2012 Cadillac CTS Premium Collection Road Test

The 2012 Cadillac CTS proves that it's still entertaining, capable and ready to take on competition new and old. But for $55,000 it's -- and pardon the expression -- a bit rich.

What It Is
The CTS is Cadillac's mid-size luxury sport sedan, competing with high-end BMW 3 Series and low-end 5 Series models.
Best Thing
The 3.6-liter V-6 engine is smooth and high-revving, with plenty of power.
Worst Thing
Uninspired interior, unnerving steering.
Snap Judgment
The Cadillac CTS is still a fine car, but -- despite the dichotomy -- it's not the luxury value it used to be.

There will be legions of skeptics that cast their cynical gazes upon the contemporary American automotive landscape and promptly decry that Cadillac used to stand for something. It used to be meaningful, inasmuch as the epitome of a luxury car from its most American of car companies could ever produce. A cliched sentiment, but not an entirely inaccurate one. As a symbol of success, Cadillac plays its part with a pretense of sportiness and plenty of brand recognition. Comfortable, ostentatious, and deafeningly American: that's what Cadillacs were, just as we were taught this as schoolchildren at the same time we were learning about the Marshall Plan and how to survive a nuclear bomb from the Soviets.

Certainly, pop culture has ingrained this notion into us, just as successfully as any of Cadillac's advertising.

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Don Draper drives a Cadillac. So did Elvis. And JR Ewing. And so did the as-of-this-writing recently deceased former mobster Henry Hill, or at least Ray Liotta did when he played Hill in Goodfellas. The Western Saddle Firemist Cadillac Coupe DeVille Custom Phaeton was two doors in a ruler-edged body as long as a White House motorcade and just as capable of blocking traffic. The perfect car to symbolize wretched excess, and a means to the top, no matter how that success was attained.

This, too, is a romantic notion of what a Cadillac is, and also not entirely accurate -- especially not now.

Our 2012 Cadillac CTS Premium Collection is white, like the Goodfellas pharmaceutical product of choice instead of Hill's bombastic brown. But the "Premium Collection" (as if suggesting that a regular Cadillac wasn't "premium" enough) still indicates a penchant for hyperbole that has, at times, delivered less than it claims. Our modern-day Cadillac is still drawn with a ruler, albeit one that's a kinder, gentler, and less of a caricature. Contrary to Henry Hill's, it takes up less real estate than an American LaFrance articulating hook-and-ladder truck. It was also, until the ATS rolled out, Cadillac's smallest car. And when the CTS was new, it symbolized not the downfall but a resurgence of the brand -- a chance to become relevant again in the American market, against foreign competition it never had to contend with, like BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.

We've had ten years to get used to the idea of a smaller Cadillac, and four years to get used to this one. All of those aforementioned rivals have newer cars now. Is the CTS still a relevant car on the contemporary American automotive landscape? That "Premium Collection" moniker has to deliver more than ever these days.

What We Drove

Our CTS Premium Collection topped off the range with all the works: keyless entry; 10-speaker Bose surround-sound; a navigation system; dark Sapele wood trim with ambient lighting; heated and cooled front seats; a sunroof; a finicky Park Assist that liked to beep in full view of curbs and errant soda cans strewn in the breeze; and 18-inch aluminum wheels that are nice and shiny, just as America's sons demand. What's more, as if this kit wasn't enough, our car also came with the Touring package: suede steering wheel and shift knob; beautiful Recaro seats also trimmed in suede; uprated brakes and cooling; dual exhausts; a sport suspension; a limited-slip differential; and an increase in shoe size to 19-inch wheels and summer performance tires. All in all, from a base price of $36,810 our car topped out at a mouth-foaming $55,410, which seems to make the $2,810 Touring Package a veritable bargain.

European brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW have made safety synonymous with luxury somehow, and woe betide any manufacturer that doesn't follow that lead. So the 2012 Cadillac CTS comes standard with front, side, and curtain airbags; stability and traction control; and excellent crash test scores from the NHTSA and IIHS. It also includes OnStar's standard array of post-crash assistance, from calling emergency crews to the ability to unlock your doors in case you leave your keys inside. OK, that's maybe not a safety feature, but it will keep you from going all Incredible Hulk on your windows.

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The Commute

At a time, the Cadillac CTS's interior represented the vanguard of new GM -- proof that the largest car company in the world could churn out an environment hewn from more than Fisher-Price chairs. The CTS's cabin is still relatively elegant and uncluttered, but its age is certainly showing. An analog clock (courtesy of Bulgari, apparently) takes center stage on the sloping dashboard above groups of ugly grey buttons. The Sapele wood trim blends into the black soft-touch panels, whose texture and feel do a terrible job imitating some sort of animal hide. The Touring package adds acres of suede: aggressively-bolstered Recaro seats half-trimmed in the grippy stuff that spoil us with their lavishness, being heated and (noisily) cooled, and a suede steering wheel that felt fantastic. It's all very functional and works well, but doesn't give off an appropriately luxury feel, and with a Cadillac, isn't that what everything's about?

There are signs, scattered throughout the CTS's cabin, that in turn beg the car for a refresh. For one, there's no USB connection for music. Fathoming Bluetooth was a mystery, buried within nests upon nests of menus. The CTS can be optioned with keyless entry, but the "key" still requires the driver to turn a chrome-painted plastic plug that goes where a key should -- and as the first point of contact for a driver, it's a tawdry impression. There's the opportunity to row your own across its six-speed automatic transmission, but the steering wheel controls are buttons instead of outright paddles. Novel in 2008, not so much now.

Cadillac chose not to fit a higher-resolution navigation screen through all these years. The navigation system itself seemed to get progressively stupider the more we used it, dragging us through downtown Hollywood at rush hour and claiming that this was the "fastest route." And why can't one turn off the radio and leave the navigation system on at the same time? Baffling.

Still, there are comforts. Every interface is simple to use, and street addresses load with minimum delay. The Bose audio system was fantastic. And the CTS's navigation screen, which rises out of the dash like the monolith from 2001, is still kind of cool -- the way the icons form up into a thin row when the screen sets back down is a sweet touch.

The Grocery Run

Say what you will about the mediocre interior: it's not practical, either. The CTS comes from that era when our cell phones were only good for making phone calls, and taking up pants space when they're not. Likewise, there's precious little room for anything in the center console. The side mirrors are strangely shaped: too short and shaped like a third grader's failed geometry homework. With the huge rear window pillars, changing lanes turns into a prayer: May the gods foresee your safe passage, kind motorist! Those same rear window pillars are to blame for the lack of rear-seat headroom. And to make up for the turret-like visibility, the CTS comes with a backup camera that's a little too paranoid and too vocal about the rapidly approaching curb that's still a foot and a half and a Zip Code away.

Here's a chance to get out all your wiseguy mobster jokes out of the way: the CTS's trunk isn't very big, which is almost anathema for a Cadillac. The culprits are the battery and full-size spare tire (with its own 5-spoke wheel!), both of which take up a lot of room behind their covers.

The Weekend Fun

For a sporty luxury car, one could reasonably expect the controls to be unbearably heavy, like on the German cars that everyone seems to gravitate towards these days. But not the CTS.

The speed-variable steering isn't on par with the German competition, as such things tend to be. It's certainly firm, which implies some facsimile of sportiness, but it's also loose and slightly numb in comparison, inspiring about as much confidence as a house bet at Chez Madoff.

On the other hand, the 3.6-liter V-6 engine is a gem. It's powerful and responsive, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that's suited to the former like Sinatra and Martin. Go on, rev it: the engine handles downshifts and throttle blips with aplomb, screaming to its 6500-rpm redline. The suspension makes you feel right there with the action, all the time, a compliant mixture of comfort and road feel.

Lastly, the Cadillac CTS's style has aged well, better on the outside than within. Its leering jack-o-lantern grille is still sufficiently attention grabbing; any Cadillac should have a whiff of "I'm better than you, and I know it" attitude. Knife-edged lines blend seamlessly into acres of softly scalloped bodywork. With its uncluttered flanks and tiny windows, the result is a car that's not only big, but also looks big.

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Summary

At the price we tested, the CTS becomes a little hard to swallow. Here's a little thought exercise, if you can call it that: We drove the all-new Lexus GS350 earlier this week, a car that turned out to be as much of a pleasant surprise as finding out that your coffeemaker can also stream karaoke songs. In a move that astounded even us, nobody on staff had something to scold the Lexus about. Its interior was cutting-edge, its technology impressive, its adjustability mind-boggling, its powertrain unexpectedly lively. It truly represented the future, what a luxury car could be -- the Lexus had taken over what a Cadillac has always been: a cushy boat with sufficient badge status to earn its reserved parking spots.

Guess what? The Lexus tops out at $55,000. And here's the thing: not only did nobody complain about the price, some said it actually felt like a bargain. Hard to imagine that these cars exist in the same universe, much less the same market segment.

Associate Editor Joel Arellano put it this way with an accurate analogy: imagine there's a rising young hotshot executive, third in succession at a company. He's got some business acumen, enough to match that of his graduating class and possibly some veterans, too. Eventually, he's going to run the show, but not yet. Now, get rid of the two executives in front of him, either through forced retirement, age discrimination, or natural disaster. Give the young guy his own office, perks, salaries, Brooks Brothers suits. Now that the DTS and STS have been scrapped, that's exactly where the CTS is, for now -- as Cadillac's flagship, of sorts. "That should be enough for him to take on the real ruthless high-end executives, right?" asks Joel. Nope. "The Cadillac shows the strain."

Henry Hill did all right for a while, too. But even he had to move on at some point.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $55,410 Fuel Economy EPA City: 18 EPA Highway: 27 EPA Combined: 21 Estimated Combined Range: 378 miles Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes

"The Cadillac shows the strain. It's still a looker, both inside and out, one of the most distinctive luxury vehicles on the street. I found it just fine as a daily driver, with the power and the suspension just enough to qualify it as a sporty sedan but still comfortable a luxury cruiser. I own a $50k car; the CTS feels at least $10k or more cheaper. The 2013 Lexus GS is only a couple of grand more than the CTS but the difference in quality is like night and day." -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor
"The 3.6-liter engine offers plenty of punch, and gets up to speed quickly and easily. It's easy to go very fast in this car, and you have the confidence to do it. There's a lot of luxury crammed into this car, and it wasn't made absent-mindedly. Overall I like the CTS. The largest issue I have with the model we drove is price. At a little over $55k, there are other (German) options I would sooner consider. But it's a good car that had me impressed. If you don't mind paying a little more for your American luxury, or just want to buy American, this is an excellent option." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor

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