1st Place: 2014 Cadillac CTS 2.0T
Pros: Dynamically gifted, refined ride, attractive and high-quality interior
Cons: Thrashy engine note when revved, odd-shaped trunk, Bluetooth hiccups
Verdict: A bonafide sport luxury sedan, excelling at both “sport” and “luxury”.
As a fan of Cadillacs since the beginning of this century (and the marque’s Art & Science era), I was both excited to drive and review the CTS but concerned any inherent bias might cloud my judgment and cause me to overlook crucial flaws in Cadillac’s mid-sized entry. I needn’t have worried: the CTS has flaws but they are minor and detract little from an excellent car, one that shades the Lexus GS350 F-Sport in almost every area bar engine refinement and sheer space.
My tester was a 2.0T Luxury, a step above the base CTS. While the base model comes standard with Brembo brakes, keyless ignition and entry, dual-zone climate control and 8-way power front seats, the Luxury model adds a sheer glut of features. These include heated/ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, back-up camera, adaptive xenon headlights with auto high-beam control, forward collision alert (with Cadillac’s vibrating ‘safety seat’), lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. The MSRP for this 2014 model was $51,000, around $1,500 more than a base 2014 528i. However, with the Bimmer you have to add option packages to match the CTS Luxury’s high level of feature content.
That feature content includes a bevy of safety features. Perhaps because Brandon and I are safe drivers, we barely noticed any of it. The forward collision alert was set off once by a sudden stopper ahead and it was a curious experience. Red lights flashed in the gauge cluster and the seat vibrated to alert us of danger. Fortunately, the feature was well-calibrated and wasn’t set off incessantly as you may find with, for example, parking sensors.
The adaptive xenon headlights battled with the climate-controlled seats and heated steering wheel for the title of most desirable gadget. This system switches on the high beams when it is dark and switches them off at an appropriate time, avoiding he blinding of other motorists. This is one very welcome bit of technology that makes things more convenient for the driver but also safer for others.
Speaking of technology, reviews of recent Cadillac products invariably turn into screeds against the Cadillac User Experience (CUE). I approached CUE with trepidation. “What if it requires too much tapping? What about unsightly smudges?” I asked myself as I stepped into the CTS for the first time. In action, the touch-capacitive controls work commendably. Haptic feedback is good and somehow the piano black trim didn’t smudge as much as anticipated. Unfortunately, it was the other electronic systems that needed fine-tuning.
Brandon was aggravated by a faulty Bluetooth connection. The system would stream music from his iPhone successfully for hours but then stop, while still claiming the phone was connected. This was eventually solved the old-fashioned way – disconnect and reconnect – only for the issue to occur again later. The voice recognition system also wasn’t terribly effective. Turn-by-turn navigation was provided by OnStar (a traditional screen setup is optional) and this system was accurate, although personally I prefer to have an image on screen as well. Is it worth the extra cash, though? Probably not. A standard feature on all CTS sedans is an electronic cupholder cover. Simply tap the lip and the cover slowly slides open. It’s a nice detail and is elegantly executed but it strikes me as being just a tad pointless.
The CTS’ interior, overall, is classier than that of the GS despite lacking the Lexus’ leather-wrapped dash top and console. Soft, high-quality materials abound, including from the top to the bottom of the doors, with no signs of cost-cutting. Those doors also close with a refined “thunk”, as in the Lexus. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, being neither too firm nor too soft. While not as soft and enveloping as the Lexus’ pews initially are, they offer more lasting support and superior long-distance comfort. Where the Lexus has the edge is in the infotainment screen: the GS350 has a more attractive and clear presentation, a more driver-friendly position in the dash, and a greater size (12.3 inches versus 8 inches in the Cadillac). Alas, the Lexus has a more fiddly interface.
The Sapele wood trim is beautiful to behold although it is hard to adequately capture this on camera. The wood, along with some metallic highlights, help liven up the black-on-black interior, an interior color choice I usually criticize for being too funereal. It’s worth noting that, in addition to brown, red and gray seating options, Cadillac has also offered entirely blue and entirely cashmere interiors on the CTS line.
The gauge cluster isn’t especially attractive when the car is switched off but, once started, the gauges are well-lit, crisp and legible and are accompanied by a useful, full-color driver information display. A more modern and upscale set of gauges is available on more expensive CTS models, as is a head-up display.
Rear seat room and trunk space fall behind the GS, although at 5′ 11” I could comfortably sit behind myself. The trunk is more of a concern, however, being rather oddly shaped like the letter “T”. Fortunately, on certain CTS models – including my Luxury tester – the rear seats split and fold. Other CTS models receive only a trunk pass-through.
An elegant and high-quality interior is one crucial requirement of any good luxury sedan, as is a comfortable ride. The CTS delivers, impressing with a smooth, well-damped ride, even over the nastiest of ruts. There is no float or wallow, the CTS always feeling solid and planted. This is what a luxury sedan should ride like.
Taking the CTS onto a real driver’s road like Mulholland Drive quickly reveals the CTS also handles like a sport sedan should. The car shrinks around you and begs you to drive it hard. The 6-speed automatic is a smooth-shifting unit but on a road like Mulholland you’ll want to put it in manual mode and use the elegant paddle shifters. With 272 hp at 5500 rpm and 295 ft-lbs at a low 3000 rpm, the CTS has plenty of low-end grunt without any annoying turbo lag; the 2.0T also bests the BMW 528i’s 2.0 four by 31 hp and 37 ft-lbs, while weighing around 200 pounds less. This means the CTS is able to hit 60 mph in around 6 seconds, around 0.2 seconds slower than the GS350 and as fast as a CTS 3.6.
The steering is meaty and has plenty of feel, although it helpfully lightens up in low-speed maneuvers like parking. The transmission was never caught out of gear. The only demerit in the CTS driving experience is the sound of the turbo four while revving it in manual mode. Brandon and I agreed that chasing the redline summons some uncomfortably thrashy sounds from the engine. In regular driving, however, the car is serenely quiet. This is a vehicle that is built for both interstate driving and canyon carving. There’s no trick adaptive suspension or driving mode selector (although Magnetic Ride Control is available), just an extraordinarily well-sorted chassis.
Like the GS350 (and unlike the CTS 3.6), the CTS 2.0T requires 91-octane fuel. Disappointingly, the CTS has the same combined and highway EPA scores as the GS350 – 23 and 29 mpg, respectively – although the Cadillac’s 20 mpg score in the city is one mpg better than the Lexus. For comparison, the 2014 528i manages a combined 26 mpg.
Considering the CTS’ excellent ride/handling balance and high-quality interior, it’s puzzling to see that CTS sales volume decreased by 37% year over year from 2014 to 2015. Sales were always going to decline for the third generation, with the loss of the coupe and wagon variants and a repositioning and commensurate increase in price. Cadillac is also seeking higher average transaction prices rather than seeking to dramatically expand volume. Alas, sales figures continue to be on the decline and the presence of the larger, more formal CT6 near the CTS’ price range may prove a further hassle.
I hope buyers open their eyes to the CTS, as this American sedan is an equal of the Germans and superior to the Japanese offerings like our second-place finisher, the GS350. What makes the latest RWD Cadillacs so commendable is they haven’t sacrificed ride quality at the altar of performance and handling. There is still a proper luxury car ride, minus the old Cadillac float. There is also a distinctive design language that melds elegance and aggression, although the CTS’ rendition of Art & Science is more pleasing at the front of the car. With a few exceptions – the uninspiring XTS, for example – Cadillac is making its best cars yet. My advice to old-school Cadillac enthusiasts and sport/luxury sedan shoppers alike is to try the CTS. It will satisfy plush ride seekers and canyon carvers alike.