Currently, the cheapest Cadillac is the best one you can buy. The all-new 2008 Cadillac CTS, at the bottom of the Cadillac lineup, builds in great performance and superior cabin tech. If it had better emissions performance, it would truly hit the trifecta.
The CTS uses Cadillac's 21st-century "Art and Science" styling, its sharp lines marking it clearly as a product of America's main luxury car manufacturer. The front of the car in particular abounds with geometric shapes, such as trapezoidal headlights and a pentagonal grille. The headlights are vertically aligned, with blinkers stacked above lamps. From the side, a thick C-pillar distinguishes the roofline from the window line, the latter also made distinct by a chrome liner.
Test the tech: Around the track
Cadillac wants to emphasize the sport aspect of the new CTS and gave us the rare opportunity to test the car out on the Laguna Seca racetrack. The CTS has three suspension options--FE1, FE2, and FE3--with the last being the most performance-oriented. There are also two engine options, both 3.6-liter V-6es, with one offering direct injection and 304 horsepower, a 41-horsepower gain over the base V-6. Likewise, the car can be had with a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. On the track, we drove cars with the FE3 suspension, direct injection, and both manual and automatic transmissions.
We were very confident with the CTS' performance on the track. The car held traction and didn't complain as we pushed it hard around corners. We were able to easily maintain a proper line as we put the power on during our attacks, holding the car around the turns to the track-out position. With the FE3 suspension, we didn't feel much body roll. And for the ultimate test of Laguna Seca, the corkscrew, we had no difficulty guiding the CTS over the hill and down through the turn.
The automatic did a particularly good job of maintaining a low gear that let us keep power as we slung the car around. This transmission impressed us over our entire drive. One of GM's engineers explained that the transmission is programmed to downshift based on how hard you hit the brakes, such as before entering a turn. The car won't upshift when it's in the turn, and it will maintain the lower gear outside of the corner if you keep your foot on the gas. We quickly learned how to make the transmission give us the gear we wanted based on our gas and brake input.
The manual took a little getting used to, and we initially had difficulty finding second for the downshift. But we also realized we could keep it in third and maintain power and control through the turns. Although we liked the engine during our street driving, as it hit a sweet spot for fuel economy and power, it was a little lacking on the track, keeping us from hitting 100 mph on the straightaway.
In the cabin
The cabin of the 2008 Cadillac CTS, with its comfortable seats and aesthetic design, makes for a good place to sit during a long drive. Although the car has good performance characteristics, these seats fit more strongly on the luxury side of the equation. They lack the kind of side bolstering that would keep you in place during hard cornering.
On the electronics front, the CTS employs first-rate navigation and stereo systems, but it doesn't offer cell phone integration. Hands-free calling comes through an OnStar service. When asked about Bluetooth, Cadillac staff offered two explanations: one, that people would prefer to use their Bluetooth headsets, and two, that the CTS is at the bottom of the lineup, so some gadgets need to be reserved for higher-end models. We appreciate the dancing but would still like factory-installed cell phone integration.
Navigation and audio information are displayed on an LCD that raises and lowers into the dashboard of the CTS. We like this clever interface for its good use of space--with the screen down, a narrow band remains visible where audio information is displayed. With it up, you can look at full navigation maps and more detailed audio information. There are basic audio and navigation buttons on the center stack, but most selections are made with the touch screen. We found the screen a little bit far forward, making some selections are a reach.
The navigation system uses high-resolution maps, which you can look at in plan or 3D mode. In 3D mode, major buildings and landmarks are rendered to give you a point of reference. The major problem with 3D mode is that few street names are shown. The navigation system is integrated with XM live traffic reporting and will show you incidents and traffic flow in major metropolitan areas. We like this integration, as it will warn you of upcoming traffic jams, even when you aren't under route guidance. For example, we were driving down Highway 101 south of San Francisco, and the car told us about a traffic jam 2 miles ahead, in San Mateo. That was enough warning to get off the road and take surface streets. Under route guidance, the system can route you around traffic obstructions. Weather information, another data feed from XM, can also be displayed on the car's LCD.
We were happy with the route guidance on the CTS' navigation system, too. It has text-to-speech capability and will read out the names of upcoming streets. It also shows nice, clear graphics guiding you through each turn. The points-of-interest database is also complete, with all manner of retail stores alongside the usual categories of restaurants, gas stations, and ATMs. With the system's data stored on an internal hard drive, we noticed negligible lag in bringing up information or computing routes. This is really one of the best factory navigation systems we've seen.
The stereo benefits from the navigation system's hard drive, in that you get some of its space for music storage. This is another feature we really like. You can load it with music from CDs or USB thumb drives. Yes, it has a USB port hidden in the center console, next to its iPod adaptor. And yes, we said iPod adaptor. The CTS has the most intelligent setup for digital music we've seen in a car. When accessing either the hard drive, a USB drive, or an iPod, you get an interface on the main screen that lets you select music by artist, album, genre, playlist, and track. The CD player on the CTS merely becomes a means to copy music to the hard drive, as you don't really need it to play CDs. When you rip CDs to the hard drive, all the tracks get labeled based on the car's internal Gracenote CD database. XM satellite radio is included with this audio system, and it makes very unique use of the hard drive. You can pause the current station, and up to 60 minutes of the audio stream will be stored on the hard drive. When you get back in the car, you can continue listening from where you paused. This is a great feature if you're listening to an interview and need to pop into a store.
As part of the navigation and premium audio package, our car was also equipped with a 10 speaker Bose 5.1 surround sound system. While we wouldn't say this is the best car stereo we've heard, it ranks pretty high up there. With Bose surround turned on, the speakers do a good job of enveloping the cabin, although mid to high ranges can muddy up a bit. With the system in normal mode, the audio gets a little more distinct. In general, it produces a powerful and refined sound, although we would appreciate slightly higher highs.
As if all the above weren't enough, there's also a voice-command system that lets you control the navigation and audio systems. We found that it worked all right, but it still requires a bit of command knowledge before you can use it effectively. Fortunately, the car shows help for the system on its LCD.
Under the hood
We mentioned the different engine, transmission, and suspension options above. For our test car, we had the 3.6-liter direct injection V-6 engine, six-speed automatic, and the FE3 sport suspension. Although the ride might have been a little softer with one of the more luxury-tuned suspensions, we didn't find the sport suspension unduly rough. The engine gives fast, off-the-line acceleration, but it isn't overwhelming--on the track we couldn't hit really high speeds.
For a regular road drive in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the CTS was quite enjoyable. We pushed it around the corners and it held on all the way through, with no loss of grip, although we experienced a little body roll. The steering is tightly tuned, with instant response. For most of the drive, the automatic transmission shifted normally, programmed to optimize fuel economy, but once we hit the curvy bits and started using heavy acceleration alternating with braking, it went into sport mode, holding low gear all the way out of each turn. When the transmission gets aggressive, it upshifts at around 6,000rpm, letting the engine produce a satisfying growl.
For fuel economy, the EPA rates the 2008 Cadillac CTS with direct injection engine and automatic transmission at 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. In our driving, we never broke 20 mpg, achieving an observed average of 19.2 mpg. The CTS is rated as LEV II for emissions by California's Air Resources Board.
Our 2008 Cadillac CTS, with its 3.6-liter direct injection V-6 and automatic transmission, is based at $34,545. It came equipped with the $3,300 Performance package, the $850 Luxury Level One package, and, most importantly, the navigation and premium stereo systems for $3,145. Along with a few other sundry options, our car's total price was $44,325.
You would be hard-pressed to get a BMW 335i this well-equipped for $45,000, although the engine of the BMW is a little nicer than that of the CTS. Both the Infiniti G37 Coupe and the Mercedes-Benz C300 can be had for less money, but neither is quite the cabin tech tour de force as the Cadillac CTS.