The fact that the 2011 CTS Coupe is here at all is something of a miracle altogether. The car was originally scheduled to land in showrooms over a year ago, but GM's bankruptcy put the project on hold. After it appeared the sun would rise again on Detroit, the two-door program was revived and now both the CTS Coupe and performance-minded CTS-V Coupe go on sale in August of this year. That makes six total variants of the popular CTS model: sedan, coupe and wagon, each in CTS or performance CTS-V form (the wagon version of the CTS-V goes on sale at the end of this year). Porsche does this with their 911 (there are 17 versions of the sports car) and Ford has a similar strategy with its Mustang. Finally Cadillac has something that’s worth exploiting.
Caught in the middle of the company's meltdown, insiders tell us that the CTS Coupe actually benefited by staying in the shadows. The production car you see here is virtually unchanged from the concept car that first debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in 2008, meaning the impressive rear stance and clean, handle-less doors remain. Even the center-outlet exhaust carried over from the concept.
We’re glad not much changed. The CTS Coupe is arguably GM’s most beautiful production car -- an angular tour de force that somehow still manages to possess human curves. Side profile views of the vehicle illustrate the knife-blade greenhouse, while the rear three-quarter view shows off the lifted rumpus, itself so high that you’d wonder if there was a rear window after all. It’s quite a car to behold from any angle, visually worth every bit of the $38,990 starting price.
When I headed out to drive the car, the Cadillac executives on hand were quick to point out that they worked hard to develop something that was as engaging inside as it was viewed from the outside. They said their new Coupe was equal or better than the BMW 335i, arguably the class of the field.
“Dynamically, we’re right there with BMW and Audi, you’ll see” said Dave Leone, the chief engineer for the program. Whether or not he was telling the truth would be put to the test over the course of about three hours of seat time in a range of conditions in the roads around Napa Valley.
Because the CTS Coupe is a few inches shorter in height than the CTS sedan (it's also two inches wider and two inches shorter in length), the first thing you notice is that you’re sitting lower and have a limited view of the front of the vehicle. Drivers won't be able to see the corners of the front of the car as a result, but that's the compromise associated with creating the swoopy design. As in the sedan, knee room is limited and drivers over 5’10” are likely to want for more width for their legs -- a curious problem we’ve noted with the sedan, but even more so in the wider coupe. Rearward visibility is also sparse, due to the large C-pillars and slotted, raked rear window. Those comments aside, people won’t buy the CTS Coupe for maximum visibility. Fashion comes at a price.
The interior of the Coupe, like the sedan, is awash with premium touches like top-stitched leather and Cadillac’s innovative now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t navigation system that stows away when you don’t need it. It’s quite impressive at first glance -- more striking than the BMW or Infiniti interiors, but not as sophisticated as Audi’s. When you spend some time using the interior in various lighting conditions, it becomes apparent that some parts of the cabin remain underwhelming, such as the cheap-to-the-touch switches in the center console and the way some pieces of the interior move when you press your hand against them. In addition, it was disappointing to see that not even Cadillac could escape GM’s delusionary belief that bright chrome is appealing to the luxury buyer.
Getting out onto the roads, the vehicle reveals itself as an actual sports coupe, something that you'd probably never thought you'd read about a Cadillac. Remember, the last time Cadillac offered a coupe was the 1992-2002 Eldorado, a vehicle so long it was only two inches shorter than today's Escalade SUV. The new CTS Coupe is over a foot shorter, and can go, stop, turn and corner as if it was made to do so, a departure from so many lethargic and bloated two-doors by GM in the past (in addition to the Eldorado, consider the 1995-1999 Buick Riviera or any year of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo).
As it turns out, Cadillac’s Leone wasn’t telling the whole truth. We noted during our drive that the steering could be improved on two fronts. Steering feel is overboosted to the point of feeling a bit too light. In addition, the size of the steering wheel could be smaller in diameter. While the size doesn't seem to be an issue in the CTS sedan (which has the same wheel), given the more supine driving position in the coupe, the geometry of your body in relation to the wheel creates a different arm angle. Getting the edges of the wheel as close to the center becomes more important as a result.
The CTS Coupe shares most of its mechanicals with the sedan (the rear suspension went through some modifications in the change from sedan to coupe, however) and the 3.6-liter direct-injection V6 from the four-door is a good carryover. At 304 horsepower it has reasonable grunt (competitors such as the Audi A5 and BMW 3-series have base engines with less power, while the Infiniti G37 starts at 330) with adequate mid-range thrust but not a lot of top-end power. We drove the six-speed automatic, although there is a six-speed manual available. The excellent ZF transmission with Driver Shift Control helps the automatic-equipped cars tremendously as it will downshift quickly under braking or heavy throttle.
If the coupe labored a bit in tighter corners, it shined in long, sweeping curves where it seemed to take advantage of its two-inch wider track and sticky Continental summer tires. Unlike the Infiniti G37 or BMW 3-series coupes, the CTS drives "big" but not in a way that makes it unwieldy. In fact, the CTS is actually more controlled under braking than either the Infiniti or Audi. If you're traveling over an uneven road and need to get the car slowed down, it's reassuring that it all comes together with composure. When pushing hard, however, we noticed that the car has a tendency to float; the hood doesn’t leap into the air like a Coupe de Ville, but in a sports sedan we could have used suspension that held closer to the road. The CTS-V will get the tighter, more sophisticated MagneRide suspension, something that will likely appear in the base Coupe after a few years according to GM insiders.
While the dynamics of the Cadillac are not at the level of BMW’s 3-series, the car is incredibly fun. It is a bit sloppier when pushed hard, but really quite engaging for a heavier apparatus. The Cadillac weighs some 500 lbs more than the BMW 3-series coupe, trails in comparison in terms of steering and suspension, yet remains fun to drive because -- for a change -- the parts of the driving experience actually constitute a whole. Unlike so many GM products before it, the CTS Coupe actually seems comfortable in its own skin. The lights are on and she doesn’t mind walking around without her clothes on.
Unfortunately, the vehicle still has a ways to go in terms of the driver’s overall experience. The CTS Coupe suffers from a lack of attention to detail around the edges that, simply put, other premium brands wouldn’t let slip past. Most of these flaws are experiential, not something that can be found on the spec sheet but involve that final one percent. For example, the red, faded digital readout for the gear selector is out of place, if a bit gaudy, resembling an old clock radio. Similarly, the age-old turn signal click-click-click recalls Grandma's Fleetwood Brougham, while the door ajar alert buzz would make Syd Barrett's most unruly hallucinogenic demons come back to life. These are small things, but it is in the small details where we connect with cars and, ultimately, where premium brands earn their keep.
Completeness is something that's found within cars that have either been stripped of everything but their essentials (the Mazda MX-5 Miata was -- and still is -- a good example) or those that have been made painstakingly consistent and unified despite their abundance of features (Audi A4, BMW 3-series, or even the new Ford F-150). Right now the CTS Coupe is an "almost there" product that will probably fight near the top of its class during its mid-cycle refresh if some of these finer points are addressed. The most unlikely part of the mission – watching Cadillac actually build a, real, honest sports coupe – is complete. It’s the little things that remain unresolved, that which brands like BMW do so well most every time.