"I want to see everybody down at the cathedral with me tonight — praying." The Cadillac executive is nervous, and who can blame him? We're here in Germany to drive the all-new 2008 Cadillac CTS, and tomorrow he's going to turn us loose on the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the 12.9-mile, 73-corner racetrack through the forest of the Eifel Mountains.
Cadillac engineers spent countless hours on this very track massaging the suspension, six-speed manual transmission and direct-injected 3.6-liter V6 of the substantially revised 2008 Cadillac CTS, and now they're confident enough to show us the result.
Our friend the Cadillac executive is less certain about the drivers, however. When he asks whether any of us have been to the track before, only a couple of hands go up. Ours is not among them. The worry lines on his forehead deepen. If he only knew how many virtual cars we've wadded up on the Nürburgring while trying to take Flugplatz flat-out with our Xbox video-game console....
Just in case anything gets pranged against a guardrail, we spend a few moments memorizing the new sheet metal of the 2008 Cadillac CTS. The angular design language is familiar, as is the 113.4-inch wheelbase, but there are some important changes.
Dominating the front is a striking grille inspired by the Cadillac Sixteen concept car. A strategically placed duct below the bumper increases the grille's overall vertical impression, so it has the prominent look so popular among German cars.
Meanwhile, aggressive fender flares visually indicate the track is 2.0 inches wider than before, and the contrast between the flares and the unchanged dimensions of the body give the CTS a new, considerably tougher stance.
As a whole, there are more chrome details and a flush, finished look to the bodywork, evidence of a new spirit of refinement.
Ironing Out the Suspension
This substantial 2.0-inch track increase improves handling, as it's easier to manage body roll and weight transfer. The new ZF Servotronic steering forward of the axle (a packaging measure largely related to the availability of all-wheel drive) improves steering precision.
Extensive use of aluminum for the front suspension reduces unsprung mass and improves weight distribution, a worthwhile attribute for high-speed handling on the Nürburgring. There's a front strut tower brace, and the new Bilstein dampers incorporate rebound springs.
There are now three suspension grades offered for the CTS. Base FE1 models feature Michelin P235/55R17 all-season tires and modestly specialized tuning for the Bilstein dampers and the stabilizer bars. The FE2 model adds a limited-slip differential, P235/50R18 all-season tires and stiffer stabilizer bars. Once you step up to the FE3 package, there are bigger brakes, aggressive damper valving (the rears have a self-leveling feature) and Michelin Pilot Sport summer performance tires.
'Ringing It Out
It all looks good on paper, and our rear-wheel-drive CTS in FE3 trim works well on the graffiti-covered asphalt of the Nordschleife.
An endless stream of corners through the trees proves the accuracy of the CTS's steering. Directional changes are suitably quick, yet the rear end of the CTS never slews off line. At the limit, the CTS hints at understeer, but the car responds willingly to a lift of the throttle for midcorner course corrections.
But for track work, the steering effort still feels a little light, probably a legacy of Cadillac's past preference for low-effort refinement rather than high-speed precision.
Three driver-adjustable settings for the stability control (Normal, Competitive and Off) are available to suit either your mood or skill level. Competitive mode proved just fine for on-track hustling, and it only intruded when we drove the racing line around the famously banked ditch at the Carousel.
This thing is fun. The CTS lives up to everything you expect from a car developed at the Nürburgring. It's so good, we're thinking the chassis can handle much more power. It'll get it, too, when the 500-horsepower CTS-V debuts for 2009.
Speaking of Power
The 2.8-liter engine has been dropped from the lineup, so last year's port fuel-injected (PFI) 3.6-liter V6 carries over as the base engine, only now it makes 263 SAE-certified hp and 252 pound-feet of torque.
New for 2008 is a direct-injected (DI) version of the 3.6-liter V6 engine. Variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust cams and an 11.3:1 compression ratio help the new engine put out 304 SAE-certified hp, and 80 percent of the peak torque output of 273 lb-ft is available at 1,000 rpm. This engine feels stout, but there's no place on this winding circuit to verify Cadillac's claim of 5.9-second performance to 60 mph and a top speed of 155 mph.
The use of premium unleaded fuel plays a role in Cadillac's performance figures, but either V6 engine runs happily on regular. Official 2008 EPA mileage figures are unavailable, but Cadillac expects 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway from the new DI V6.
Six Speeds for Everyone
An Aisin-built six-speed manual transmission is the standard offering for the CTS. We found the shift throws somewhat long, though Cadillac notes that they're shorter than the previous manual transmission.
The 2008 CTS also makes available the quick-shifting, six-speed Hydra-matic 6L50 automatic. It can be manually controlled with a console-mounted shift lever, but shift paddles on the steering wheel aren't yet available.
A major addition to the CTS's lineup is the availability of all-wheel drive, a measure to make this car even more like the Euro sedans it competes against. The hardware comes from the Cadillac STS, which shares the CTS's basic platform architecture. The CTS AWD comes only with the 263-hp 3.6-liter V6 and a six-speed automatic, and there's a choice between FE1 and FE2 suspension calibrations and 17- or 18-inch all-season tires.
An autobahn blast shows the all-wheel-drive CTS to be comfortably stable up to its electronically limited top speed of 140 mph — and in a downpour, no less.
Inside, the 2008 CTS has a far more inviting cockpit, far from the cold, plastic-ridden treatment found in the current edition of the car. A new telescopic steering wheel improves the impression of spaciousness for the driver, while thinner front seatbacks improve legroom for rear-seat passengers.
The optional navigation system has a screen that retracts into the dash, but the top inch of the screen always remains visible as the primary display for audio and climate control, a real breakthrough in function for nav systems.
Infotainment options abound, and the navigation system's 40-gigabyte hard drive heads the list. You can store music on available hard drive space through a CD, MP3 or USB jacks, or a fully integrated iPod interface. AM/FM and satellite radio can be paused, rewound and resumed, just as if you were using TiVo.
For all the interior's overall goodness, however, the routine switchgear lacks the kind of tactile quality we'd prefer, while some of the chrome accents seem like low-grade plastic.
All Yours in August
Cadillac dealers expect to have the 2008 Cadillac CTS on the ground in late August. A 2008 Cadillac CTS with the 3.6-liter PFI V6 engine and a six-speed manual starts at $32,990.
The raciest version of the CTS with its direct-injected 306-hp V6, manual transmission and FE3 suspension starts at $36,970. We're told that a car like the one we sampled in Germany will hover in the low-to-mid-$40,000 range.
While the 2008 Cadillac CTS isn't likely to surpass the established Germanic thoroughbreds, it has grown into a more capable car with a vastly improved interior. Best of all, its well-sorted chassis doesn't fall to its knees when pushed hard.
Cadillac's investment at the Nürburgring seems money well spent.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.