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It took a generation, but today's Cadillac CTS can truly bill itself as "world-class." When it bowed in 2003, the entry-level Caddy lacked a certain refinement in styling and materials--not to mention the coupes, wagons, and super-sport derivatives that Audi, BMW, Mercedes, even Lexus already had on tap.
Since it emerged in 2008, the second-generation CTS has pitched Cadillac, at long last, into the heated battle waged between the likes of the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, even the Infiniti G37 and Lexus IS. A truly sporty sedan, it now counts Coupe and Wagon models along with its Sedan stock and trade--and has a world-beating CTS-V lineup as its trump card.
Of all these cars, the CTS may be the most distinctive, and most attractive. It's flashy, yes, but the Cadillac Art & Science theme doesn't suffer from the me-too syndrome that endangers some of the cars in this class. There's no way you'd mistake its edgy, bladelike fenders and sparing use of chrome for anything but American, and those are just the big themes. Some details are mesmerizing, like the upswept headlamps on all versions, or the V-taper on the rear ends of the coupe and wagon. Of all the versions the Wagon is the most arresting--and that's an accomplishment. Every CTS shares an interior that's a great leap ahead for GM, if still a little cluttered and glitzy. Sharply delineated, with some functions and controls scattered around, subservient to the look, the CTS' cabin pretty much flips off the German less-is-more ethos, and goes for pure dazzle. It gets the contours right, but some of the plastic pieces still stand out a little too easily from the otherwise high level of trim quality. To be fair, that's more common across the luxury board these days.
Two engines, a choice of manual or paddle-shifted automatic transmissions, and an option for all-wheel drive allow drivers to configure their CTS in some interesting ways. Price is the reason to stick with the base 3.0-liter, 270-horsepower V-6 with direct injection, in sedans or wagons. It's smooth, relatively quiet, and puts out reasonably brisk performance. All coupes and other wagons and sedans get a revamped version of GM's 3.6-liter direct-injected six-cylinder this year; we haven't driven it yet, but the 318-hp six is sure to be our preference, with its 48-hp advantage over the base engine, and its close specs to the outgoing engine. Definitely give a pass to the balky manual six-speed transmission: it's only offered on base coupes and sedans, and in any case, GM's GM's six-speed automatic, with paddle shifters and sweet gear changes, is a better companion for sporty driving, anyway. All body styles have an option for all-wheel drive, and it extracts the usual weight and gas-mileage penalty--but makes the CTS more usable in the northern tier.
We've driven most of the available combinations of drivetrains, and in all, the CTS has some common traits, no matter how it's configured. Steering is a highlight, even crisper when a sport package with summer tires is added--the "FE3" setup on rear-drive models. Ride quality is well-controlled on sedans and especially on wagons, while the stubby coupe can feel a tad more busy. In the grander scheme, the CTS has finally hit its intended targets for ride and handling, just as Infiniti's done with the G37 lineup. All CTS vehicles are rated at 18/27 mpg except for the AWD sedans and wagons, which earn 18/26-mpg ratings, and manual rear-drive coupes, which are rated at 17/25 mpg.
Performance is very good, but like other cars in this segment, the CTS could use some more elbow room. The cabin is comfortable but snug, though the Wagon's longer rear door openings make it more useful, as does the extra 25 cubic feet of passenger space. The wagon also lets owners flip down the rear seats for a total of 53.4 cubic feet of room. The coupe doesn't lose much legroom compared to the sedan, but it's noticeably cramped, especially in rear-seat headroom. On all versions, sport sedans are inferior to the base ones, and have an odd concave padding down the middle of their cushions. There's a base "leatherette" upholstery, but most cars you'll see on lots will be outfitted with a fine grade of leather.All CTSs are loaded--it's really just a matter of how loaded, and which tech and audio upgrades are specified. The sedan comes with power doors, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; automatic dual-zone climate control; a power driver seat; a tilt and telescoping steering wheel; an AM/FM/CD/XM audio system with auxiliary jack; an air filtration system; and automatic headlamps. The Sport Wagon adds a power tailgate to that list. The major options include a panoramic sunroof; a particularly advanced, easy-to-use entertainment system with hard-drive music storage and memory to hold radio broad-casts; a navigation system with real-time traffic; ventilated seats; a pet cover for the wagon's cargo hold; and 18- or 19-inch wheels and tires, to go with different suspension packages and all-weather or summer tires. For the 2012 model year, Bluetooth is standard across the board.
- Brash, dynamic styling
- Top-notch interior quality
- Tech features ahead of the class
- Ride, handling and braking excellence
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- Cabin can seem busy, glitzy
- In need of a weight-loss program
- Manual gearbox feels balky
- Sport seats need a rethink
- Tight back seats in coupe--and sedan