2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe - Click above for high-res image gallery

There was a time when General Motors was a design leader. Before the Aztek, before the Catera, before the Sunfire and before the Citation, GM was synonymous with bold, strong, emotional automotive design. The General was so good at it that in the 1950s it was able to flood dealerships and stress factories just by tweaking a given model's sheetmetal a few shades. Imagine anyone caring about a new rear end on a 2011 Chevy Malibu. Yet the revised bodywork of the 1956 Bel Air was a major cultural phenomenon.

The name Harley Earl – the legendary head of GM design from 1927 until 1958 – still strikes reverence into the hearts of many. One glance at his famed Buick Y-Job, a 1949 Cadillac or the original Corvette is enough to see why. Earl's parting shot was the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado – the one with the tail fins that could nearly touch the moon. Then you have Earl's successor, Bill Mitchell, the man responsible for the third generation Corvette, the 1966 Toronado and the magnificent boattail Buick Riviera.

For a variety of reasons, in the 1970s General Motors and striking design parted ways. GM's styling wandered through the desert, swapping glitz, purpose and chrome for tighter profit margins, increased badge engineering and a large patina of plain ol' dull. All you need to do is take a gander at the third-generation B-bodies to see how far GM went in the wrong direction. Let's not even mention cladding.

For the last decade or so there have been signs of hope. Vehicles like the Chevrolet SSR, Pontiac Solstice, C6 Corvette and the new Camaro were proof that GM and great design are on the road to reconciliation. As a division, Cadillac has made the biggest strides with their Art and Science design motif, showing great signs of life. The front end of the second generation CTS is fantastic. From a pure design point of view, and with the possible exception of the now dead Pontiac Solstice, no General Motors design has been world class since Mitchell retired in 1977.

That changes now. Meet the 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

It's difficult to describe just how striking the CTS Coupe is in the flesh. Fresh, crisp, bold, sexy, smart, savvy and even – to quote Cadillac – audacious. We hate to swallow marketing pabulum of any sort, but in this situation, with this car, the descriptor "audacious" rings absolutely true. What other word could we use to explain the dramatic, emotional and complex combination of lines, angles and curves that make up this new Cadillac? "Brave" perhaps, but regardless of the adjective, the CTS Coupe is a shot across the design world's bow.

The CTS Coupe is not simply a two-door version of the four-door CTS. Instead, Cadillac opted to shorten the car by two inches, widen the rear track by two inches and chop the roof by two inches. Naturally, if you take away two inches of height you have to give it back somewhere else, right? Cadillac says that's not really so, noting that it was able to simply lower the CTS Coupe's seats by nearly two inches making no one the wiser. Caddy also raked the Coupe's windshield back, producing a much racier profile than either the CTS sedan or Sport Wagon. They also yanked the door handles off, instead favoring two pushbutton Corvette-style openers hidden in the doors' metal. When the decision was made to, "Build the concept car," that entailed keeping the dual center-mounted tail pipes where they were. We freely admit that they look quite good, however be prepared to burn the front of your calves when getting groceries out of the trunk.

The most audacious (there's that word again) aspect of the Coupe's design is its rear end. It looks like nothing else on the road. At once muscular yet avant-garde, the straight-on and rear three-quarter view of the CTS Coupe's haunches is mesmerizing. We found ourselves muttering, "That's a good looking car," every time we stopped and looked. From its vertical, LED-filled taillights to the third brake light that's angled up enough to double as a downforce-generating spoiler to more points than a star fish, the CTS Coupe is Tertris meets tangrams meets sophisticated industrial design. It all works fabulously; the Coupe is an aspirational shape, one that simultaneously signifies a suddenly reborn brand. Once again and for the first time in a while, we're talking world-class.

The Coupe's interior is a different chapter from an older book. While there's no question that the second generation CTS' innards are a large step in the right direction, you won't find yourself thinking "The Standard of the World" while sitting in the captain's chair. The wood is nice, and there's leather trim here and there, but there is also a whole mess of fake leather and real plastic. Competitive with Lexus or the Hyundai Genesis, sure, but in no way does the Coupe's interior approach the luxury level of recent, resurgent Mercedes-Benz. And thirty-seconds spent in the new Porsche Panamera will leave you shaking your head in terms of Cadillac's take on luxury.

The wood-capped steering wheel is thick and fully adjustable, and is now heated, but for an exterior design of such sporting pretensions, it still errs on the side of your Uncle Al's Caddy. Cadillac has seen fit to include shift-buttons on the back of the helm (left for down, right for up), but serious drivers will prefer actual paddles. That said, it's a step in the right direction, especially as the CTS' gear-shift manual mode is activated by flopping the lever over to the right, into the passenger's knee space. Curiously, the new SRX's shifter flops to the left, towards the driver. As for the rear seats, they are on par with the space provided by Benz's E-Coupe or the Audi A5, though ingress and egress can be a bit of a squeeze. Really, no worse than the competition, though the front seats in the Mercedes do automatically slide when the seatback is flipped forward.

Then there's the matter of the slide up navigation screen. A nifty trick, but like similar moving parts in the new crop of Jaguars, we're left anxious in anticipation of the day when those little electric motors stop working. However, unlike the Jaguar's gearshift puck and air vents, the CTS Coupe will still be drivable when the nav-screen refuses to rise. When it's up, the display's quality is (again) not nearly up to snuff with what the competition is selling. Actually, forget other luxury cars, a Sync with Sirius Travel Link-equipped Ford Focus features a screen that's roughly five times better. To their credit, the Cadillac folks acknowledged that the interior isn't world class – yet. They suggested several times that we should wait 18 months before issuing final judgment, whatever that means.

On the road, everything that's good about the four-door CTS is amplified in the coupe. You're lower to the road, the wider rear-track and sticky 19-inch summer tires provide gooey gobs of grip and the view out over the hood is definitely sporting. The only available Coupe engine is the more potent 304 horsepower, 274 pound-feet of torque 3.6-liter V6, as opposed to the sedan which can also be had with a less powerful 3.0-liter V6. Well, we shouldn't say "only available" as the full-mental patient 556-hp supercharged LSA motor will be available in the CTS-V Coupe when both models go on sale later this summer. However, Cadillac chooses to view the V Coupe as a separate model, and for the purposes of this review, so shall we.

The direct-injection 3.6-liter V6 provides adequate if not good forward thrust, though introducing a new model into such a hyper-competitive segment and not being the most potent in class can be viewed as a bit of a head-scratcher. For instance, the Coupe is more powerful than the E350 Coupe and Audi A5, but is nearly thirty ponies down on the Infiniti G37 Coupe. Likewise, both the Merc and the Audi can be had with more powerful mills – the E550 Coupe and S5, respectively. We asked Cadillac if they planned to offer a CTS Coupe with the 6.2-liter LS3, with its 425 or so ponies and 420+ lb-ft of torque (depending on tune) or even the (slightly) less potent L99 6.2-liter V8. Our thinking being that a butt-kicking V8 would endow the CTS Coupe with performance worthy of its looks while smothering the competition without breaking the bank like the CTS-V is sure to do. For their part, Cadillac said "no," but we observed more than one suspicious smirk while they were answering. Either way, more power would do the Coupe wonders.

For the launch, Cadillac only had automatic-equipped Coupes on hand. A pity, sure, but we should point out that there's a less than thirty-pound weight penalty should you opt for the slushbox version (the manual Coupe weighs about 3,900 pounds, the automatic about 3,930, while the all-wheel drive Coupe, which is automatic-only, tips the scales at a hefty 4,100 pounds). The six-speed cogswapper performs quite well in both low-speed traffic situations and on back roads, where a heavy right-foot will convince the transmission to hold a gear until near redline. The wheel-mounted button-shifters work fine, and for the first time in a Cadillac, you don't need to move the gearshift into manual for the buttons to work. A very handy feature. If you do select a gear while in auto, the transmission moves in manual-mode for about ten seconds before reverting back to full-auto. The shifts, however, are on the slow side, and as far as we can ascertain, no dual-clutch transmission is in the immediate future.

As mentioned, the grip is copious if not prolific, in part due to the well sorted chassis and wider rear-track, though mostly, we suspect, because of the super-sticky Continental summer tires (245/19/40 front, 275/19/35 rear). For such a heavy two-door, the Cadillac is able to admirably change direction. At least as well as the G37, Audi A5 and E-Coupe, though its moves are not nearly as graceful and athletic as the thoroughbred BMW 3 Series. This is still good news, and a touch surprising when you compare the Coupe to the same-engined, similarly hefty Chevy Camaro. Again, this points to the inherent sportiness of the CTS' Nürburgring-tuned chassis. Remember, too, that come 2015, both the CTS and the Camaro is expected to ride on GM's new Alpha chassis, along with the upcoming Cadillac ATS, a dedicated 3 Series fighter.

The Coupe's ride isn't quite up to its handling. Cadillac has decided to go with floaty as opposed to tight and tied down. That makes the CTS Coupe something of a handful when the going gets really twisty. In fact, Cadillac made a point of offering us motion sickness hand wraps that they had procured after the previous day's drive. In fairness, we were turned loose on some rather excellent roads in California's Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties that would surely upset several stomachs no matter what car we were driving. We didn't get sick, nor did our passenger, but we found ourselves begging for firmer dampers and less bounce. Unlike the upcoming CTS-V Coupe, the regular flavor Coupe isn't available with GM's excellent MagneRide suspension, which is a shame.

At the end of the day, however, ride and handling, acceleration and even the interior aren't the point of the CTS Coupe. Style is, and in that regard Cadillac has grand-slammed it. Take a look at the competition. All of the previously mentioned Germans and Japanese two-doors simply can't hold a candle to the Coupe's glorious lines. The shape and the shape alone is what will attract buyers. And really, by taking the bold way out and "building the concept car," Cadillac has accomplished something we think is really, truly special. With the already gorgeous front end of the CTS coupled to the sculpted, athletic profile and sleek, groundbreaking rear, the Coupe is a powerful statement. Announcing that not only is GM on the road to recovery, but that Cadillac is once again ready to compete with the world's best.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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