If there's one car that's shown what General Motors could accomplish throughout its downfall and comeback, it's the Cadillac CTS. A favorite of enthusiasts and Consumer Reports alike — which dubbed it the best domestic-built car — the CTS made Cadillac a player among buyers who had previously only considered German or Japanese cars. Late this year, GM will launch this, the third generation of the CTS, with a goal of building a car that ranks among the world's best — a target that's closer that you may think.
Based on a lengthened version of the ATS chassis, the CTS manages to grow in dimensions while shedding weight, a unique trick among portly 21st-century cars. And as with the CTS, Cadillac makes no excuses for comparing itself to the competition, noting that the CTS comes in about 200 lbs. lighter in base trim than a BMW 528i, the sales leader among luxury midsize sedans in the United States.
The original CTS launched the "art and science" design of Cadillacs, evoking the skin of a stealth fighter. The new CTS plays more conservative in most dimensions — especially in a side view — but has enough details to avoid confusion with the ATS from a distance. The front has grown more agressive, with a wider grille and multiple hood strakes launching toward the windshield, which has been lowered for an angrier stance.
But the major changes in the CTS lie under the sheetmetal. As with the ATS, the base models come with a turbocharged 2-liter, four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic, good in the CTS for 272 hp. The 3.6-liter V-6 volume engine gets a slight power boost to 321 hp; more notably, it's tied to GM's first eight-speed automatic, a choice that should improve the CTS' fuel economy without sacrificing much in performance. At the top of the range now lies a twin-turbo version of the 3.6 that churns 420 hp in a special CTS Vsport model — more than the V-8 versions of the BMW and Mercedes classmates. A true CTS-V successor that would wrestle the AMGs and M6s lies at least a year away; Cadillac will also continue building the striking coupe and wagon versions of the current model through 2014.
GM has been known in past eras for attempting to sell dated technology as luxury, but the 2014 CTS offers more performance gadgetry than any other GM vehicle save the new Corvette Stingray. The magnetic ride shocks once reserved for the CTS-V now come as an option on even base models; the LED lights are standard, and the car boasts a 50-50 front-rear weight balance. And like all up-to-date modern luxury cars, the Cadillac can parallel park itself.
Inside, the CTS gets a freshened interior with real wood accents and the controversial CUE entertainment/heating system, the black-and-chrome panel with 8-inch touchscreen that's far better than Ford's SYNC but still not as intuitive to use while in motion as the German knob controls.
CTS sales fell in 2012, even as the rest of the market grew, as buyers shunned the aging model in favor of the new ATS. Cadillac also fights a reputation for dealmaking that BMW and Mercedes don't share, even though the German firms turned up the wick in their own sales battles. At the level of cars that can cost $60,000 or more, value often depends on residuals and lease calculations, a gambit on how much a car will be worth after a few years of driving. Winning that gambit requires building a car that can maintain its attractiveness — not just in the United States, but in China as well, where Cadillac spearheads GM's future expansion plans. If Cadillac can deliver on the promise the new CTS portends, that future looks brighter than ever.