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2004 Cadillac CTS Photo
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Cadillac’s gamble with the CTS has paid off. Launching the car was perilous for the division after its previous two attempts to crack the contemporary luxury market had failed so ignominiously. Perhaps you recall the simply boring Catera from the Nineties, or have bitter memories of the disastrously awful Cimarron of the Eighties?

But during its first year on sale as a 2003 model, the CTS sold better than even Caddy’s own most optimistic projections — a full 37,976 units when they thought they’d ship only 30,000. Yep, it’s time for Cadillac to relax and rest on its laurels.

Displaying a restlessness for which it’s never before been known, Cadillac is upgrading the CTS significantly for 2004 — first by offering a new V-6 engine for the regular CTS and second by building the 405-horsepower, V-8-powered CTSv that promises to be the quickest and will be the most powerful Cadillac ever. As this is written no one outside GM has driven the CTSv, so the subject here is the CTS with the new heart, not the souped-up Barney Clark model.

Look, we’d have really rather driven the CTSv too, but they wouldn’t let us, okay? Take what you can get.

Fixing what needed fixing

The rear-drive CTS isn’t a small sedan. At 113.4 inches its wheelbase is less than an inch shorter than the original ’76 Seville’s, and its 190.1-inch overall length means it’s just two-tenths of an inch shorter than a current Mercedes E-Class. And it’s not a light car either, weighing in at 3694 pounds when equipped with an automatic transmission. That’s just a pound less than V-6-powered Mercedes E320.

Not-small cars are more pleasant to drive when powered by not-small engines. The 54-degree, 3.2-liter, DOHC, 24-valve V-6 with which powered all the first-year CTS is a refugee from the Catera parts bin: smooth but uninspiring in both character and its modest (but competitive) 220-horsepower output.

The new engine is better in virtually every way and…it’s less small. Called the Global V-6 by GM, the CTS’ new 3.6-liter engine is overstuffed with buzzworthy technostuff. A full 60 degrees of space lies between the two banks of cylinders. The block is cast in aluminum. The DOHC cylinder heads use chain-driven camshafts to control four valves per cylinder and each cam is controlled by a continuously variable phasing system resulting in variable valve timing. Feeding those heads is a plastic intake manifold with a two-stage variable-volume plenum, and the throttle is electronically controlled. Throw in a bunch of other tweaks and the result is 255 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 250 pound-feet of peak torque at 2800 rpm.

The Global V-6 won’t only be crammed into CTS. Cadillac’s SRX “luxury activity vehicle” that’s coming for 2004 will use it as its base engine and the 2004 Buick Rendezvous Ultra will feature it in a transverse-mounted configuration. The Global’s displacement can vary between 2.8 and 3.6 liters and turbocharged and direct injection variations are under development for use in European sourced vehicles (Saabs and/or Opels). Chances are this new V-6 will be a fixture in the GM lineup for decades to come.

Transmission of power

Unfortunately (if you prefer manual transmissions) the new V-6 comes lashed only to GM’s 5L40-E five-speed automatic, the same transmission used with the 3.2-liter V-6 last year. The automatic is a good transmission; it holds gears long enough to give excellent performance, and its manual-shifting scheme is effective, but it’s still an automatic and that takes a toll on ultimate performance. A five-speed manual transmission is still available, but it comes hooked up to the old 3.2. At this point the automatic and 3.6 combination is vastly more attractive. Here’s hoping Cadillac upgrades to a six-speed when they bolt the new engine up to a manual trans. In fact, don’t be surprised if the 5L40-E is soon replaced by a six-speed automatic as new transmissions enter the GM bloodstream.

The Global’s torque supply is abundant; the curve under which it lives is flat. The engine doesn’t make much noise, but it pulls hard from just off idle and through every shift. It’s a much better match to the automatic than the 3.2 ever could be but, inferentially speaking, it’ll be more fun with a manual.

Compared to the competition from Mercedes and BMW, the Caddy 3.6 feels much more like an easygoing Mercedes V-6 than a chomping-at-the-bit BMW straight six — only the Cadillac six is more powerful than the Mercedes (the 3.2-liter version of which is rated at 221 horsepower) and feels like it revs more quickly. Using a finely calibrated butt-based accelerometer, the guess here is that the new engine puts the CTS automatic’s 0-60 mph time somewhere in the 6.8- to 7.1-second range, with the quarter-mile going by in the low 15-second range. But there may be more accurate butts out there. Any volunteers?

Slight tweaks otherwise

Beyond the engine transplant, other changes to the 2004 CTS merely finagle the car’s rougher edges. The base suspension has been retuned with new shocks and new shock mounts that together provide, Cadillac says, “smooth road feel without sacrificing performance.” If that’s true it’s almost impossible to discern without a back-to-back comparison with a 2K3 CTS. That said, the car does ride well on its P225/55HR16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires with modest cornering limits.

The Sport suspension system, which includes the StabiliTrak system (which evolves into a less intrusive and more effective everyday partner every year) performance brake linings, variable-assist steering and rear load-leveling, is now available across the line and gets new 17-inch wheels inside its P225/50VR17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires. The result is, by far and in every way, the best handling, braking and steering a Cadillac sedan ever has offered. The steering doesn’t have quite the precision of a BMW system, but it’s very composed. The braking is effective, easy to modulate, the ABS system sophisticated and fade seems to come only after serious abuse of the four large diameter (11.9 inches in front, 11.7 inches out back) discs. No matter which suspension system is aboard, the ride is composed and body roll is well controlled. If Cadillac’s not quite up to the standards of its German competitors, it’s closer than it ever has been.

The interior has been treated to some new textures and additional chrome that helps break up its somewhat austere and harshly angular interior. It could use a little more wood. The seats are comfortably shaped, the leather is nicely soft and precisely stitched, the driver can chill while the passenger fries thanks to the dual-zone ventilation system, loads of airbags are set to explode at any moment, and the DVD-based navigation system is a waste of money. Some of the interior switches are cheesy and the graphics on some of the dash buttons look cheap, but it’s not a bad place to spend a commute.

The “art and science” sharply creased exterior will polarize opinion, but considering its pricing (the 2003 version starts at $29,900 and the 2004 version shouldn’t be much more expensive) and overall competence it’s one of the best values in luxury cars today. And if Cadillac keeps this up, it’ll be even better in 2005.

Now bring on the CTSv!

2004 Cadillac CTS
Base Price: $30,000 (est.)
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6, 255 hp
Transmission: Five-speed automatic with manual mode, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 190.1 x 70.6 x 56.7 in
Wheelbase: 113.4 in
Curb weight: 3694 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 18/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, head airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, StabiliTrak
Major standard equipment: Leather upholstery, tilt/telescope steering wheel, A/C, power windows, remote control power door locks, heated mirrors, loads of cup holders and plenty of Cadillac logos
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles

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