Saturday, January 10, 2004

Lead foot kicks Caddy into gear

Younger drivers will find 2004 CTS rocks, avoids roll in rain

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Cadillac CTS

Not your mother's Cadillac.
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels

Vital Statistics

What I drove: 2004 Cadillac CTS, four-door, five-passenger sedan with 3.6-liter V6 and five-speed automatic

Base price: $30,140

Price as tested: $43,530 (includes options and destination charge)

Options on test vehicle: HID headlights, Bose sound system with six-disc CD changer, eight-way power adjustable driver and passenger seat, alarm system, heated front seats, Homelink garage-door opener, variable-assist steering, 17-inch alloy wheels, DVD navigation system, XM satellite radio.

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, rear-wheel drive

Engines: 3.6-liter V6 generating 255 horsepower and 252 lb-ft torque, or 3.2-liter V6 generating 220 horsepower and 220 lb-ft torque

Transmissions: 5-speed automatic (with 3.6-liter engine), or 5-speed manual (with 3.2-liter engine)

Wheelbase: 113.4 inches

Length: 190.1 inches

Width: 70.6 inches

Height: 56.7 inches

Weight: 3,568-3,694 pounds

EPA mileage, city/highway: 18/28

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; drivetrain: 4 years/50,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/50,000 miles

Safety: Dual front airbags, front side-impact airbags, front and rear head-curtain airbags, antilock brakes.

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Car Talk
It really does rain in California. And it rained ferociously on Christmas, when I'd planned to drive a Cadillac CTS from San Jose to my mother's house, 350 miles away in Los Angeles.

Not one to be stymied by a little weather, I cranked up the seat heaters, set the windshield wipers to hyper-speed, loaded a Led Zeppelin disc into the CD player (in homage to the CTS ad campaign) and set off.

I was following an all-wheel-drive Audi S6 around a sharp corner before entering the freeway when the CTS's front end cut loose, but the traction control kicked in and set things straight. Phew! Not having read the owner's manual yet, I assumed the button with the snowflake on it stood for wet-weather traction, and I pressed it to be safe.

When I punched the throttle to catch up with the flow of traffic, the engine responded with instant acceleration and a guttural growl. I pressed the "sport mode" button, and the five-speed automatic transmission geared down and the suspension firmed up.

For someone who grew up getting seasick in the backseat of her mom's old floaty-boaty Cadillacs, the CTS felt and looked nothing like a Cadillac.

Which is precisely the point.

Styled for young buyers

In an effort to throw off its stodgy, old-lady image and attract a younger and hipper crowd, Cadillac has added brazen styling and sporty performance to its luxury-car portfolio.

Introduced in the 2003 model year, the CTS was the first Cadillac to sport the new folded and creased exterior style. It's a love-it-or-hate-it look. But enough people loved it that CTS achieved first-year sales of 38,000, far surpassing Cadillac's expectations. The origami styling now adorns the bodies of the just-introduced SRX sport-utility vehicle and the XLR convertible coupe.

Whether or not you like the styling, the CTS is a good ride. Based on GM's Sigma rear-wheel-drive platform, the CTS underwent rigorous testing on Germany's famed Nurburgring circuit, and emerged with outstanding ride and handling. The car is stiff enough to provide great cornering stability, and soft enough to feel smooth on rough roads.

More power under hood

For 2004, Cadillac added a more powerful engine and retuned the suspension. At midyear, we'll see the debut of the CTS-V, a high-performance model boasting a 400-horsepower V8 engine borrowed from the Chevy Corvette.

For now, CTS buyers have two engine choices: the old 220-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 and an all-new 255-horsepower, 24-valve, dual-overhead-cam, 3.6-liter V6. The 3.2-liter engine is offered only with the five-speed manual transmission, and the 3.6-liter engine is available exclusively with a five-speed automatic.

The new 3.6-liter engine has an aluminum block and heads, variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust ports, and a dual outlet exhaust system. My test car had this engine, and its big fat torque band provided sufficient oomph at almost any engine speed. Despite its larger size, this engine is as fuel efficient as the smaller engine (18 mpg city/26 mpg highway).

During cruising, engine and road noise are well muted. But at full throttle, the 3.6-liter V6 sounds so good, I kept slowing down just so I could punch it and bask in that roar again and again. The new five-speed automatic provides silky smooth shifts, and the steering is responsive, but not razor-sharp (I had to make occasional corrections during straight-line driving).

The CTS comes in one trim level, but three option packages are offered to boost the levels of luxury and sport. Standard features include leather seats, an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, six airbags (including head-curtain airbags fore and aft), antilock brakes, wiper-activated headlights, dual-zone climate controls, and OnStar telecommunications. A new standalone Sport Package adds variable-assist steering, a sport-tuned suspension, Stabilitrak antiskid system, load-leveling rear suspension, 17-inch wheels and W-rated tires, and upgraded brake pads.

My test car had the optional White Diamond exterior paint ($995; but it looks way better in darker colors), a DVD-based navigation system with XM satellite radio ($1,750) and the top-of-the-line 1SC Equipment Package ($9,950). The latter includes the sport package, xenon headlights with washers, a power sunroof, heated front seats, an eight-way power adjustable front passenger seat, Homelink, 60/40-split folding rear seats, wood trim - yada yada yada.

Two options the CTS could use that aren't offered: automatic windshield wipers; and a power lifting trunk lid. Cadillacs are supposed to do everything for you, right? Well, the trunk lid on my test car was noticeably difficult to lift.

As far as ride and handling goes, GM got everything right.

They fell short on the interior. The dash panel looks as edgy and angular as the exterior - but despite the best intentions of the designers, the plastics, knobs and controls don't convey luxury - they look more befitting of a Chevy Cavalier. The handsome wood trim has been so sparingly used - gracing only the top of the steering wheel, the shifter knob, and the door-handle - it's a wonder they even bothered.

Some surprises

After overcoming my initial disappointment in the interior materials, I discovered a few surprises to make the trip more enjoyable, including newly available power-adjustable lumbar supports in the front seats (which kept my back comfy for seven hours), and XM satellite radio (which kept me entertained after one hour of Led Zeppelin).

The more miles I put between myself and San Jose, the more the CTS grew on me. The ride and handling were flawless, the cabin was comfortable and roomy, and I was backed by enough failsafe features (Stabilitrak, ABS, traction control, all-weather tires) to feel confident on those storm-ravaged roads.

In summary, the CTS is one of the best-driving cars to emerge from GM in years. It's got comfort and performance down pat.

And its exterior styling is guaranteed to generate interest.

"That's the ugliest Cadillac I've ever seen!" my mom said when I finally pulled into her driveway.

That's probably good news for Cadillac.


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