2003 Cadillac CTS Preview

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The Car Connection Expert Review

TCC Team TCC Team
August 20, 2001
Check out Caddy's Cien supercar and other GM concept vehicles!

It’s a long way from the hard tarmac of Germany’s legendary Nurburgring to the manicured greens of Pebble Beach.  But Cadillac clearly has a long road to travel if it ever hopes to regain its crown as the self-proclaimed “standard to the world.”

Last weekend’s annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance served as a fittingly elegant backdrop for the formal roll-out of the all-new, 2003 CTS sedan, the car Caddy hopes will help it begin that journey.  The designated heir for the largely unloved Catera, CTS is Cadillac’s latest attempt to gain traction with the type of young, hip and demanding buyers who’ve all but abandoned the General Motors division for its import competition.

“One of our highest priorities is to restore this great automotive brand and once again become the standard of luxury for the world,” said Ron Zarrella, GM’s brand marketing guru, as a fleet of classic Caddys rolled onto Pebble Beach’s legendary greens.

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The international language of luxury

The best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. for nearly three-quarters of a century, Cadillac is now struggling to simply hold on under an increasingly aggressive assault from the likes of Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.  But where the Catera was little more than an asterisk on the sales charts in the fast-growing “entry-luxury” segment, Cadillac is counting on CTS to make it a credible contender.

The new sedan is more than just an update of the Catera.  It marks the formal debut of Cadillac’s controversial “Art and Science” design theme.  It’s a striking shift for a division that’s unsuccessfully tried to play it safe over the last few decades.  The look isn’t likely to appeal to everyone, concedes Caddy’s general manager, Mark LaNeve, and it isn’t meant to.  Taking a cue from its Japanese rivals, the GM marque has accepted a fundamental reality of today’s luxury market: no risk is the biggest risk of all.

2003 Cadillac CTS

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The CTS is unlikely to get lost in the crowd.  “When we were great, it was based on bold, breakthrough, breathtaking design,” LaNeve said, pointing to an assortment of classic Cadillacs parked on the Pebble Beach green.

With CTS, there’s a hint of what’s being called “heritage” design these days.  The sedan’s hard-edged vertical taillights evoke images of the ’59 Eldorado’s trademark tailfins.  The theme is echoed in CTS’s vertical headlamps.  The overall, hard-edged look is meant to suggest the entire vehicle was machined from a solid block of steel, says chief designer Tom Kearns.

But the old adage “beauty is only skin deep” applies to cars, as well as people.  And for CTS to succeed, it needs to deliver the type of performance

2002 Cadillac CTS rear view

2002 Cadillac CTS rear view

Enlarge Photo
, handling, comfort and convenience expected by the entry-lux segments finicky and demanding buyers.  And that’s where the legendary Nurburgring comes in.  The new car was extensively tested on the northern German track, Cadillac engineers logging hour after hour on the grueling, 16-mile course. 

TheCarConnection had a chance to test the results during a recent afternoon of driving.  The CTS has been faulted for not offering a V-8, and its 3.2-liter V-6 is clearly not the fastest off the block.  But with a 0-60 time of 6.9 seconds with the 5-speed manual, and 7.4 seconds with the 5-speed automatic, it’s nonetheless a respectable performer.  And the fact that GM has finally joined the rest of the luxury world with its first 5-speed automatic is noteworthy in itself.  (Ironic is the fact that this gearbox has been sold to BMW for some years, helping the Bavarian automaker enhance its own market supremacy.)

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A stand-out

Handling is where the CTS stands out.  It keeps all four wheels planted firmly on the ground during even the harshest maneuvers, inspiring an unexpected degree of confidence.  Yet it manages to smooth out the bumps of some of the roughest roads surrounding GM’s Milford, Michigan, Proving Grounds.

“The level of refinement has to be a notch up” from Cadillacs of the past, conceded Jim Taylor, the Vehicle Line Executive in charge of the CTS program.

The prototypes TCC drove last month were early, hand-built vehicles with plenty of rough edges. 

2003 Cadillac CTS Interior

2003 Cadillac CTS Interior

Enlarge Photo
The sedans unveiled in Pebble Beach were the first off GM’s new luxury assembly line in Lansing, Michigan, and boasted a level of fit-and-finish more in tune with the competition.  The CTS still falls a bit short in interior refinement levels.  Material choices aren’t quite as elegant as a comparable Lexus, Audi or Mercedes, the most sophisticated players in this segment. 

Some catching up to do

“We have some catching up to do,” conceded one executive assigned to the CTS project.  Look for some running changes, including more performance-oriented wheels, TCC was told during the Pebble Beach preview.

Cadillac also intends to offer up a higher-performance version of the CTS, what is likely to be the first in a series of vehicles aimed at competing with the BMW M, Audi S and Mercedes AMG lines, revealed Zarrella, president of GM’s North American operations.

Indeed, Cadillac planners are busily working out the designs and business plans for a whole assortment of new models which they hope will redefine the brand over the next five years.  Though CTS is likely to carry a base price of around $32,000 when it rolls into dealer showrooms early next year, senior division officials would like to add an even lower-priced model to the line-up.  They’re looking at a design that would incorporate a “highly flexible” interior, a concept lifted from Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.

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On the high end, Caddy has already committed to building the Evoq show car, which will debut about a year from now under the XLR badge.  And there’s even a chance the division will commit to a limited run of the Cien supercar concept, which was also shown to the automotive media attending Pebble Beach weekend. 

There’ll be an all-new—and notably rear-drive—version of the Seville.  And Cadillac is building up its truck portfolio with the EXT, a high-end version of the Chevrolet Avalanche, as well as the LAV.  The latter is a car-based crossover vehicle aimed at the niche now dominated by the Lexus RX300.

A $4 billion gamble

In all, it adds up to a massive revitalization program that Zarrella acknowledged is “in the range” of $4 billion.  That’s a lot of money, even for a company the size of General Motors.  And it won’t be repaid in a rush.  For one thing, Cadillac’s all-new assembly plant will operate well below capacity during its first year, as the division cautiously ramps up production of the CTS.

“You don’t do this overnight,” stressed GM’s chief financial officer, John Devine.  “You have to get it right.  If you do, the financials will come together over time.”

Some observers have dubbed CTS Cadillac’s make-it-or-break-it car.  That’s an overstatement.  But it’s clear that the compact sedan has a lot riding on it.  It would be an unmitigated disaster if the Art and Science design theme didn’t catch on with consumers.  Caddy would not have time to revise the look of several other key products now in the pipeline.  With CTS, the automaker must prove it can deliver the sort of quality and reliability that has often escaped it in recent years.  And ultimately, CTS must begin the process of building the “buzz” that will put it onto the shopping list of a generation of young buyers who barely know the brand exists.

It’s a big job for a small car.

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