2014 Cadillac CTS First Drive
Bigger, Lighter, Better
By now, you've probably seen our first test of the smoking twin-turbo CTS Vsport and you know it's got what it takes to run with the Germans should you encounter them on the street or track. If you're not the sort of person who enters into races, impromptu or planned, you might wonder how the rest of the line -- including the CTS -- manages. Keep reading to find out.
The short answer: very well. I was given the opportunity to drive the complete new CTS range in the rolling hills and valleys around Santa Barbara, California, and I can confidently say that the rest of the CTS line is as competitive as the Vsport.
Given my experiences with the smaller ATS, I wasn't too concerned about the mid-range 3.6-liter V-6 model, but I was apprehensive about the 2.0-liter turbocharged base model. In the ATS, it needed a little work, and the whole turbo-four-in-a-big-car thing didn't make for an especially engaging BMW 5 Series. Did Cadillac get the formula right?
Yes it has. I'd be perfectly happy driving the base CTS around with its little turbo four-cylinder humming away under the hood all day long. Torque is ample at throttle tip-in and increases through the mid-range. Past 5000 rpm the horsepower hits its peak right as the torque falls off and really pulls the car to redline. It's no screaming street racer, but it'll never leave you wanting on a freeway on-ramp or when trying to make a pass.
If the four-cylinder motor has a drawback, it's that it doesn't sound particularly good. Cadillac's tried to use noise-cancelling and enhancement through the stereo to help out, but it's still not good. At low rpms, transmission noise mixes with engine murmurs to create a sound roughly akin to an airplane deploying its flaps as it prepares for landing. Things steadily improve as you move through the rev range and up near redline it actually sounds decent. But let's be real: This base model will rarely spend time at those engine speeds.
Other than that, the base CTS exhibits no qualities you would associate with a penalty box. It's very quiet inside and rides firmly but smoothly. In fact, you actually hear the tire impacts on bad pavement more than you feel them. A little less boom from the rubber would be nice, but it's only noticeable because there's no wind noise, and, when cruising, the engine sends very little noise into the cabin.
A little noise transmission from the tires is a small price to pay for a chassis this solid, though. Even when riding on the base all-season tires, the superb chassis tuning makes itself known. Body roll is tightly managed, bumps are dispatched without drama, and even the base car is agile and responsive. The steering is weighted right and decently quick with a surprising amount of feel and feedback for a luxury sedan. When in Sport mode, it tightens up and gets even better.
The handling is a letdown in just one place, and that's the standard all-season tires. They're fine in normal driving and on long sweepers, but try to get even moderately aggressive on a challenging road and they'll howl in pain as they turn precision into understeer. A nice sport handling package with stickier tires would be a great option on this car, and Cadillac people tell me they've already got something in mind.
If the base car's back-road performance is compromised anywhere else, it's in the transmission's Sport mode. The six-speed automatic is smooth and refined in normal driving, shifts quickly and is smart about its gear selection. As was the case with the ATS, though, the Sport programming is still a half-step behind, not holding the gears as long as you'd like before upshifting, and typically waiting until you're through the corner before downshifting. It's better, but it still needs work. Fortunately, the CTS Vsport has a great Sport mode that's very good at predicting downshifts and holding gears. I suggested to Cadillac that it put that software in the other models as a Sport Plus mode. Regardless, using the paddles will get you the shifts you want.
The story gets better with the mid-range 3.6-liter naturally aspirated engine. The extra power is always welcome around these parts, and it sounds much better to boot. The steering is just as good, as is the handling, which is helped by better tires. The eight-speed automatic transmission is tuned very similarly to the six-speed, meaning it, too, is smooth and refined in standard driving and lacking a bit in Sport mode. Both transmissions exhibited a hard downshift or two and each experienced a moment of confusion when deciding whether to drop one gear or two, but were generally well-sorted. The eight-speed has the ability to skip gears on the way down, though occasionally it will run through several gears if the situation dictates. It'd be nice to see that resolved so it could always jump straight to the right gear.
All in all, there's little daylight between the two models aside from their power output, and that's great news. Whichever CTS you get will ride and handle well, be quiet and comfortable inside, and have more than enough power to get you around and have a little fun. Both cars also exhibit strong braking that didn't fade after quite a bit of flogging, even though I could smell them when I got out of the car. When's the last time you said all that about a mid-range car, much less a base model?
Of course, being so similar means they also share a fault or two. Thankfully, they're relatively small faults. The base gauge cluster is shared with the ATS and remains dull and uninspired, if functional. The upgraded all-digital display is where it's at. CUE also continues to alienate some users, though I find that if you're simply deliberate with it, everything works fine. Treat it like an iPhone and expect that kind of reaction time, though, and you're going to be disappointed. I hear this is also an area of intense development back at Cadillac HQ.
The big takeaway here is that the Cadillac CTS Vsport was not a flash in the pan. The whole CTS lineup is very solid and offers great cars for many buyers. Is it ready to take down the new A6, E-Class and refreshed 5 Series? All I know is, the next comparison test is going to be very, very good.
|2014 Cadillac CTS|
|Drivetrain||Front-engine, RWD or AWD|
|Engines||2.0L/272-hp/295-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4; 3.6L/321-hp/275-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|Transmissions||6-speed auto, 8-speed auto|
|Curb weight||3600 lb (mfr)|
|Length x width x height||195.5 x 72.2 x 57.2 in|
|EPA city/hwy fuel econ||18-20/26-30 (est)|
|CO2 emissions||0.82-0.93 lb/mile (est)|
|Energy Cons., city/hwy||169-187/112-130 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|On sale in U.S.||Fall 2013|