2014 Cadillac CTS First Drive

The 2014 Cadillac CTS sets a high bar, and easily clears it.

What It Is
A high-end midsize luxury sedan that competes with the BMW 5 Series.
Best Thing
Excellent chassis, great engines, and of course Vsport
Worst Thing
Smallish rear seat; lame base gauges
Snap Judgment
Cadillac sets a high standard for the world to follow...wait...standard of the world? Hm....


The 2014 Cadillac CTS can't count on benefitting from low expectations.

Not long ago, it was a different story of course. For example, nobody thought the Cadillac ATS could really be an alternative to the BMW's excellent 3 Series, until they drove it and discovered that it really was. The same holds true with other recent models; if someone picks a Cadillac XTS instead of an Audi A6, we certainly wouldn't talk them out of it.

So when we hear GM executives saying the 2014 Cadillac CTS will beat the BMW 5 Series at its own game, we have this crazy idea that this American luxury car maker, once written off as a has-been, can actually pull it off. In fact, if this new midsize luxury sedan isn't a real 5 Series competitor, it's a failure right out of the box.

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After spending a day driving the 2014 Cadillac CTS around the hills near Santa Barbara, Calif., we can say this: it meets our lofty expectations. The new CTS is bigger, more powerful, better handling, and far more luxurious than its predecessor. It offers an array of new engines, including a 420-horsepower twin-turbocharged V-6 that rivals V-8 engines in power and refinement. With the flip of a switch, it transforms from a comfortable luxury cruiser to a performance sedan with a scalpel-precise edge. It gives up very little to its BMW rival, and arguably offers drivers a more satisfying experience behind the wheel. Best of all, this doesn't just apply to the new Vsport, but to the entire 2014 Cadillac CTS range.

Walkaround

While not a radical departure from the previous model, the 2014 Cadillac CTS is more than just a further evolution of the style. The major elements are there: The vertical headlights and taillights; the bold grille; the creased edges; etc. But this car is more than four inches longer than its predecessor, loses an inch in height, and is a tiny bit narrower, too. Yet Cadillac managed to increase the size of the CTS while actually shedding pounds; this car is at least 200 pounds less than its predecessor, and is one of the lightest cars in its class. This is because the new CTS is actually based off the smaller ATS sedan, which itself is one of the lightest cars in its segment. By contrast, the BMW 5 Series is based off the much larger 7 Series, which accounts for some of its avoirdupois.

But let's put aside the weights and measures and just look at it: This is a beautiful car. Not only does the classic long-hood shape emphasize its rear-wheel drive, but there are cool details all over. One of our favorites was the LED accent lighting on the front. The lights form a vertical column that, out in the open, looks like it reaches right down to the road surface. When you turn on your turn signal, the lower portion turns amber and blinks. Very cool, and better than Audis, which simply turn off the LEDs when your turn signal's on.

Sitting Down

"Oooh, this is nice."

Those words spontaneously came out of my mouth when I first sat in the 2014 Cadillac CTS. The colors, the shapes, the materials all combine for a luxury car experience that far surpasses its predecessor, and the world-class fit and finish puts the CTS square in the hunt for best interior in its class. The seats are excellent, with soft but durable leather, and if you opt for the Performance Seat and Cluster package, you get 20-way adjustable chairs, with side bolsters that hug or release you at the touch of a button. Spending a day behind the wheel of the CTS would be no chore at all. It even has a little bit of excessive flair in the form of a motorized cover for the cupholder.

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The audio system is also excellent, whether you're pumping Lady Gaga or a Bach violin concerto. Navigation is standard, and Cadillac's CUE touch-screen system seemed somewhat less unresponsive than we remember; we're still not going to call it snappy though. Still, the graphics are sharp and easy to read, the icons are big and easy to touch, but for some reason the backup camera picture is blurry, low-res, and hard to make out.

The rear seat could stand to be a little bigger. There's definitely less passenger space than in competitors' cars, although it's notably larger than the previous CTS. It's mostly a matter of headroom; that low roof comes at a price in the rear. It's not too bad, but if you're taller than about 5-feet 10-inches tall, you will probably feel cramped.

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In fact, there's only one thing really wrong with the 2014 Cadillac CTS interior, and it's not even on all of models: the base gauges. It's the same setup as in the ATS--not surprisingly, since they share a lot of engineering--and it looks ridiculously low-grade for such a premium car. The numbers live in little slots carved out of a cheap looking slab of gray plastic, with the needles hovering above. Ever drive a late-80s Pontiac Grand Am? Yeah, that. The upgraded gauge package, available with the 20-way seats, fixes the problem by ripping out the whole panel and replacing it with an excellent full color LCD screen. Rumor has it that the base gauges were supposed to be hidden a bit better by a darkly tinted panel, but somewhere along the way, that idea was dropped. It needs to be picked back up.

Driving

Three engines, two transmissions, and rear- or all-wheel drive confront the prospective 2014 Cadillac CTS buyer. It works out to five different models; we managed to get behind the wheel of three of them, all rear-wheel drive, but all with different engines.

Two cars were virtually identical, with the exception of engine choice. First up was a $52,420 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with the Luxury collection, filling in the bottom end of the lineup. But while it may be one of the less expensive models, this Caddy is no slouch. With 272 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, the four-cylinder has no problem moving the big CTS with verve; Caddy estimates you'll reach 60 mph from a standstill in 7 seconds, and in the real world, that's plenty quick enough. The engine makes great power across its rev range, too, with a surge that starts about mid-range and continues to redline. The turbocharged four-cylinder comes only with a six-speed automatic, the same one we've experienced and enjoyed in the ATS, and we have the same thoughts about it here. The one drawback is that the four-cylinder sounds a little rough, pretty much across the rev range. At least it's quieter than in the ATS.

Nearly identical was a $55,530 CTS powered by the mid-level 3.6-liter V-6 engine. This 321 hp and 275 lb.-ft. torque (note that's less than the four-cylinder) engine feels more refined than the four cylinder, but at least from the seat-of-the-pants, it doesn't feel noticeably quicker. However, it does benefit from the new eight-speed automatic transmission in the CTS. In this car at least, it was a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it was smooth and unobtrusive during laid-back driving. But when driven hard, or when using the paddles, the transmission was occasionally slow to respond. For now, we'll chalk this up to these being pre-production cars, and withhold final judgment for when we get a CTS on our home turf here. Hopefully, Cadillac will adjust the programming and squash any bugs.

Neither the four-cylinder model nor the V-6 we drove had Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control, GM's excellent adjustable shock absorber system. That said, both cars handled just fine without it. Put it in Sport mode, and the steering firms up, and shifts get more aggressive, but the suspension took everything we could throw at it with aplomb, a sure sign of a chassis that's well sorted from the outset.

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Then there was the big daddy CTS: a 2014 Cadillac CTS Vsport with the Premium package. At $71,090, this is the most expensive model of CTS you can buy, at least until the CTS-V comes out in a year or so. If you can't wait for that, you won't be disappointed. In the Vsport, the eight-speed automatic is mated to a 420-hp twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter V-6 engine, possibly the best V-6 ever made by GM, and one of the sweetest engines to come out of the company, period. It sounds great, thanks in part to an active sound management system that uses the Bose audio system to enhance the sound output. Cheating? Maybe, but the resulting growl at high revs is very satisfying; we do wish it toned down a bit better in the Touring cruising mode though.

The Vsport however did benefit from Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control, plus an additional Track drive mode not available on other models, and it makes a tremendous difference. Combined with the active rear differential--the same as in the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette--it transforms the CTS from a decent-handling big sedan into a true high-performance machine on par with the best from Europe. Just as with the ATS, Cadillac isn't messing around with the CTS. Put it in Track mode, and you have razor-sharp responses, a rear-end that is easily controllable and willing to help get the CTS through a corner, and steering that's top notch. Best of all, in regular getting-around-town driving, the Magnetic Ride Control is smart enough to soften the suspension more than you'd expect for something called "Track Mode." It's firmer than Touring, sure, but it's also a long way from intolerable.

Summary

There's a solid business to be made in tapping into nostalgia, but interestingly, Cadillac's not delving into the memories of its own vehicles. No, its wellspring is BMW models of the past. See, in enthusiast circles, you'll hear things about how BMW has "lost its way," and isn't as "pure" as it used to be. The enthusiast press will lament that the German company has put a bigger emphasis on technology than on its tagline of ultimate driving machines, pointing to a time 10 years ago when the cars were sharper and more responsive. The reality is that, if you were to actually get behind the wheel of a 2002 BMW 5 Series, for example, it'd probably feel a little dated.

The 2014 Cadillac CTS doesn't lack one bit for technology, and it boasts at least as much high-tech gear as BMW's 5 Series: electronic suspension modes, electrically assisted steering, even piped-in engine sounds with the Vsport. However, Cadillac has also made that technology stay out of your way. The steering adjusts, sure, but it never intrudes. The suspension's almost magical ability to absorb shocks and provide excellent handling never feels artificial. Is this new CTS the best in its class? Tough to say; we'd need to pit it against its competition to say for sure. But it merits comparison, and like the ATS before it, that in itself is a victory.

Basic Specs

2.0-liter inline-4, 6-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, 272-hp, $52,420, 20 mpg city/30 mpg hwy
3.6-liter V-6, 8-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive, 321-hp, $55,530, 19 mpg city/28 mpg hwy
3.6-liter twin-turbo V-6, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 420-hp, $71,090, 17 mpg city/25 mpg hwy

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