confusion when it operated unannounced in conjunction with Stabilitrak.) It was not immediately evident how to disable the traction control. The button is located very inconveniently in the hard to access glove compartment. Luckily, there are four programmable buttons on the steering wheel, and one of the things they can be programmed to do is nix the traction control. I took a second test drive, cycling the traction control on and off, and found that this fixed the problem. No more did I have to feel like a dog seeking to leap a fence, only to be yanked back by a tether. Judging from the frequent message on the DIC, the Stabilitrak was still coming into play often, but it works fairly transparently. Unlike traction control, it does not significantly and abruptly alter the balance of the chassis. I also managed to find a patch of ice, and took some moderate throttle turns across it. Here the Stabilitrak worked amazingly well. I was very impressed. Lesson: Program one of those buttons on the steering wheel to turn off the traction control. It can definitely be useful in some situations, but in aggressive driving it tends to kill the joy.


For quick, up-to-date new car pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass.

The following dates from when the review was originally written:

For a serious driver, there are two ways I can see ordering this car. One is to load it up, which you pretty much have to do if you want the 17” wheels. This brings the tab to about $37,000 with a stick.

What else can be had for $37,000? A Lincoln LS is about the same size and costs about the same, but makes a much weaker design statement, and is not nearly as rewarding to sit in or drive. I once drove an LS with a manual, and the stick felt totally out of place in the car. A large part of the problem was that the Lincoln’s interior is just plain blah. It’s about me-too near-but-not-quite luxury, not serious driving. If Lincoln wants to begin to match the CTS, it had better develop a more driver-oriented interior that includes more heavily bolstered seats.

European competitors (Audi A4 and A6, BMW 3-Series and 5-Series, Mercedes C-Class and E-Class, Jaguar X-Type and S-Type) are either smaller, considerably more expensive, or both. (The CTS is sized like the midsized Europeans, but priced much like the compacts.) The Acura TL-S and Infiniti I55 are somewhat less expensive, and possess considerably more power, but do not handle nearly as well. They appeal to those who salivate over specs, but not to true drivers. The Lexus IS 300 is much tighter inside, and pulls off the “different with an attitude” thing much less well. Overall, the CTS offers a combination of attitude, handling prowess, and interior space that cannot be matched by any car under forty grand. At least not until the blandly styled but nicely spec’d Infiniti G35 appears in the spring—I look forward to testing that car.

As decent as the CTS seems at $37,000, getting the sport suspension and 17” wheels involves also getting a pricey $3,500 option package that includes many things the average enthusiast will not care to pay so much for. A compass in the mirror and a built-in three channel garage door opener? I could personally do without them. The few touches of wood are nice, but how much are they costing me? Ditto the power passenger seat. You have to order a pricey option package to get the sunroof (itself pricey at $1,100—even if it does have a nice VW-type rotary control), the Bose stereo with in-dash CD changer ($1,275), or the fold-down rear seat ($300). Some people are not going to be happy with this system. You’re forced to buy virtually every option to get a few of them, and the options are not nearly as attractively priced as the base car.

Given this situation, I can see some serious enthusiasts deciding that all they really want is larger wheels, ordering the CTS without options, and using the savings to buy aftermarket 18s or even 19s. Judging from the amount of air around even the 17s, I suspect much larger wheels will fit. The resulting car might not handle quite as well, because it will lack the sport suspension, but it would look better and cost about five grand less.

Update: Cadillac apparently thought the options were not pricey enough, as they have raised the prices. The Luxury and Luxury Sport Packages make even less sense at $2,250 and $4,050, respectively. And that fold down rear seat is now $450. You still have to buy one of the pricey packages to get any option other than the automatic transmission. Clearly, they're trying to sell as few of these as possible anywhere near the heavily advertised base price (still $29,990).

Last Words

It has its faults, but overall the CTS is a surprisingly good car. Virtually everything about this car says this is a car for serious drivers, not just pretenders who really only want a prestigious brand, pampering luxury, and a comfortable seat. Unlike with the Lincoln LS, a great chassis has not been burdened with exterior and interior styling meant to appeal to everyone. It took a lot of guts to create such a car, and I cannot help but like it—a lot. I’m still having trouble deciding how elements such as the German-sounding engine and Corvette-type instrument graphics come together to form an integrated new Cadillac character, but there is a great deal of character here, and I suspect my perception of Cadillac could migrate accordingly in later models follow a similar pattern.

Perhaps most surprising, my father, a devoted Lexus owner, loved this car. He liked how it looked, and especially how it drove. He wished the seats in his GS 400 were bolstered this well, and that his car’s chassis and steering were this much fun to exercise. Suddenly his car felt a bit soft in some ways, and not soft enough in others (he hates his tires). He also noted the CTS’s value, remarking that he could just about buy the well-optioned car we drove with the lease residual of his GS 400.

To learn more about my reliability research and sign up to participate in it, or to perform thorough, up-to-date new car price comparisons, visit www.truedelta.com. A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews can be found on my profile page.
Amount Paid (US$): 39000
Model and Options: Luxury Sport Package, sunroof, automatic
Product Rating: 4.0
Recommended: Yes 

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