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BBC Autos

Review

Cadillac CTS: The new standard?

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

HIDE CAPTION

Pity the performance sedan.

Were it enough that it conveyed four adults and their weekend bags to the country house. No. It must be transportive.

The measure of a performance sedan is taken on this awkward score. Seating for four (or five with a squeeze), ample trunk space and cocktail conversation-appropriate fuel economy numbers are expected to coexist with a nagging little red devil that aches for release at every bend.

Pity, then, the passengers in the 2014 Cadillac CTS, who might unwittingly find themselves in a Michigan-built Cuisinart. The devil does not infect the driver’s hands and feet in this car; he takes whole corporeal possession.

Maybe no sedan south of a $200,000 Aston Martin Rapide makes such an event of a corner. As fingertips pull downshifts via magnesium paddles, the car lunges into the curve. Pens, coins, water bottles and mobile phones clatter to the carpet. By turn’s exit – approached sooner and with less body roll than in most sedans of this, or any, size – right foot has long since resumed mashing the gas. Even Cadillac’s smaller ATS sedan, by many scores the dynamic equal to BMW’s vaunted 3 Series, cannot match the confidence-stoking swagger of the CTS.

And swagger the CTS has, a sentiment overheard throughout the 2013 New York auto show, where the car made its debut. Unlike its two predecessors, which languished in a nonconforming netherworld between compact and mid-size categories, the third-generation CTS was built to compete on size, performance and price with the mid-size Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series, Audi A6 and Jaguar XF, as well as Lexus’ overhauled GS sedan. These cars do not coast on prestige; they look and drive the part of performance luxury sedans.

The CTS, though, may look and drive the part better.

A cool upsweep runs along the car’s flanks, disappearing just before the taillights. Character lines pull taut like parachute cables at the car’s nose, the defining line travelling all the way from the rear deck. Though a three-quarter vantage is best for taking in Cadillac’s most cohesive design since the 1960s, the CTS’s best angle may be dead-on centre. The brand’s creative agency certainly seems to think so:

The nose has it, on Manhattan's Eighth Avenue. (Jonathan Schultz)

The nose has it, on Manhattan's Eighth Avenue. (Jonathan Schultz)

The CTS’s interior is not as convincing. Upon vehicle start-up, the full-LCD gauge cluster mistakes itself for a digital slot machine, becoming awash in swirling colour patterns before dropping into a conventional tachometer, speedometer and fuel/temperature layout. Entering the CTS should be an occasion, Cadillac suggests, but the effect is more Atlantic City than Monte Carlo.

Other premium features could have used more time in the oven. Adaptive IntelliBeam headlights were flummoxed by reflective road signage, flicking indecisively between high and low settings. A rear-seat heater refused to turn off, resulting in a toasty ride for a passenger until the engine was powered down. Automatic safety-belt tightening, a feature intended to hold driver and front passenger snug under sudden braking – which it does quite well – activates every time the vehicle starts up, resulting in a brief but flustering tug across the chest. Every time.

The salve, of course, lies in the driving. Between 3,500rpm and 5,500rpm, the tested car’s 272-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine is an eager little noisemaker. Almost unnerving levels of balance in corners – the body remains horizon-flat, and even with rear-wheel drive, loath to break free of the tarmac – illustrates why two 3.6-litre V6s, rated at 321hp and 420hp respectively, are on the options sheet. (A monstrous CTS-V producing in excess of 550hp is expected to bow in 2014.)

Snow in the Catskills Mountains of New York provided an unforeseen traction test, one which this rear-drive model with low-profile all-season Pirellis faced down with Quattro-like poise. Credit the Snow & Ice drive mode, which optimised Cadillac’s optional Magnetic Ride Control suspension for improved traction.

Snow & Ice was dialled in via a simple switch aft of the gear selector. If only operating a Cadillac were always so intuitive.

The company’s Cue touch-screen multimedia system and adjacent climate and audio controls remain quite literally hit-or-miss propositions. A steady finger lands just wide of the desired defrost icon or volume control with alarming frequency. Is this the price of progress? Roll on Cue 2.0 – preferably integrating the hard buttons and dials that have made Chevrolet’s MyLink the best telematics package in General Motors’ tool box.

Cadillac has nevertheless invested boldly on marrow-deep improvements that a suburban test drive may not reveal. Only during a prolonged play date might a shopper feel the CTS bloom – and its competitive advantages pile up. Granted, a $66,000 four-cylinder car like the one tested is a brave new world for Cadillac, and patrons of German engineering may scoff at such brash pricing. But Cadillac doesn’t fancy itself a whelp in the mid-size luxury dogfight – and for the first time, it doesn’t have to.