Introduced as a 2003 model, the CTS launched an edgy new styling theme at Cadillac and immediately grabbed the spotlight. The automotive press praised the dynamic qualities built into its superb rear-wheel-drive chassis. A torrent of new models has followed from Cadillac, all very good in their own right, but the CTS set the mold.
Since its launch, the CTS has been improved and refined. For 2006, a new sport performance option enhances its sporting character, while a sport appearance package can give every CTS the look of the mighty, Corvette-powered CTS-V. These options complement the new generation of V6 engines and transmissions introduced for 2005.
All of the CTS drivelines are smooth, quiet and powerful, with the latest technology and advanced electronic controls throughout. Most buyers opt for the automatic, which features a manual shift feature in all models for the first time. Yet the manual is remarkable for its smooth shifting and easygoing clutch. Those who want a true four-door sports car that will run with Porsche 911 can try the CTS-V, a hot rod that looks like a CTS but sounds and accelerates like a Corvette. The CTS-V is a great hot rod, but the other CTS models are far more pleasant for daily driving.
We love the CTS's balance of good ride quality and fine handling. We haven't been happy with its austere interior, but Cadillac has tried to soften it a bit and make it more inviting. The CTS is the first GM vehicle with XM NavTraffic, which can deliver continuous, real-time traffic information straight to the navigation screen.
The Cadillac CTS is a sophisticated car that belies its sporting potential until you mash down the gas and attack the corners. It has helped reacquaint the world with Cadillac's century-long tradition of technology and design innovation. In short, the CTS presents a real, uniquely American alternative to traditional class leaders like the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.
Cadillac CTS 2.8 ($30,515); CTS 3.6 ($33,160); CTS-V ($50,675)
For all its futuristic themes, Art & Science is supposed to hark back to the Cadillac tradition of vertical headlamps and tail lamps, which dates from the late 1950s through the '60s. Viewed from the front, the CTS is imposing, with its large louvered grille framed by sharp, vertical headlamps. This is our favorite angle. The front air dam is all business, with simple rectangular foglights and a long narrow intake near the skirt.
The CTS also has a short, high rear deck with tall, vertical tail lamps. The view from the rear is broken up by the indentation cut widely around the license plate in a contrasting color. The CTS-V looks a bit better here, thanks to body colored plastic. The rear view is evocative either way.
Yet given the power of the front and rear ends, the CTS's slab sides seem a little weak in comparison. It looks best with the largest wheels (18 inches) available.
For 2006, the V6-powered CTS can be trimmed with the look of the 400-horsepower CTS-V, without the monster engine. We like the optional Sport Appearance Package, with fat, 18-inch wheels, aggressive rocker moldings, dual exhaust tips and a rear spoiler, mostly because the V6-powered CTS models deliver enough sporting performance to pull it off. There are also three new paint colors: Radiant Bronze, Blackberry and the flashy but expensive Infrared option ($900).
Cadillac seems to have taken some of that criticism to heart, because many of the changes since the CTS was introduced are focused inside. The appearance of the instrument cluster was improved for 2005, though the gauges remain clear, straightforward and easy to read. For 2006, the CTS finally offers optional burl-pattern wood-like accents. There are also softer color packages, including Cashmere, introduced for 2006. As it is, the interior is a mix of high-tech textures, some dimpled like a golf ball. Many of the materials are soft and interesting to the touch.
Beyond aesthetics, the hardware works great. The leather seats are excellent, comfortable for all-day driving with good bolstering to hold your torso in place in sharp corners. There's good support for the driver's right leg, and it's soft where the right shin touches. There's a good support for the left leg as well, with a good dead pedal for the left foot. Enthusiast drivers appreciate these for the bracing they provide during a spirited drive.
The three-spoke steering wheel has buttons for the sound system and cruise control, and is deliciously padded in leather for all but the part of the rim between about 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock, which is trimmed in wood. Changing the temperature, adjusting the stereo or operating the navigation system is easy and convenient in the CTS. The center stack juts out from the rest of the dash, with the elaborate GPS navigation system at the top center location. Climate controls are at the bottom, adjusted with amber-lighted pictograms.
The stereo works well, allowing quick and easy switching from a news channel on XM Satellite Radio to music on FM to traffic on AM to a CD. The small triangular speakers for the optional Bose system are mounted on the A pillar, and look cool. OnStar is standard, allowing drivers to make hands-free, voice-activated calls. OnStar operators will call out the emergency crews if the airbags go off and you don't respond. They can unlock the doors for you, or direct you to the nearest gas station, ATM or Italian restaurant, but you'll have to pay the subscription fee after the first year.
The 2006 CTS is the first GM vehicle available with XM NavTraffic, a satellite link that provides continuously updated traffic information in cities where it's available. The system comes standard in cars equipped with the navigation system. A driver can enter a destination into the navigation system, and then, aided by a color-coded display, obtain instant traffic data on the preferred route. The map display will show average speed along that route, as well as accident locations, construction and heavy traffic congestion. If the prescribed path looks slow, the nav system can calculate an alternate, less-congested route.
The CTS offers more interior room than some of its European competition. A tall driver or passenger will be comfortable in front and only slightly cramped in the rear. The rear seats are comfortable for two or three passengers, offering good leg room, if not much thigh support. There is a convenient pass-through tunnel from the rear seat to the trunk, but only with the optional split folding rear seat.
The 3.6-liter V6 is silky smooth when cruising, less so at full throttle. It responds quickly whenever you step on the gas, a benefit of its broad torque curve, which is largely a function of variable valve timing. Both V6s are thoroughly modern engines, with 60-degree aluminum blocks, double overhead cams, electronic throttle control, coils-on-plug ignition and a structural oil pan. The 2.8-liter and 3.6-liter V6s earn the same EPA-estimated mileage ratings of 18/27 mpg City/Highway. Both run on regular 87 octane, and choosing between them is a matter of power versus cost. We prefer the bigger 3.6-liter hands down, but speed costs money, and we enjoy driving the CTS with the smaller V6.
We can highly recommend both the automatic and manual transmissions, so choosing between them is a matter of preference, or the amount of heavy stop-and-go driving on your daily commute. The five-speed automatic is superb. In normal mode, it seems to shift a lot, especially at a casual pace. Selecting the Sport mode changes the transmission's attitude, giving it sharper, more decisive responses. For 2006, the automatic features Cadillac's Driver Shift Control with both V6 engines. With it a driver can manually shift the automatic, clicking sequentially up and down. The manual mode is particularly responsive, and the five-speed automatic is an excellent choice for the CTS. It even gets better gas mileage around town than the manual.
The manual gearbox is first-rate, too, and if you put more emphasis on the sport than the sedan, you may prefer it. You can shift it so smoothly that your passengers wouldn't know it was a manual if they couldn't see you shifting. It's easy to match clutch take-up and throttle for stutter-free driving, especially at low speeds. The shifter is equally smooth, with short, precise throws. You can run up through fourth gear at low speeds without lugging the engine. The smoothness of shifting and the low-speed tractability of the engine make driving around town very pleasant.
Ride and handling are impeccable: smooth, steady, predictable. The CTS feels solid, but not heavy. Steering is precise, with just the right amount of resistance from the speed-sensitive power assist. Cadillac tuned the suspension at Germany's legendary Nurburgring circuit, because that's where German sports sedans are developed, and Cadillac was eager to challenge them on their terms. It shows. The suspension is nicely damped so the ride is very comfortable, erasing the bumps. Still, the suspension is there when you need it in rippling, twisty curves.
In short, the CTS is fun to drive. Mix rear-wheel drive, crisp handling and plenty of horsepower, and you have a recipe for charging out of corners like a racer. Go into a corner too quick and the StabiliTrak electronic stability control is there to reduce the chance of a skid, applying just the right amount of brake and throttle correction to keep the CTS on the road. The anti-lock brakes deliver powerful, predictable braking. Slam on the brakes at 70 miles an hour and there's no drama: no squealing, no swerving, just forceful stopping with full steering control.
The CTS-V has some of the same characteristics of the CTS, but make no mistake. This is a different animal, sacrificing pleasantries to achieve increased performance. For starters, the CTS-V comes exclusively with the high-performance Tremec T56 six-speed, and it's a stiff shifter. It also takes more pressure to push in the clutch pedal, and clutch take-up is fairly abrupt, making smooth launches a challenge. Your passengers will been keenly aware that you are shifting
The Cadillac CTS delivers all the elements required of a good sports sedan, including rear-wheel drive, strong power, a first-rate automatic transmission with manual shift capability (or an excellent six-speed manual), and a superb ride-handling balance. Its styling is distinctive and its image is still fresh. This is the first smaller American luxury sedan in a long time that can play in the same league as BMW, Audi, Mercedes and Infiniti. For its part, the CTS-V can rip up chunks of poorly laid asphalt with its rear tires. It more than holds its own with the specialty cars from BMW's M division or AMG Mercedes.
Reporting from Los Angeles is NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough, with Jeffrey P. Vettraino in Detroit.