Photos copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
When Cadillac set out to build a wagon version of the popular CTS sedan, the goal was to export a considerable volume overseas where wagons are welcomed with open arms. A new 2.9-liter diesel powertrain was rumored to be the engine of choice for our European allies, giving car buyers the oil burners they expect across the pond. By the time the production CTS Sportwagon was ready for prime time, though, General Motors was prepping for bankruptcy and its Europe-based Opel brand was on the auction block. Gas prices had also dropped considerably here in the States, making the prospect of an expensive diesel engine in the U.S. market even more unlikely.
After months of careful planning, GM's plan to build many CTS Sportwagons for overseas markets is looking as hazy as the Southern California skyline. The Caddy wagon may now have to survive mainly by its success or failure in North America, and GM is clearly hoping that high style with a dash of functionality will win the day.
At first glance, the CTS Sportwagon is a real eye-catcher. It's bold, form-over-function sheetmetal catches the eye, then details like three-foot-long tail lights and 19-inch wheels help keep onlookers fixed on the prize. Cadillac has astutely dialed back its chrome quotient over the past couple years, and the CTS Sportwagon manages to stand out without mimicking a pimp's dental work.
What makes the CTS Sportwagon really look special is its raked roofline, which gives it an athletic appearance. Cadillac will tell you that the 58-cubic-feet of cargo capacity with the rear seats folded flat are within one foot of the much taller SRX, but we'd argue that the smallish rear hatch opening and steeply raked roofline makes that space far less usable. For example, we couldn't fit a kid's bike in the back (with the rear seat up) without removing the handle bars. We're talking about a six-year-old's bike, but the low roofline of the CTS Sportwagon doesn't abide by awkward-shaped objects.
The Sportwagon does have some strong utilitarian points, though, including a power liftgate that adjusts its opening height at the touch of a button (to accommodate short drivers or low garage clearances) and an ingenious cargo management system that allows owners to corral their groceries in a manner that prevents them from sliding all over the place. There is also a cargo door on the rear floor that reveals a recessed area with a rubber floormat to secure more valuable items from public view.
But any shortcomings the CTS Sportwagon has out back is more than made up for with a brilliantly laid out cabin that mirrors that of the CTS sedan. Cadillac designers have included soft touch materials throughout accented by the brand's well-regarded cut-and-sew stitching. The seats in the CTS are terrific, with firm foam to keep backsides happy even on long drives, along with lateral bolstering suitable for a luxury vehicle that just happens to have some moves. The Caddy's center stack doubles as an infotainment command center, with an available ginormous pop-up navigation screen that is easy to use, along with terrifically executed MP3 player integration that works without the need to hit a bunch of buttons.
Of course, the minute we discovered that we could simply call On-Star and tell them where we wanted to go and they'd map out our destination for us, we got lazy and stopped entering info into the navigation system ourselves. Using On-Star is safer and arguably easier, as you interact with an actual human being who can help determine exactly where you need to go, even if you're traveling at 70 mph. That said, not everyone is interested in interacting with an actual human being – or adding another monthly fee to their stack of bills – and will be perfectly happy with Cadillac's nav system that forgoes joysticks, knobs and other crazy controllers for simple onscreen executions.
While the CTS Sportwagon is impressive inside, it certainly isn't perfect. Lack of driver legroom is the largest issue. That command center of the center stack is so wide that it intrudes upon the driver's right knee space. It's almost impossible for an average-sized driver to find an ideal driving position unless the seat is moved uncomfortably far away from the steering wheel. Cadillac could partially alleviate the pain of this encroachment by adding some cushy padding to the sides of the stack, as what's currently there doesn't give enough to coddle our caps. Another more minor annoyance is that the car's high beltline narrows the view outside and makes the cabin feel isolated.
As a luxury wagon, Cadillac delivers the style and comfort that customers expect. But since Cadillac has decided to go the extra mile and call its newest ride a Sportwagon, we expect an engaging driving experience as well. To examine the SW's performance chops, we first look at hardware. Our tester came equipped with a direct injected 3.6-liter V6 engine capable of 304 horsepower and 273 lb-ft mated to a slick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. Our rear-wheel drive Sportwagon also came equipped with 19-inch alloys covered with super sticky ContiSport Contact 3 summer radials, GM's taut FE3 suspension package and a moonroof, bringing its MSRP to $53,455. All-wheel drive is available at extra cost, but our tester's pricetag is otherwise representative of a fully loaded example.
On paper, the CTS Sportwagon sounds like a competent performer, and the specs are confirmed when judged from behind the wheel. When tooling around town, the 3.6-liter V6 is very responsive, with ample power available across the range. When in auto mode, a quick stab at the pedal results in a slight delay before acceleration, but head over to sport mode and you'll find that the go pedal is markedly more responsive. GM says the CTS Sportwagon will hit 60 mph in 6.9 seconds, which isn't exactly burning up the pavement but more than adequate in a two ton luxury tourer. We achieved 21 mpg while largely tooling around town in the CTS Sportwagon; a mid-pack figure that is in line with its expected 18/25 fuel economy numbers.
The sedan version of the Cadillac CTS really comes alive on the open road, but we had our reservations that the wagon's extra 200 lbs would hamper performance. We didn't worry for long. The Sportwagon has the same 191.6 inch length and 113.4 inch wheelbase as the sedan, and its hardware hasn't been dumbed down for wagon duty. Our tester's FE3 suspension held this Caddy tight in and out of curves, with minimal body roll and plenty of confidence that the ContiSport grip wasn't about to go ghost.
In our estimation, the only downside to selecting the FE3 suspension package is that it doesn't soak up bumps in the road quite as efficiently as we'd like, though we'd trade the added layer of plushness for handling any day of the week – and that's here in Michigan, where most of the road surfaces are just potholes holding hands. The Sportwagon's rack-and-pinion steering feels a bit light in stop-and-go traffic, but get its veins pumping and feedback and precision increases with speed. Interestingly, there was quite a bit of brake pedal travel on our tester, a condition that happens occasionally with aggressively driven media vehicles. We still had no problem bringing the two-ton wagon to a quick stop when the need arose, but we'd be curious to see if a fresh-from-the-line example would still show the same pedal characteristics.
It isn't hard to figure out what enthusiasts want out of an entry-level luxury vehicle. Bold, attention-grabbing styling, plenty of power and the latest tech advances are all part of the docket, and the Cadillac CTS Sportwagon delivers on all fronts. The CTS Sportwagon may well be the best looking vehicle in the Cadillac lineup, and it helps that it is also blessed with the soul of its brilliant sedan stablemate. In all, the Cadillac CTS Sportwagon offers plenty to love at a price that starts at $40,655 (including $825 for in destination charges). Add a capable, 304 hp 3.6-liter V6 and the added cargo capacity that comes with a 21st century station wagon, and the CTS Sportwagon may actually be the kind of wagon that wins over the finicky American consumer – it did the trick with us.