During the past decade, various manufacturers of non-German lineage have unveiled sport sedans or coupes with the promise that they would compete head-on against Audi, Mercedes and, especially, BMW.
The American challenge started in earnest with the introduction of the first Cadillac CTS in 2002.
To be fair, General Motors was less likely to compare the CTS to its competitors than to describe it as the first step in the rebirth of a brand. In this respect, the company was on the mark; despite not having aged well, the first-generation CTS propelled Cadillac in a bold direction. The second-generation CTS (2007-12) became better looking and higher performing and two spin-offs, a coupe and a wagon, joined the fleet successfully.
Now, with the third-generation CTS in the market – slightly larger, yet lighter than before – the time is finally right for comparisons with the world’s best sport sedans. The CTS is built upon the same rear-wheel-drive platform as the Cadillac ATS, the compact sedan that debuted to significant acclaim last year (this platform will also be used for the next Camaro). In late 2012, I drove the ATS around Canadian Tire Motorsport Park and came away flat-out impressed at how well it handled. It’s the real deal and so, too, is this latest Cadillac.
During a recent week I test-drove the CTS 3.6 AWD – one up from the base model. Without the luxury of a racetrack to evaluate the car’s handling, I headed to suburban Mississauga where the roads had stayed unplowed or snow had been piled into neat pylons in cul-de-sacs.
Drifting around a snowy circle at just 17 km/h – the slick head-up display (HUD) confirming this speed – with the two-stage traction control system disabled completely (a nice touch: so many manufacturers won’t allow the driver complete control), the all-wheel-drive CTS maintained a perfect trajectory through an easy fishtail.
To complement its drifting capacity, the sport suspension system expertly kept the tires in contact with the road, regardless of how rough the surface. Cornering was flat and easily controlled. And the electric power steering, among the best of its kind, has a connected feel to it. Other manufacturers, including the Germans, are losing their grip on this feature.
Under power, the CTS 3.6 AWD was both refined and entertaining, but it’s no speed demon – that mandate is reserved for the forthcoming CTS VSport and the eventual CTS-V.
There are further clues that the CTS is a real driver’s car: The brakes had a powerful feel that is uncommon in a car not intended for the track. In manual mode, the engine bounced off the rev limiter rather than upshift automatically (as so many other cars do). And the paddle shifters – they’re large and metallic. While this last point might seem obtuse, many “sporty” cars are undermined by the feeling of small, plastic paddle shifters.
The passenger compartment of the Cadillac is luxurious, but the exceedingly ambitious focus on technology detracts from the overall appeal. The materials used have a great look and feel, but the car maker’s CUE infotainment system is like a Christmas tree with too many decorations.
The version tested also featured the HUD and a configurable gauge cluster in the instrument panel. There are numbers, gauges and read-outs galore. Even with two of the fields left blank, there’s too much going on in the instrument cluster, including information that is repeated (needlessly) in the HUD.
All things considered, though, this information overload doesn’t prevent the dynamite qualities of this stunning sedan from shining through.
When I first learned the base price of the 2014 Cadillac CTS 3.6 AWD – after the test was complete – I was taken aback. I expected the American challenger to come in at a lower price than its direct rivals; instead, at $71,690, it’s a bit more expensive than a comparably equipped BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class, and about the same as a Audi A6. It’s also significantly pricier in Canada than south of the border, at least $5,000 by my count.
But GM is entitled to charge a premium for the CTS based on quality alone – it’s a winner. It’s also an absolute class leader in some respects and a genuine threat in all the rest.
2014 Cadillac CTS 3.6 Premium AWDType: mid-size sedan
Base Price: $71,690; as tested: $76,025
Engine: 3.6-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 321 hp/275 ft-lbs
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 13.0 city; 9.0 highway
Alternatives: Audi A6 3.0T, BMW 535i xDrive, Mercedes-Benz E350 4MATIC
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