Future CC: The Smooth, Quiet Road to Nowhere, Part 2 – Cadillac STS

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Don’t call it another renaissance. Cadillac has recently launched two extremely talented sports sedans, the ATS and CTS. The latest CTS weighs less than key rivals and its handling is class-leading; it is also now sized and priced squarely in the mid-size luxury sports sedan segment, against the BMW 5-Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The new CTS now fills a slot in the Cadillac lineup last occupied by the STS, which was priced like a 5-Series but sized closer to a 7-Series. The STS was one of the products launched during the early-2000s product blitz that brought us the razor-edged first-generation CTS, striking mid-size crossover SRX and the gorgeous XLR roadster. Cadillac had a lot of fresh energy and momentum going at that time, but some products were more successful than others. Today we look at the STS, a product that sadly proved to be somewhat of a dead end.

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The CTS had been launched for 2002 and despite its flaws – a challenging interior, initially poor engine offerings – it was an exciting surprise. Cadillac had overnight thrown out its old design language and introduced Art&Science to the world. There was nary a curve nor piece of chrome on its exterior, and underneath this other-worldly styling was an all-new rear-wheel-drive platform architecture known as Sigma, featuring independent suspension with control arms up front and a multi-link in the rear. The five or seven-seat SRX crossover followed in 2004, offering similar styling in a wagon/crossover package, but with the option of a Northstar V8. The old guard Cadillacs were being squeezed out and the venerable Seville would die for 2004.

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The Seville’s replacement was similarly-sized but rode atop the new Sigma platform, offering a choice of the 3.6 High Feature V6 (255hp, 252lb-ft) or 4.6 Northstar V8 (320hp, 315lb-ft). All-wheel-drive was available from launch with the V8, and a V6 AWD followed in the STS’s sophomore year.  The STS was six inches longer and six inches wider than the CTS; total length was 196.3 inches, riding a 116.4 inch wheelbase. In comparison, a contemporary 5-Series was 190.6 inches long with a 113.7 inch wheelbase.

2005 Cadillac STS

Fuel economy was adequate: ponying up for the V8 only resulted in a 1mpg drop in both city and highway for RWD models (15/24mpg), but adding AWD brought down the mpg ratings for both (15/23 for the V6, 14/21 for the V8). However, the V6 was still impressively responsive, with a 0-60 of 7 seconds versus the V8’s 6 second time. 2006 would see the arrival of an even more powerful STS, the STS-V, which will be covered in a future instalment.

Outside, the STS had crisply tailored lines and a subtler interpretation of the Art&Science design language. Elegant proportions and clean surfacing made for an imposing, luxurious-looking sedan, although one considerably less bold than say, a Chrysler 300. Against its direct rivals, though, the STS stood out; the 5-Series had just been Bangle-ized, the E-Class and S-Type were both blobby, and the Infiniti M and Lexus GS were clean but inoffensive.

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Base interior. Photo courtesy of eBay Motors.

Inside, the dash design was clean and uncluttered. Base models featured an abundance of aluminum trim, but ticking some option boxes could net you beautiful real Eucalyptus trim. Unlike with the CTS, Cadillac was less fixated on making the dash look like a PC tower, but the CD and DVD slots still took up a lot of real estate, even on models optioned with the slick touch-screen infotainment interface. Still, though, it was an improvement on its predecessor and stacked up well against rivals.

2005 cadillac sts interior

Base price for the STS V6 was $41,690; upgrading to the V8 meant a list price of $47,495. The base STS V6 came well-equipped with standard features such as leather trim, dual-zone climate control, eight-way power front seats and an eight-speaker Bose sound system. Like the Germans, though, there was a multitude of options available, including adaptive cruise control, head-up display, Xenon automatic headlamps and polished wheels. For the cabin, you could option a Bose surround-sound audio system with six-disc DVD player, Bluetooth and XM Satellite radio. Premium wood trim, four-way memory seats with heating and ventilation were also available to make the cabin a more comfortable place to be. For those seeking a more dynamic STS, you could add GM’s pioneering Magnetic Ride Control, as well as performance tires, brakes and steering and a limited slip diff.  All in all, your STS could be blown out well past the $60k mark: brave territory for a Cadillac, but still undercutting similarly-equipped Germans.

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Critics were impressed. Motor Trend put the STS head-to-head with the new F60 BMW 545i, and couldn’t name a clear winner. Their V8 AWD test model didn’t quite have the weight balance or sheer power of the Bimmer, but the MRC shocks delivered an excellent ride/handling balance and the STS had a better-suited and incredibly smooth transmission and more intuitive infotainment system. Motor Trend appreciated the interior which, although not at Audi levels of quality, was vastly superior to that of the CTS/SRX and featured a “balanced, eye-pleasing combination of layout, style, function and materials.” In concluding their comparison test, the author noted, “The STS… goes down easier. It comes close to the harder-edged 545i in most areas of performance, while managing superior ride quality, stopping distances, and ease of use.”

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Photo courtesy of eBay Motors

One flaw of the STS that would rear its head was its rear seat accommodations which, given the sheer size of the car, were surprisingly snug. The STS was also a heavy car, weighing in at over 4000lbs. Chalk a bit of that up to sound deadening, though, which made for an extremely quiet cabin. Cadillac aficionados expecting that quietness to be paired with a pillow-soft ride were in for a shock: the STS had a firm suspension, but one that allowed it to pull 0.86g on a skidpad. This Caddy could handle.

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Still, the mid-size luxury sedan segment was a hotbed of impressive offerings and it certainly didn’t stay still. Group comparison tests conducted by Motor Trend and Car & Driver sung the praises of both the V6 and V8 STS models, but not enough to elevate the upstart Caddy to the top of the class. The overall verdict seemed to be that Cadillac was achingly close, but some minor niggles remained such as some ill-advised interior trim pieces.

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European market Cadillac STS

Even the notoriously critical UK auto journalists proclaimed the STS as worthy of comparison to the Europeans, if not the ultimate class leader; as discussed earlier, though, Cadillac still has yet to find success in the European market. Overall, the STS was praised by most critics for being more dynamic than the Japanese luxury offerings but less edgy than the Germans. It thus offered a uniquely American take on luxury, and one perhaps more pleasing to most consumers in theory; it still had excellent rear-wheel-drive dynamics like the Germans, but with higher levels of comfort.

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Rather than work on the minor issues keeping it from true greatness, GM decided to let the STS frustratingly hold the line. A 2008 revision brought a tweaked exterior – an attempt to keep the STS from being overshadowed in the showroom by the beautiful new CTS, no doubt – but no significant interior changes beyond a new steering wheel and some more aluminium trim. The cheap plastic trim pieces dotted here and there in the cabin remained, and Cadillac didn’t even add an conventional AUX input despite that feature’s availability in the cheaper, larger DTS.

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To add insult to injury, Cadillac had launched the Chinese-exclusive SLS in 2007. This model addressed the major criticisms of the STS: interior presentation and quality, and rear-seat room. The SLS had a clean, new dash with gorgeous wood accents, very similar to the 2007 SRX revision. The wheelbase was stretched an additional 4 inches, allowing for a much more habitable rear seat.

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Fortunately, the 2008 STS did provide one pleasing revision: a stronger 3.6 V6. Now with direct injection and a six-speed automatic, the STS V6 produced 302hp and 272 lb-ft yet sipped an impressive 17/26mpg. The V6 model was also afforded options, like the performance package and head-up display, that were previously exclusive to the V8. The V6 had always been decently powerful, but the revisions more or less rendered the aging Northstar irrelevant. Cadillac seemed to agree, and the V8 would be axed after 2010.

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Sadly, the STS V6 would quickly follow. 2011 would be the last year for Cadillac’s erstwhile mid/full-sized luxury sedan, as well as the DTS luxobarge. GM’s bankruptcy had thrown everything into disarray, and certain projects like the Chevrolet Volt were given much higher priority. The planned new Cadillac V8 engine was axed; a proposed rear-wheel-drive STS/DTS successor was also terminated in development, as well as a rumoured proliferation of models riding on the Zeta platform (allegedly a Buick flagship and potentially a couple of Chevrolets and Cadillacs).

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The more successful 2008 Cadillac CTS

Prioritizing certain vehicle projects made sense for struggling General Motors. After all, the STS was not a resounding sales success. STS sales exceeded 30,000 units just once, in its debut year. Those figures would drop each year, with sales more than halving between 2008 and 2009. Just 3,338 units would find buyers in its final year. Meanwhile, the DTS consistently sold twice as many units annually. Before you criticize GM for alienating core Cadillac consumers and chasing pipe dreams of European conquest sales, though, consider how well the second-generation CTS sold and how its size/price positioning most definitely ate into STS sales.

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The STS and DTS would both be replaced in 2013 by the XTS, riding on the front-wheel-drive Epsilon platform but with optional all-wheel-drive. The XTS featured an abundance of technology, sharp styling and a gorgeous interior, but it was not a direct rival for the STS. The new flagship was no sports sedan, and instead went head-to-head with the Lincoln MKS.

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The real STS replacement would come a year later, and wore the CTS nameplate. Overall, the CTS is a more complete effort than the STS and better targeted at the Germans. Still, the STS was an impressive effort by Cadillac after years of front-wheel-drive offerings, and with just a few more tweaks it could have achieved true greatness.

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Related Reading:

Future Curbside Classics: The Smooth, Quiet Road to Nowhere – Part 1: Buick Lucerne

Curbside Classic: Lincoln LS

Future Curbside Classic: Cadillac XTS