First Drive: 2008 Cadillac CTS

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It's easy to write off a new model when clever ad campaigns and the PR machine work overtime to convince you that it's God's gift to tarmac. In the case of the new CTS, a hard sell is completely unnecessary. Eschewing the hype and the art-and-science drivel, you're left with a striking exterior and the driving dynamics to match. Surprised? We were. And after a day of merciless flogging though the undulating hills of the Pacific coast, followed by a two-hour all-out assault on Laguna Seca, we came away with a newfound respect for not only Caddy's 2008 sports sedan, but the automaker as a whole.

When the CTS was introduced back in 2001, the new knife-edge design vocabulary may have proved off-putting to some, but it was a sign of good things to come. For 2008, Cadillac has moved the bar northward more notches than we can count, and came away with one of the most compelling American designs of the 21st century.

The hard lines found in the previous model gave way to a more smoothed out appearance which is still instantly recognizable, but strikes us as considerably more mature. The wheelbase remains the same, but the track has been widened by a full two inches, which not only pays dividends in the design department, but also offers considerably more grip than its predecessor.

The front fascia is far and away the most striking exterior element, with its deeply downward drawn grille, high-tech headlamps and conservative chrome accents. Moving on to the side, the air outlets ahead of the A-pillar have been talked to death, so we'll just say that they're as handsome as they are functional. Viewed from both the front and rear three-quarters perspective, it's obvious that the design department was going for a pitched, coupe-like profile. And while the C-pillar may appear chunky at first, it integrates well into the trunk lid, and does little to hamper rearward visibility. All that said, the back end left us longing for something a bit more compelling, but the revised tail lamps, complete with LEDs and light bar, offset the otherwise moribund posterior.

Pop open the hood and you're greeted with acres of plastic hiding away Cadillac's optional 3.6-liter direct injection V6. Producing 304 HP at 6,200 RPM and 273 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,100 RPM, this is the most powerful NA V6 engine GM has ever brought to market, and it fits the CTS like a glove. The high points include variable valve timing, aluminum block, cylinder heads and baffled oil pan, and an electronic throttle that does little to dampen enthusiastic squirts to the long pedal on the right.

The direct injection system on the CTS increases output both in horsepower and torque (fifteen percent and eight percent, respectively) as well as lowering emissions and boosting fuel economy by a marginal level (three percent). The only problem: noise. As anyone who's driven or been around a direct injected vehicle can attest, the incessant clicking from underneath the hood is enough to warrant a set of earplugs. With the CTS, Cadillac's acoustic engineers realized that engine noise is contrary to the brand's image and went about installing, not one, not two, but eight different buffers to negate the noise both inside and out. The abridged list includes a full-perimeter hood seal accompanied by an acoustically-tuned engine cover, engine valley "stuffers," engine bay "side curtains", a cover for the DI fuel pump and belly pan, as well as a laminated steel and blanketed dash panel. While noise reduction is all well and good, our first concern was how much weight this would add over the front end. A GM spokesperson wasn't sure, so we're hoping to find out tomorrow, but considering that the CTS is a full 400 pounds heavier than a 3-series, we think it's a valid concern.

The CTS comes in three different suspension specs: FE1, FE2 and FE3. While all models get the ZF steering rack and a functional front strut tower bar, we spent all our time in the FE3 model, which comes equipped with uprated brakes, Sachs Nivomat rear shocks (Bilsteins are standard) and 18x8.5-inch wheels with supercar-chic Michelin Pilot Sport 2 summer performance gumballs. We've had the chance to sample these tires on a number of vehicles, and they are far and away some of the best OEM-equipped rubber we've ever encountered – which speaks volumes about Cadillac's intentions for the CTS.

On the road, the suspension's compliance, even in FE3-spec, is incredibly tactile and exceptionally comfortable. Even on some of the more pocked roads that made up our test route, the CTS soaked up most imperfections with aplomb, but there was never a feeling of being overly isolated. Since the suspension has been only slightly revised for 2008, with the front upper and lower control arms getting aluminum units, while out back the multi-link arrangement remains largely the same, we were impressed with how small tweaks have made the new CTS a superior vehicle over its predecessor.

Our drive took us through some light South Bay traffic and then pointed us east through some of the more therapeutic roads winding through the hills leading to the Pacific. Most were narrow thoroughfares with sweeping, high-speed turns that brought out the best in the CTS's suspension. However, the best was yet to come, and the real test was awaiting us at Laguna Seca.

With access to both six-speed manual and automatic versions, our first hot lap out on the track introduced us to the idea of swapping cogs in a Cadillac. While pedal placement was spot-on, and heel-and-toe downshifts were easily achieved, the action of the shifter left much to be desired. Rubbery, long throws lacked any real feedback and were the preeminent buzzkill for the day. With everything else going for it, the manual-equipped CTS was a considerable disappointment, but thankfully, we doubt that many owners will check off the stick-shift option, which is all well and good, since the automatic fits the bill six days a week.

The auto-box gives you the option to stick it in Drive or Manual, with the latter changing the aggression of the shifts, even though you may choose not to pick your own gear. When you do downshift, a reasonably quick blip matches the revs after only a slight hesitation. Our only gripe with the manumatic operation was upshifts, which seemed to take far too long to be considered sporty. If there's an Achilles heel with the CTS, the gearboxes could be it.

As for handling, the CTS still may not be in the realm of its Germanic rivals, but it's getting closer than the folks at BMW and Mercedes would like. While the over boosted steering of the ZF setup was a bit lackluster at low speeds, once the friction circle starts getting beyond 7/10ths everything seems to click. Turn in is aggressive and easily correctable, while dive and squat is virtually non-existent. A truly compelling piece of kit, and we're still amazed that it's a Caddy.

Tomorrow, we'll be sampling all the wonders within, as the PR folks get into detail about Cadillac's new interior and infotainment setup. Look for that in another 24 hours.

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