2003 Cadillac CTS First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Cadillac CTS Sedan

(3.2L V6 5-speed Manual)

Will This Car Make Cadillac A Contender?

The Cadillac CTS is built by a company whose vehicles used to be considered "the standard of the world." These days, cars from Germany and Japan battle for that title, while Cadillac sits on the sidelines, watching its market share plummet along with its prestige.

The CTS represents Cadillac's most determined effort yet toward reversing that trend. With a cutting-edge design and extensive development work on Germany's famed Nurburgring test track, this new entry-level sport sedan is aimed squarely at the class leaders in one of the industry's most competitive segments.

Having finally seen the car in person, we would agree that the revolutionary design is distinctive, if not pretty. Its European influence is obvious, with short front and rear overhangs and a slight rake. But the tall, bulldozer nose and thick, heavy-looking tail make the car look bigger and heavier than it really is.

Although intended to compete in the entry-level luxury sport sedan segment against cars like the BMW 3 Series, the 2003 Cadillac CTS is actually 2 inches longer than BMW's larger 5 Series sedan. Much like Lincoln does with its LS, Cadillac is going with the "we give you more for less" philosophy rather than battling the Europeans head-on with an identically sized package.

Despite its midsize proportions, the CTS comes equipped with hardware similar to its smaller European competitors'. The sole engine is a 3.2-liter V6 tuned to produce 220 hp and 218 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices are a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic — marking the first time a manual transmission has been offered in a Cadillac in decades.

An all-new rear-wheel-drive chassis underpins the car for more even weight distribution and improved stiffness. The suspension is a sophisticated fully independent design that uses the latest in high-tech materials to achieve maximum performance and comfort.

Only one model will be offered, but two options packages will allow customers to add varying levels of luxury and sport. Base models are well equipped with standard leather seating; front, side and head-curtain airbags; an eight-way power adjustable driver seat; dual-zone climate control; an AM/FM cassette stereo and CD player; the OnStar communications system; ABS; and traction control, all for a base MSRP of $29,990.

Upgrading to the Luxury package adds a power passenger seat, an audible theft-deterrent system, two-driver memory package, programmable garage door opener, electronic voice recorder and wood trim on the steering wheel, shift lever and door handles. Additional options include an upgraded Bose audio package with CD-ROM navigation, heated front seats, xenon headlamps, a power sunroof and machine finished aluminum wheels.

Those looking for the ultimate in handling and comfort will want to upgrade to the top-of-the-line Luxury/Sport package. This includes all the added features of the Luxury package along with a sport-tuned suspension, 17-inch wheels and tires, speed sensitive power steering, high-performance brake linings and the StabiliTrak stability control system.

We drove the Cadillac CTS in both Luxury and Luxury/Sport form in a variety of conditions. The first thing we noticed was how incredibly solid the car feels on the road. The stiff chassis and well-tuned suspension work brilliantly together, delivering plenty of feedback without ever feeling harsh or uncomfortable. The steering is precise with a solid on-center feel and a good balance of power assist. Although the sport model did feel a bit more capable during aggressive maneuvers, the Luxury model was still impressive and should have little trouble holding its own against any of its established competitors.

The V6 is adequate, but a few more horses would help make it a better complement to the supreme suspension. Although the engine is a heavily revised version of the 3.0-liter motor found in last year's Catera, it still has a long way to go to match the smoothness of BMW's silky sixes. The five-speed manual is light through the gates, but the shift detents are a little spongy and imprecise. The five-speed automatic delivered quick, clean shifts and rarely picked the wrong gear when pressed hard.

The well-bolstered front seats are exceptionally comfortable, with a good range of movement and articulating headrests, but the lack of lumbar adjustment is a bit disappointing. Interior materials are average, with decent-quality leather and plenty of soft-touch surfaces, but nothing overwhelmingly elegant. If Cadillac wants to steal customers away from BMW and Audi, it's going to need a more polished cabin than this.

The overall interior design is fairly simple, but its functionality is spotty. The climate control buttons are neatly arranged and logical, but the screen for the stereo is a mess of unsightly orange numbers and symbols. One side of the steering wheel features an easy-to-use thumb dial for volume control of the radio, but the other side confronts drivers with four numbered buttons that give no indication as to their function. They're probably handy once you get used to them, but they're far from intuitive.

As long as we're nit-picking, we could do without the trip meter integrated into the stereo display — leave it coupled to the odometer as it should be. Also, a clock is not a gauge, and therefore, should not be a major component of the gauge cluster. Cadillac reasoned that since cars rarely overheat anymore, a temperature gauge isn't necessary. Wrong. Regardless of a car's resistance to overheating, a temperature gauge that never moves is reassuring to drivers blazing through the desert when it's 110 degrees out.

One more thing, for a car so dependent on its outward appearance, you would think they would have tried a little harder in the wheel department. The "sport" wheels that you have to pony up a few extra grand to get are virtually identical to the ones that have come on the Seville for years. A nicely cut set of alloys would go a long way toward making the CTS the eye-catching image-maker that Cadillac is counting on.

Looking at the bigger picture, the Cadillac CTS is certainly a huge improvement over its predecessor, the lowly Catera. But is it good enough to take a significant bite out of the hotly contested entry-level luxury sport sedan market?

Its distinctive looks may draw a certain contingent of buyers who want something different, but its overall lack of elegance may push just as many away. As a sport sedan, it certainly excels, especially considering its size, but unfortunately, most buyers are more interested in style than substance. The interior is comfortable and features plenty of technology, but it lacks the sophisticated look that Audi and BMW have honed to perfection.

As a sign of things to come, the CTS is promising. Cadillac has nailed the handling, and it's not far off in the powertrain department either. A nip and tuck to the exterior and an upgrade to the interior, and the sedan would be giving the Europeans a run for their money. The standard of the world? The Cadillac CTS hasn't quite scaled those lofty heights, but it's on its way.

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