Base, Luxury, and Performance trims of the CTS Wagon come with a 270-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6, while the Performance and Premium trims can be had with a 304-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 that has nearly the same EPA fuel economy. Sedans and Wagons can be had with either engine, while the CTS Coupe comes only with the larger V-6. The base engine is a 3.0-liter V-6 with direct injection and 270 horsepower, and since the manual geabox isn't especially enjoyable here, we recommend the larger 3.6-liter V-6. It's the better choice because of its zippy acceleration and ample power. The first time you step on it—especially when passing—it'll surprise you. The main reason behind that stealth is that the throttle is quite linear; it's not artificially boosted just as you tip into the gas pedal like in many new vehicles.
The CTS models aren't downright quick off the line, even with the 3.6. Peg the accelerator to the floor from a standing start and the CTS doesn't lose much composure; it just hunkers down and goes, becoming much more inspired as the revs build. The engine is truly in its sweet spot when it's singing its BMW-like song at full throttle in the 4,000 to 6,000 rpm range. Zero to 60 mph comes in about seven seconds for Coupes and Sport Wagons, or a bit less for the lighter sedan.
Shifts for the responsive six-speed automatic can be commanded with buttons on the back of the steering wheel, which you'll definitely want to do when the road turns curvy as the transmission has a tendency to quickly run up to one of the highest gears and lug along.
Handling and ride quality can vary with four different factory-installed suspension setups, but with any of the four, the CTS tunes in great steering feel and a nicely balanced ride. The Car Connection prefers the FE3 setup, which helps produce entertaining handling and a firm ride that's still smooth enough for everyday driving, even on the upgraded 19-inch wheels and summer tires. The entire CTS lineup handles very well for a car its size. It tends toward understeer when pushed very hard—a predictable and safe dynamic most people can deal with. But you have to push it very hard indeed to get there. Driven normally, or even with some spirit, the CTS just feels planted. Steering weight is still a bit odd and unpredictable—at parking speeds it's sometimes heavy, then at low cruising speeds, it's almost floaty, but at highway speeds it grows rather heavy again. Autobahn-style cruising is where these models feel at home. The steering stays sharp and on the ready yet hefty and steady enough on center to avoid any wandering, and the ride feels supple and just absorbent enough. Tear off on a backroad, and you'll still be happy with the steering; it responds precisely to tight corners, with some feel from the road surface even, and unwinds nicely.
We recommend the optional Performance Package, which adds an even stiffer sport-tuned suspension, along with 19-inch polished aluminum wheels, Continental ContiSportContact summer performance rubber, steering-wheel shift controls, and an upgraded cooling system and performance brakes. The CTS-V, on the other hand, comes with the most excellent Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) system (not available on other CTS models), allowing plush ride comfort while tightening up in milliseconds when needed.
Brakes are strong and feel about perfect, with a nice, firm pedal feel that's easy to modulate whether inching along in traffic or hauling speed down for a sudden freeway snag.