Performance Pudding, Wherein the Proof Is Found
Forget everything you thought you knew about the Cadillac CTS sedan. While you're at it, rethink what you've come to expect from Cadillac and even General Motors, too. The 2008 Cadillac CTS is that good.
Cadillac has stopped trying to be German, something it is not. Instead it has rediscovered itself and produced a uniquely American sport sedan without peer. That's a bold statement for sure, but name another American car like the 2008 Cadillac CTS.
Since Bob Lutz took the title of vice chairman of product development and chairman of GM North America in 2002, he has been telling us that GM has a brain trust as capable as any European or Asian automotive brand. After five years of disappointments from other GM models, the 2008 Cadillac CTS is proof of his word.
Ringin' It Out (Part 2)
From the moment he returned from testing an early example of the 2008 Cadillac CTS at the Nürburgring's Nordschleife racetrack in Germany, our Dan Edmunds couldn't stop talking about his experience. "This thing is fun," he said. "The CTS lives up to everything you expect from a car developed at the Nürburgring." He was so enthusiastic, we wondered if he had spent too much time conducting field research into the Vorläufiges Deutsches Biergesetz (provisional German beer law) to properly judge the new CTS's attributes.
Now that the thoroughly revised Cadillac has reached dealerships, we got our hands on a production 2008 CTS with the 304-horsepower, direct-injection 3.6-liter V6. Its reasonable base price of $35,290 had swollen with $9,425 of options to $44,715 — a figure that made our eyes water. In retrospect, though, the price seems fair considering the benefits of all its features, some of which we've not seen on any car at any price.
This car carries the FE-3 designation, the most sporting of the CTS's three available combinations of steering, suspension and tires. This car combined it with the $3,300 PDR Performance Collection (basically a premium equipment pack), and the $1,240 Y43 package with 18-inch wheels and 235/55ZR18 Y-rated Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 summer tires, plus high-performance brakes. Other included options are the top-line infotainment system with a 40-gigabyte hard drive and XM Satellite Radio.
A Sticky Little Secret
This CTS's high-performance Michelin PS2 tires are standard equipment on some Porsches, and they have much to do with the way this car feels and performs.
There's so much tire grip that the V6's meager 273 pound-feet of torque can't generate any useful wheelspin in our acceleration tests, and a flat spot in the engine's torque curve between 3,000 rpm and 4,000 rpm further compromises our results. This car's 6.5-second run to 60 mph is 0.6 second slower than Cadillac's claim.
Our run through the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds at 94.6 mph also seems slower than what we'd expect from a 304-hp engine. Some of the explanation can be found in this car's as-tested weight of 3,990 pounds, 300 pounds more than comparable cars like the BMW 335i and Lexus IS 350.
Stickiness Has Its Advantages
The stickiness of the Michelin PS2s plays out far more effectively in our other dynamic tests.
While many cars of the CTS's mass and purpose come to a halt from 60 mph in something more than 120 feet, the CTS threw down a 109-foot stop — and it did so on its fifth attempt when the brakes were very hot. The tires did their job, as did the cast-iron front calipers (part of the Performance Braking option), which dissipate more heat than the standard aluminum calipers. We're also happy to report that the CTS's brake pedal is effective and communicative, from its initial application all the way to full-ABS situations. Can we get a hallelujah?
On the skid pad, the CTS circles with 0.85g of lateral grip. Even better, the car maintains its arc without steering input, which speaks eloquently of the balance of the chassis and the control of the suspension. There's a hint of understeer on the limit that becomes more pronounced as you go beyond it. With a little more power to break the rear tires loose, a little bit more performance could be had.
The 2008 Cadillac CTS really shines in the slalom. Lots of tire grip, effective chassis balance and steering that's both quick and precise all combine to produce a 67.0-mph performance. The car is neat and poised with a little bit of body roll, although it's not averse to lewd opposite-lock driving, even if this isn't the quickest way through.
With the makeover of the new car's chassis and suspension, the CTS has lost that heavy-footed feel that told you it was trying hard to be a German car.
You notice this particularly in the steering. To some, the effort feels too light, and lacks the heft many drivers confuse with sporty feel. But we're glad that Cadillac has instead delivered a delicate accuracy that you don't find in a BMW. There's nothing wrong with a low-friction, low-effort steering feel as long as the car itself steers with precision and communicative feel, just as the CTS does.
Out in the real world where there are mid-corner bumps and straightaway thumps, the CTS takes it all in stride. In downtown Los Angeles, the streets feature long-abandoned rail tracks and sloppy asphalt patch jobs all within a single city block, and yet the CTS remained thoroughly pleasant, despite its firm FE-3 suspension.
There's a whole new feel to the way the CTS goes down the road, as if the dampers are absorbing the bumps instead of just the tires. Initial tire impacts are mostly audible rather than felt. Suspension disruptions dissipate immediately rather than linger in secondary chassis motions. The well-isolated steering wheel never shudders and the tires always remain firmly planted on the ground.
Finding our way to and through the unfamiliar maze of downtown streets has never been so easy. While driving on the freeway at 70 mph, we were pleasantly alerted by a female voice that there was a traffic jam 2.5 miles ahead, and sure enough, the integrated XM real-time traffic service was spot-on. The CTS's hard-drive-based navigation system is so intuitive to use that we could plot destinations within minutes, and the display had three-dimensional renderings of the skyscrapers as close to Google Street View as we've seen in a navi system.
While the optional $3,145 audio system seems expensive, it includes an AM/FM radio with CD/DVD player and MP3 playback, Bose 5.1 surround sound, a 300-watt tuner with 10 speakers, radio data system, USB port and audio connectivity. And for those who know the difference between a symbiotic versus parasitic relationship, the CTS's iPod integration is the best we've ever seen.
When it comes to audio multitasking, the hard drive can be downloading the contents of a music CD while the system provides uninterrupted audio playback from the radio or digital music, and it does all this even as the iPod is being charged and the driver receives split-screen views of both the audio information and navigation data. Oh, and the car will display the current weather conditions — including an extended three-day forecast — and report traffic, hazard and weather conditions ahead on your programmed route. This is the first time this combination of weather forecasting and traffic information has been offered in a nav system.
Finally, like video DVR devices, the CTS's hard drive is capable of recording AM/FM/XM radio on a 60-minute rolling basis when driving or parked. Did you miss the name of that song or performer the DJ just announced? No problem; rewind and hear it again.
The mind-blowing infotainment system reminds us that Cadillac was the first to offer an electric starter, a production V8 engine, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, powered memory seats, auto-dimming high beams and even more. There was a time when people used to say "the Cadillac of Watches" when they were describing a Rolex, or "the Cadillac of Boats" when describing a Chris Craft. It's great to be reminded of those times.
The CTS's new interior treatment has a visual warmth, and interiors from BMW and Mercedes seem cold and austere in comparison, while a Lexus seems antiseptic. The Cadillac's all-new front seats are reasonably comfortable, but some of us begged for more thigh support.
There are a few curiosities, though. Why are the door pockets so small? Why is the manual-mode shift gate for the automatic toward the passenger's thigh rather than the driver's? Why are there no shift paddles on the steering wheel?
And then there are ergonomic casualties in the name of design priorities like the awkward rear-seat ingress/egress through what is effectively a triangular door. Or the slot-like trunk opening as a result of the ultra-short deck lid.
Standard for the World
This is the best Cadillac in 40 years. Sure, the direct-injection V6 is only adequate, but it's a great start. Even with the firmest FE-3 suspension package, the CTS proves GM knows how to walk the line between a compliant ride and ultimate handling.
The exterior styling may only be an evolution of the original CTS, but it's far more successful. It has a bolder stance and chic presence the previous car never did, even in CTS-V form. Meanwhile, the interior and mind-blowing infotainment system remind us of the time when Cadillac was called "The Standard of the World."
There's a flip side to the affirmation. The curse is that now that we've seen and experienced the exceptional 2008 Cadillac CTS, there can be no more excuses for mediocre vehicles from GM.
OK, General Motors, you've proved it once. Now the biggest challenge will be to do it again and again. That's how reputations are made.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Mike Magrath, Vehicle Testing Assistant, says:
I guess you could say I'm a pessimist. I find the faults with things first and then I gradually find the good points. So with the Caddy being a GM product, I went right for interior fit and finish. There are some things we hate, like the sharp-edged hood release lever and the clunk the hood makes when it pops open, but generally the CTS is pretty fantastic.
The best part of the car is the integration of the electronics on the center stack. All of the audio controls are exactly where you want them to be and you don't need to RTM to figure out anything. There are a ton of features and they're easy to use! Genius! The sliding touchscreen is pretty trick and syncs the whole thing together.
This is the best iPod integration I've ever used, and it makes the one in Mercedes-Benz models seem like a junior high programming project. There's still no easy way to find podcasts, and subfolders are not listed (though they are separated by black selection boxes). You'd have to scroll through all the songs to find the song on the 14th record. Finding artist or album is simple. And scrolling among songs/artists/etc. while driving is possible! Take that, Scion xB. Also GM ponied up the bucks to get one of the good audio systems from Bose (some are not) and you can hear it.
As a car, the performance felt like it all came from the tires, so the car would still be gripping fine when the chassis felt overwhelmed. And as good as it is, the CTS seems too big to be a small luxury toy and too small to be a big American sedan. The whole look is just too much — too big, too bright and too much chrome. Finally they make a car that screams Cadillac from the rooftops and it's just too much for me. Well, I'm an Audi guy, so I suppose it shows.