Daring to be different
MY favorite piece of recent movie dialogue comes from the animated tour de force “Ratatouille.” The ruthless food critic Anton Ego has just had his heart melted by the little rodent chef at Gusteau’s, causing him to reevaluate his work, his purpose: “In many ways the work of a critic is easy,” he writes in his column. “We risk very little and enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. . . . But there are times when a critic risks something and that is in the discovery and the defense of the new.”
So here’s a new thought, worthy of defending: Cadillac makes a better car than BMW or Mercedes or Lexus or Infiniti, and that car is the 2008 CTS. No other car in the mass market, with so much at stake for its makers, dares so much as this expressive and audacious bit of automotive avant-gardism. In a segment that lives and dies by European benchmarks, the CTS sets fire to the bench and throws it through the shopkeepers’ window.
Of course, each of the German and Japanese majors makes fine cars. Historically, this has always been so, and historically not so with cars named Cadillac. Skepticism is warranted. On a point-by-point, feature-per-dollar comparison, the Cadillac excels in some areas -- the interior is splendid -- and is merely competitive in others. But just park the CTS next to the competition. The Mercedes-Benz C350 looks hidebound by its own heritage; the BMW, staid and predictable, a law clerk’s car. In this big-numbers segment -- entry luxury sport-sedans -- there is a distinct proclivity to play it safe. The CTS hits the street like a ruby fired out of a shotgun.
Indeed, because there is so much technical parity in this segment, it’s personality and character, not trivial tenths of acceleration or cornering, that make one car worth buying and the other not. The Caddy has a story to tell -- it’s about resurgence; it’s about counter-programming; it’s about a knee unbent in defiance of the Europeans’ presumed superiority.
Meanwhile, this car is going to be sold all over the world, and I love the idea of the Cadillac as feisty, flag-waving cultural export. What will the lords and lads of British car rags say when the Cadillac is the coolest thing in their car park? All that tedious Yank-bashing will fall silent.
It would have been so easy for Cadillac to abandon its so-called Art and Science design vocabulary -- the geometric volumes and crisp character lines, the cow-catcher grilles and trick head and tail lamps -- before now. And that would have been a shame, because the new CTS is by far the most accomplished iteration of the design. Part of the reason has to do with advances in car-building technology itself; the CTS’ flush-fit and frameless windshield and back window, the laser-brazed roof and other subtleties of machining and manufacturing wrap the CTS in a single futuristic surface, a shape-defining steel-and-glass unitard.
All of this is plainly evident when you compare the new car to the old. The previous car seemed to have been jigsawed apart then put back together. It’s also evident that the extra 2 inches of width relieves the CTS design of its previous cramping; before the car seemed too narrow for its height.
I’ve climbed all over the CTS and everywhere I found things to admire. Under the hood, the strut-tower brace is a lovely bow of brushed aluminum, cast in one piece with the connective braces. The tail lamps feature a crazy glowing filament, an optical fiber as thick as your pinkie. The front suspension lower control arms are beautiful alloy castings. The switchgear is artfully integrated into the consoles instead of being plunked into the cockpit in big ugly rectangles. I especially like the personal climate controls that live in the console rail by the dash, and the premium French stitching (real thread!) on the leather-like dash and door panels. The people who built this car clearly scored victory over victory over the folks in accounting.
The base price for the CTS is $32,990 (equipped with a 3.6-liter, 263-hp V6) but the car doesn’t really come into its own until it gets the optional 304-hp, 3.6-liter V6: a direct-injection engine, the first for Cadillac (though Audi has had the technology for years). The bigger engine adds an additional $1,550. Our test car was equipped with the stouter engine, mated to GM’s own six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode; and the $2,980 summer tire package, including: directional HID (high intensity discharge) headlamps, 18-inch alloy rims, Michelin Sport Pilot 2 tires, limited-slip differential and stiffer springs, firmer struts and bigger anti-roll bars to tie it all together. With the exotic audio/navigation system including a 40-gig hard drive on board, our tester retailed at $45,105. That’s a huge amount of car for the money.
It’s got some huff: The direct-injection engine puts out 273 pound-feet of torque, enough to launch the car to 60 mph in under 6 seconds. It’s not quite as from-the-bowstring quick as a twin-turbo BMW, but plenty fast. Meanwhile, with the car in overdrive, the engine returns surprisingly good gas mileage (26 mpg on the highway).
Much has been made, by Cadillac and the buff books, about the chassis tuning and testing that GM conducted at the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife, the infamously demanding racetrack through the forest in Germany, the “Green Hell.” It definitely shows, and not always to the car’s advantage. The steering ratio is very quick, with precise but abrupt turn-in, dialed in that way by engineers who, I imagine, found themselves struggling to keep up with that track’s furious cornering sequences. On American roads, the steering feels a little busy and unprogressive just off center. Still, you can’t say it doesn’t have a personality. The steering has moderate heft but the road feedback (the sense of what the tires are doing) is superb. The uprated brakes are similarly a little touchy but they are more than enough to haul the two-tonner down from speed.
With the big Michelins in the fender wells, the CTS has oodles of lateral grip. The chassis -- with front-and-rear alloy subframes holding the suspension -- is tight as a hangman’s knot. The stability control system has a performance setting where the computer intervention is less intrusive; on that setting, you can slide the car around pretty well. The limited-slip rear end helps get power down in the corners; meanwhile, the manual-shift side of the automatic transmission features an engine “blipping” logic so that as you downshift, the engine revs rise to match the new ratio.
The upshot is that it’s quite hard to un-stick this car. Still, a little more handling neutrality would be nice, especially on tight canyon roads. I think that might come with the six-speed manual and/or the monster motor that will come with the inevitable performance variant, the CTS-V. Either or both would help drivers rotate the car under power.
For now, it’s time to celebrate. Cadillac has built a ripping car here -- fast, fun, exuberant in style and substance. To the extent that imitation of one product concedes the superiority of another, the CTS surrenders not an inch. It feels like a fundamentally self-defined car. Chalk one up for the home team.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2008 Cadillac CTS
Base price: $32,990
Price, as tested: $45,105
Powertrain: 3.6-liter, 24-valve V6 with direct injection and variable- valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode; rear-wheel drive
Horsepower: 304 at 6,400 rpm
Torque: 273 pound-feet at 5,200 rpm
Curb weight: 4,090 pounds
0-60 mph: 5.9 seconds (manufacturer’s figure)
Wheelbase: 113.0 inches
Overall Length: 191.6 inches
EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway; regular unleaded gas
Final thoughts: Shine on, crazy diamond