Few things are better for consumers than competition raising the bar. And no campaign seems fiercer than the one currently underway in the midsize sport-sedan segment now that Cadillac has introduced its all-new 2014 CTS to go head-to-head against the benchmark Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
While the CTS has been on the market for slightly more than a decade, up until this third-generation, Cadillac hasn't truly had the proper high-performance rear-wheel-drive architecture to build a genuine world-class fighter, both inside and out. And now that the American automaker has successfully mirrored Audi, BMW and Mercedes in overall vehicle size, engine output and cabin appointments, the first shots have been fired.
Can the Germans, who wrote the book on the midsize sport sedan, be toppled by Cadillac?
GM's premium brand took the wraps off its all-new midsize CTS sedan at the New York Auto Show in March of this year. Closely related, both inside and out, to the smaller ATS sedan, the new four-door stopped many show goers in their tracks with its stunning and aggressive styling – it is arguably the best application ever seen of Cadillac's current angular design theme, launched back in 1999 with the Evoq Concept.
To battle the Europeans, the interior would have to be world-class and the driving dynamics peerless.
But it wasn't just the fresh sheetmetal that had people talking. The new CTS measured 4.2 inches longer, nearly one inch shorter in height and slightly narrower than its predecessor. The new dimensions deliberately moved the Cadillac up and out of its awkward 'tweener' size (competitively speaking, it was larger than a 3 Series, but smaller than a 5 Series), and into the same dimensional segment as the 5 Series and its direct competitors.
To battle the Europeans, GM realized that its new sedan would need a range of engines that would deliver fuel economy at the entry-level end of the scale, and blistering performance at the top. The interior would have to be world-class and the driving dynamics peerless - the challenge required Cadillac to design, engineer and build the best car in the segment.
Our first drive of the 2014 CTS came just a few weeks ago, when Senior Editor and Test Fleet Manager Steven Ewing put the high-performance Vsport model to the test on the track at GM's own Milford Road Course. Steve was unquestionably impressed with the powerful rear-wheel-drive sedan, but he wondered how the sedan would be with the less brawny, entry-level engines. The wait would not be long, as I was able to recently jump behind the wheel of all three models.
While we dove into some of the Cadillac's mechanical tidbits at its debut, there is still more to cover.
The new CTS shares platforms with the slightly smaller ATS. Weight and balance were critical, so the new sedan utilizes lots of high strength steel, alloy suspension components and the automaker's first application of aluminum doors to save weight. All told, the new car has shed 244 pounds compared to the base 2013 3.0-liter base model, and it boasts a near 50/50 weight balance like its European rivals. While most cars are loading down the scale, the curb weight of the lightest CTS model is 3,649 pounds (for comparison, the BMW 528i tips the scales at 3,814 pounds while the Mercedes-Benz E350 is 4,012 pounds).
The new car has shed 244 pounds, and it boasts a near 50/50 weight balance like its European rivals.
Underpinning the CTS is an independent MacPherson-type front suspension, while the rear is an independent five-link setup. Standard models have fixed damping, but Magnetic Ride Control (MRC), GM's excellent active damping system, is standard on vehicles with 18- and 19-inch wheels. The steering is a ZF rack-mounted electric system with variable assist, and front four-piston aluminum Brembo brakes are standard in all models (the rear brakes are single-piston sliding iron calipers). Wheel sizes, meanwhile, range from 17- to 19-inches, depending on the powerplant and options.
Cadillac will initially drop three engines into the CTS, adding a fourth – as yet unannounced, to launch the highly anticipated CTS-V model – at a later date.
The standard engine in the 2.0T model (base price $46,025 including $925 destination) is a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder (pictured above). The powerplant is shared with the smaller ATS sedan, but for duty in the slightly heavier CTS, it has been tuned to provide an additional 35 pound-feet of torque, bringing its rating to 272 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 295 pound-feet from 1,700-5,000 rpm. Consumers will be offered the 2.0T with either rear- or all-wheel drive, but both drivelines will be mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Thanks to strong torque off the line, this standard model will run 0-60 in just over six seconds.
The new CTS will offer three engines, two transmissions and two drivelines - Cadillac has covered the bases mechanically.
Those seeking a bit more power will likely opt for the 3.6 model, a badge that hints at its naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 (pictured below), The six is also offered in the ATS, where it develops an identical 321 horsepower at 6,800 rpm and 275 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Cadillac mates the engine to an eight-speed automatic in the rear-wheel-drive model, but the all-wheel-drive version retains the six-speed automatic like the 2.0-liter. The V6 will hit the 60-mph benchmark in about six seconds flat.
The range-topping Vsport (base price $59,995 including destination) receives Cadillac's all-new twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter V6 that pumps out 420 horsepower at 5,750 rpm and 430 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. The engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic and is only sold as a rear-wheel-drive model. The Vsport is exceptionally quick; expect a 0-60 time of about 4.5 seconds.
So the new CTS will offer three engines, two transmissions and two drivelines that can be mixed and matched to make six powertrain combinations that can handle all weather conditions and keep enthusiasts beaming - Cadillac has covered the bases mechanically.
And the interior of the new CTS is equally as sweeping, with Cadillac equipping all trim levels (Standard, Luxury, Performance and Premium) with high-grade standard appointments that include acoustically laminated front side windows, 14-way power operated front seats and the Cadillac User Experience (CUE), which comes with an 8-inch flat-panel display in the center console. While leatherette is standard on the base model, there are eight different available interior environments, blending soft leather, genuine wood, real aluminum and carbon fiber. An analog instrument panel is standard, but a 12.3-inch fully reconfigurable digital cluster is offered in the higher grades. In terms of connectivity, the CTS is supplied with three USB ports, an SD card reader and an AUX input. An 11-speaker Bose audio package is also standard, with a 13-speaker Bose Centerpoint Surround Sound system optional or bundled with a premium package.
I have the feeling that CUE's clean façade has caused the interior design team to overlook basic functionality.
It is difficult to fault the passenger compartment of the CTS in terms of appointments, as Cadillac has worked exhaustively to bring everything up to the standards of the Europeans - and even exceed them in certain places (take note of the rich stitched leather at the tops of the door panels). The family resemblance between the ATS and the CTS is strong, but the cockpit of the more expensive midsize sedan is better configured when it comes to the details. I much prefer the angled controls on the doors, the high-mounted vents and forward-mounted cup holders of the CTS. The cabin is clean, classy and very inviting.
Unfortunately, I don't think I will ever warm up to CUE, even if I learn how to use it properly (during one of my tirades, a GM engineer pointed out that the silver buttons on the face are guides - a finger is supposed to go on the black space above it to work the control). While I don't really have any issues with the software aspect of the system, the capacitive touch and haptic feedback features don't work well in a constantly moving, shaking and vibrating automotive environment. Furthermore, I constantly have the feeling that CUE's clean facade, which sure looks nice when it isn't covered in fingerprints, has caused the interior design team to overlook basic functionality.
But don't think anyone at Cadillac has forgotten about safety. A look at the specification sheet reveals the CTS arrives with 10 standard airbags. Taking things a few steps further, an extensive array of optional packages bundle Forward Collision Alert, Lane Departure Warning, Side Blind Zone Alert, rear Cross Traffic Alert, Safety Alert Seat with haptic feedback, Intellibeam, full-speed Adaptive Cruise Control, Front and Rear Automatic Braking, Automatic Collision Preparation and a new Automatic Safety Belt Tightening system that removes slack in the front belts during spirited maneuvers and in the event of a collision. The list of safety equipment is exhaustive, and impressive.
Without question, the Vsport is the diamond in this bowl of CTS gems.
I wanted to spend a lot of time in all of the models, but regrettably, a limited window of time only permitted me to drive three of the new Cadillacs. To obtain a well-rounded overview, I grabbed the keys to a 2.0T RWD, 3.6 AWD and a Vsport RWD.
Without question, the Vsport (pictured below) is the diamond in this bowl of CTS gems. Like all of the other models, it feels smaller than it really is on the roads – only marginally larger than the ATS, if forced to make a comparison – and that translates to very relaxed driving, as there is no worry about where its four tires are rolling. The twin-turbo V6 is very powerful, and it really came to life when toggled into 'Sport' mode with the suspension buttoned down and the exhaust opened up. In this configuration, the twin-turbocharged engine moved the CTS effortlessly, cracking off the 60-mph benchmark in less than five seconds.
The eight-speed transmission in the Vsport is commendably quick, and smooth too. Even though I find the magnesium paddleshifters on the steering wheel a bit gimmicky for use on public roads, they are a quick grab and easy to flick with my fingers. In terms of handling, the 18-inch tire package (GM won't fit the 19-inch wheels to the Vsport) provides plenty of stick, and the four-door feels well-balanced in the corners. Based on my street drive on some tight twisty roads, the Vsport is more engaging to drive than the BMW or the Mercedes-Benz, which both feel heavier and less connected to the road. Sadly, my enjoyable time in the canyons left me yearning to drive the Vsport on the track, like Mr. Ewing did, to legally push the sedan to its limits.
The 2.0T, with its small displacement turbocharged four-cylinder, is only entry level in price - it is my second favorite of the three. Its best attributes include reduced mass in the nose, impressive engine torque and strong fuel economy. Physically speaking, the longitudinally mounted inline-four sits nearly completely aft of the front axle, which is the ideal location when it comes to weight distribution optimized for handling. On the twisty sections of the drive, the 2.0T proved to be a champ, as its lighter front end translated to a more agile demeanor when it was asked to perform directional changes. Its torque rating bests the naturally aspirated V6, and this meant there was plenty of grunt on hand during urban driving. While the eight-speed is more adept at choosing the proper gear for the conditions, the six-speed automatic is more than tolerable (even so, it's a shame GM chooses to cut costs with the gearbox). And, as expected, the 2.0T is the mileage champ in terms of highway cruising and real-world fuel economy (Cadillac estimates the 2.0T RWD EPA ratings will be 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway).
The 2.0T is only entry level in price - it was my second favorite of the three.
My least favorite of the three was the naturally aspirated six-cylinder, even though it is expected to be the volume leader as Cadillac's older and more traditional buyers likely won't settle for anything less. Its best attributes are its smoothness at all speeds and horsepower at the higher end of the tachometer. The V6 idles with a nearly imperceptible growl, a sound much more pleasing than the four, and that refinement doesn't let up as the powerplant nears redline. Even though I prefer the torque of the turbocharged mill around town, and the added weight of the AWD system only hurt acceleration in the dry, and there was no comparison to be made at higher speeds when the V6 could utilize its full 321 horsepower to quickly pass slower vehicles.
There is much to like with the CTS. The styling is fresh, exciting and aggressive (kudos to the designer who penned the LED daytime running lamps) and the chassis beneath the sheetmetal is impressively rigid. All of the powerplants bring something unique to the table, and the interior appointments are world-class. The MRC suspension is still one of the best in the world in terms of overall ride and control, and Cadillac's decision not to put the 19-inch wheels on the Vsport, as they don't handle as well as the 18-inch rubber, was correct.
Cadillac has a bona fide winner on its hands with its new CTS.
Yet there is always room for improvement, and the CTS didn't escape my scrutiny. First, the exterior mirrors may look cool to the stylists, but they are too small to provide a comfortable overview of the traffic around the sedan. Second, I found the rear seating area a bit cramped for my six-foot two-inch frame. A look at the specification sheet reveals the midsize Cadillac is still smaller than the 5 Series and E-Class in terms of second-row legroom, and it felt that way during a half-hour stint back there. Lastly, the huge list of electronic driving aids seems to encroach on the driving experience, detracting from the behind-the-wheel enjoyment in the process.
Cadillac has a bona fide winner on its hands with its new CTS, but is it going to topple the 5 Series and E-Class?
Not likely in the immediate future - and it has nothing to do with the all-new CTS as a vehicle, but rather the deep-rooted cachet that the Europeans have spent decades earning. The Cadillac is a phenomenal midsize sport sedan, and its newfound excellence will unquestionably grow its market share, but convincing buyers in this premium segment to switch brands, and country of origin, is extremely challenging if not near impossible. This is a long-term, very competitive and continually changing battle. The folks at Cadillac should feel very comfortable knowing they finally have the finest tools for the engagement.