Cadillac's recent comeback has to rank right up there with the 2004 Boston Red Sox winning the World Series after an 86-year dry spell. And the Cadillac STS is the latest vehicle to prove it.
Fact is, it's a miracle Cadillac survived the 1980s, when the company stained its reputation with a string of disasters, such as the variable-displacement V8-6-4 engine and the Chevy Cavalier-based Cimmaron.
Once known as the Standard of the World, Cadillac is again producing some solid product. Case in point: the Cadillac SRX, which recently won our midsize luxury V8 SUV comparison test against such class faves as the BMW X5 4.4i and Mercedes-Benz ML500.
Cadillac's latest effort, the rear-wheel-drive STS luxury sport sedan, is looking to woo customers away from the Lexus LS 430, Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series. And it has the hardware to do so. It looks good on paper and, more importantly, it feels good on the road. It's all here, and it's wrapped up in signature styling that unabashedly states, "I'm a Cadillac, and proud of it."
It Can Dance if It Wants to
If you still think a Cadillac handles like an ocean-going vessel, you're living in the past. The 2005 Cadillac STS comes with an independent, sport-tuned suspension with performance shocks and automatic rear leveling.
Our test car had the optional Magnetic Ride (MR) suspension, which is included in the Premium Luxury Group and the Luxury Group option packages, both of which list for over $8,000. It offers two modes, Touring and Performance, and works by automatically changing the damping force by electrically charging particles in the shocks' hydraulic fluid. When charged, the fluid's viscosity increases and firms up the suspension, when discharged the viscosity decreases and softens the ride.
In practice, it's all transparent and it works. Attack your favorite road and MR tightens up the STS' shocks instantly to provide more response.
Initially, we left the STS in the Touring mode, which provides a cushy ride and composed handling. The Cadillac STS dives into the turns with unwavering composure and never felt sprung too softly.
We even tested the STS at the track in this mode, where it posted an impressive 61.5 mph speed through the slalom, falling between an E500 (59.9 mph) and a BMW 530i (63.9 mph).
We assume an STS fitted with the optional Performance Handling package, which is essentially 18-inch wheels and high-performance tires, would handle even better.
Switching to the Performance mode brought to light one of the Caddy's ergonomic downfalls. To switch modes, you must wade through various prompts on the multiuse navigation screen and ultimately pick the desired suspension setup under "Occupant Info." Yeah, made no sense to us, either.
In the Performance setting, the handling was a little sharper and the ride a bit stiffer, but the STS handles so well in Touring we question the necessity of the two settings. Overall, this large car feels three-fourths its size when driven with enthusiasm, yet it rides like a luxury car when you're spinning up the miles on the highway.
A quartet of big disc brakes keeps all that kinetic energy in check. At the track we recorded a 120-foot stopping distance from 60 mph, a number we'd more associate with a compact sport sedan than with a two-ton luxury cruiser. Coming down out of our favorite twisty canyon roads off the Pacific Coast Highway, there was no brake fade from the stout binders.
Our only complaint with the STS' dynamics is with the steering, which is too light and lacks road feel. However, there is a ZF Servotronic II variable assist system that's included in the Premium Luxury Group that promises more communication.
Carrying a Big Stick
The 320-horsepower, 4.6-liter V8 in the STS packs a helluva punch. Sure, the raw stats are impressive, zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds and the quarter in 14.4, but the way the power is delivered is even more so. At any speed, nailing the gas pins you to the seat, and the subdued growl is at once aggressive and refined.
The Benz E500 is quicker still, 5.8 seconds and 14.2 seconds, but the Cadillac pulls away from an LS 430.
The intelligent five-speed automatic transmission delivers quick yet seamless gear changes, and works just fine when left on its own. When you're feeling sporty, however, you can change gears yourself, after moving the shifter in a separate gate to the right.
Like the old Hurst "His and Hers" ratchet shifters from the '60s, you flick the lever up to upshift and back to downshift, but there's an annoying delay from the instant you move the shifter to when the shift occurs.
The Cadillac STS makes a great road trip companion. The heated and cooled seats are roomy yet supportive and the cabin is hushed at freeway velocities. Even the grooved concrete slabs of L.A.'s 405 freeway don't ruin the tranquility within the car.
With its Eucalyptus wood trim, handsomely stitched leather and waterfall-style center stack, the STS' inner sanctum looks and feels top shelf. One editor even compared it to the LS 430. However, we were still able to ferret out a few small defects such as an unfinished edge near the nav screen that you might catch your finger on.
A generous wheelbase measuring 116.4 inches, which is longer than its rivals, promises that rear passengers in an STS have plenty of room. Rear legroom trumps the space in a 5 Series and E-Class and even edges out the spacious LS 430.
On the other hand, at 13.8 cubic feet the luggage capacity falls a bit short of the Germans and is shamed by the enormous 20.2 cubes of the Lexus.
Plenty of Gizmos
What would a Cadillac be without its bells and whistles? How about heated seats front and rear? Don't know where to set your intermittent wipers? No worries with the STS' Rainsense wipers that automatically adjust their speed. And for old times' sake, there are automatically dimming headlamps, which Caddy has had since the 1950s.
Most of the luxury features are easy to use, with the exception of the confounding memory setting procedure for the driver seat, mirrors, radio and climate controls. In most cars, a driver sets the memory by adjusting everything to his liking and then pressing a couple of buttons on the door, dash or console.
Not in the STS.
Like the suspension modes, you must dive deep into the nav screen to set the memory. Trust us, you're not going to figure it out by just looking around. To set the memory in the STS you must hit a button marked "config" on the audio system and then click on nearly a half-dozen buttons in sequence through the nav screen. Frustrating, but if you owned the car, you wouldn't have to do it often.
In years past, when comparing American luxury cars against those of Germany or Japan, the home team always seemed to fall down in the areas of dynamic balance and overall quality. The STS does not. Apart from a few minor ergonomic glitches, the STS is strong in all the areas that matter in this high-brow segment: performance, style, comfort and luxury.
With pricing ranging from the low 40s for the 255-hp V6 model to the low 60s for the V8 with all-wheel drive, it looks like the all-star Cadillac STS is going to cover all the bases.
System Score: 9.0
Components: This Bose "5.1 Studio Surround Sound" system is top of the line. The "5.1" refers to the fact that the sound is reproduced through six channels (five plus an ultralow frequency one delivered via a subwoofer).
No less than 15 speakers disperse the sound, including four "personal" speakers located next to the driver and front-passenger headrests, a pair of tweeters on the ends of the dash, a subwoofer on the rear shelf and eight full-range units mounted in the doors, rear shelf, center dash and behind the center console.
A six-disc CD/DVD changer, XM radio and a navigation system are all part of the "Luxury Performance" package our STS had. Like many cars fitted with a nav system, the audio controls are a combination of hard buttons on the center stack and touch "buttons" on the screen. Auxiliary controls on the steering wheel make adjusting volume, changing modes or changing stations/tracks as easy as beeping the horn.
Performance: There is a lot of everything with this system — power, clarity, separation, even versatility. Pop in a 5.1-compatible CD and you'll think you're in the recording studio or even the mosh pit, depending on your musical tastes. If you like to crank up the hard rock, it can handle it as the highs will stay crisp even as the bass thumps you in the chest. Play the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" on this system and you'll see what we mean.
The speakers next to the front headrests help fill out the soundstage, and folks in the back don't get second fiddle treatment as they also enjoy the full sonic spectrum this system is capable of producing.
Although it's an excellent system, the flawless Mark Levinson system found in the Lexus LS 430 just edges it out when you get really crazy with the volume knob.
A great feature of this system is that it allows you to play virtually anything you've got: CDs, DVDs (audio and video), MP3 CDs and CDs/DVDs you've made yourself (CD/DVD-ROM and CD/DVD-R). To play a DVD, the car must be in Park, not a bad idea.
Best Feature: The wide range of entertainment choices — XM radio, various CD and DVD audio options and DVD movies.
Worst Feature: The combination of hard buttons and screen controls takes getting used to.
Conclusion: Bose pulled out all the stops with this system, and the result is a versatile package that should please the pickiest audiophiles. — John DiPietro
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
I'm starting to sound like a broken record (or skipping CD for those born after 1990) when I talk about a new GM product, but here goes.
Cadillac's new STS is a tremendous improvement over the previous version. As with the CTS (which uses the same platform), this one feels stable during spirited driving but comfortable when simply cruising at highway speeds. Most car designers understand that if you start with a solid platform you can tune the suspension to handle a much broader range of circumstances. The level of both comfort and performance exhibited by the STS confirms this thinking.
Unfortunately, the STS' appealing driving dynamics can't quite overcome a combination of questionable interior materials and laborious ergonomics. For instance, my first interaction with the navigation system ended in a minor scrape of my finger as I dragged my digit across a sharp (but unseen) edge located just below the screen. Similarly unfinished edges were found on the perimeter of the steering wheel cover and on the lower part of the shifter gate plastic. When it came time to adjust the seat memory, I basically gave up and just dealt with resetting the seat's position every time I started the car.
I know Cadillac is aiming for Lexus these days, and for sheer driving pleasure GM's wreath-and-crest division has beaten Toyota's upscale division. But in the areas of materials quality and interior controls, it missed the target. Who would have guessed, right?
Photography Editor Scott Jacobs says:
Cadillac has seemingly awoken from its recent product slumber. Its products sport a fresh look and are a blast to drive. The new STS is a prime example of this for me.
Touted as an exciting American Lexus, its chiseled good looks, powerful engine and stout suspension thrilled me as I powered through the twisty back country roads. The days of the boring wallowy luxo-boat are long gone, friends. Cadillac has got that spirited German feel dialed in.
While that feel and fun are the meat and bones of the beast, Cadillac is way off on the skin and coat. I was thoroughly disappointed with the cheap interior materials and lack of interior design flair. I'd be more than happy to pony up a few extra for upgraded interior materials and touches. With those simple improvements, this car would dominate the market.
If Cadillac is aiming to be the world standard again, it needs to aim higher. I guess it hasn't completely woken from that nap. It still needs to wipe the sleepiness from its eyes.
"This is the best car I have ever owned by any method of comparison. This is a real sports car, very high-performance package overall, very solid. Love the styling, auto starting, seat design, handling, engine performance and rear-wheel drive. The only possible improvements would be a six-speed stick (maybe next year) and a little more room in front seat, I'm 6' 4" and like legroom." — William G. Jonison, Oct. 2, 2004
"This is a fantastic ride. Great power, interior sound and build quality. It accelerates like a rocket and the Bose sound system is the best. The nav system is easy to use — well a lot easier than BMW's iDrive. I did not buy the active suspension because I could not tell the difference with my driving. I tried the V6 but no way, not enough oomph! I would like it to look more different than the CTS and more rear-seat legroom and better interior materials would be nice." — Sir Drive A lot, Sept. 29, 2004
"Accelerates like a Porsche. Rides like a Mercedes. Turns like a Miata. (I've owned) all those cars. Don't be fooled by made in USA. So many great features that I can't list them all. My only complaint is the backseat legroom is a little tight for some taller folks." — HWW, Nov. 17, 2004