What’s this? A Cadillac I like the look of? What’s going on?
Strange things indeed. Oh-so-US Cadillac has long spoken of being a BMW alternative, offering look-at-me impact for less shy and retiring types. But while the Art & Science styling theme had plenty of drama on the 1999 Evoq concept car, it’s always appeared a bit like cheap Christmas tree baubles in production. However, by evolving the theme to include the more organic element of – shock – contours between the straight lines, Cadillac may have hit on something. The all-new CTS, which arrives here in summer 2008, is certainly ostentatious - from the deep grille and chromed alloys, to the functional cast-metal wing vent and LED-packed vertical clear-lens tail lights. However, clean surfacing and better proportions (note the forward-set front wheels, the higher windowline and shallower glass) give it a well resolved look.
Hang on, this sounds promising. What’s this CTS all about, then?
You, like all but 450 people this year, have probably ignored Cadillac’s UK foray until now. A muddled marketing and retail strategy have done it no favours; what, exactly, is the point of the brand? It's not even registered on the radar of most UK car buyers. That’s what the CTS plans to sort out. A BMW 5-series rival for those after a more outgoing alternative, it’s essentially the bling choice of the executive car sector. Don’t be sniffy; there are plenty of successful people out there who want to show it. Understatement is not for them. The thing is, because they’re successful, they usually know what they’re talking about. Blind bling won’t do. It needs substance. That’s what Cadillac’s sought to achieve with the CTS.
OK, so why should I take Cadillac seriously now?
Well, it's now making big boasts about quality, not a word we'd normally associate with Caddy. The interior has a dash boasting a hand-stitched covering, something only normally found on posh Mercedes, while tolerances and tactility have been benchmarked against Audi. Do we believe them? It's a more credible claim than before, and production accuracy does appear miles better. The CTS also looks stylish, with cowled dials, an intentionally low scuttle (that’s why the sat nav screen is pop-up and the climate control dials are split) and lots of night-time white-LED lighting. But the cheap thunk of the doors and the creaky, spongy seats reveal this will still carry a sub-5-series price tag. At least predicted equipment levels are generous; the CTS won’t want for equipment, neither in circa-£28,000 entry level guise, nor £34-£35k range-topping form.
But Cadillacs are so spongy, their suspension never stops oscillating!
Very good. While it’s true that models past were squidgier than a silicone boob pack, Cadillac knows it needs a European feel. So it stationed itself at the Nurburgring with the rear-driven CTS, dodged the spy photographers and set to work. First big achievement out on the road: crisp, quick-reacting steering, that’s mirrored by an agile front end. The helm is over-light but little input is lost in translation, and the immediacy with which it turns in is genuinely surprising. As is the taut ride, which knobbles like no Cadillac has ever done. Think M Sport BMW, S line Audi. It's that good.
So it’s a dynamic surprise too, then?
The accuracy of the steering means it’s highly manoeuvrable, while there’s lots of grip and a tail that offers clarity, ESP off, under power. It’s the amount of vertical suspension movement that’s surprising; it’s quite nicely damped, well controlled and, on rougher roads, a refreshing alternative to the Germanic bump and thump. In this respect, it feels ‘American’, and if people get it, should be enough to make it distinct from those chasing the BMW ideal.
What engines behind that deep, distinctive grille?
There's no diesel power until 2009. The 2.9-litre V6 derv sounds promising, with 250bhp and 405lb ft of torque. But for now, it’s a 2.8-litre V6 petrol, or a much more hi-tech 3.6-litre V6, with direct injection, variable valve timing and, at 311bhp, the claim to be GM’s highest-output V6. It’s whisper-quiet at tickover, and serene at low engine speeds. It’s also peaky; real vigour comes between 4000-7000rpm, but although it becomes more vocal there, the noise remains anodyne, electro-V6, rather than something with real character. The six-speed manual feels like a lighter, floppier BMW shift, but almost nobody will buy it. The six-speed auto shifts crisply and smoothly, though the ‘learning’ logic behind the shift pattern seems a little slow to do so. At times on the test route, it was plain wrong – luckily, there’s a Tiptronic override.
Cadillac’s last-ditch attempt at cracking Europe needed a bold, capable car to head it up. The CTS is just the ticket. People won’t flock from their 5-series to buy it, but Cadillac has only modest sales ambitions. Which is just as well, as the CTS will surely remain a minority interest car. However, it is the most viable US alternative to the German brands that dominate the executive car sector – and its appeal will be bolstered when the V6 diesel arrives. And if the rumoured 4WD 500bhp V8 CTS-V bellows into being, we'll have an intriguing cut-price M5 on our hands…