Cadillac enthusiasts will doubtless all tell you that the CTS is an important car in the history of the marque. Until its launch in 2003, the brand was producing much the same of sort vehicles as it had been doing since the late 1940s: large, prestige and luxurious cars that appealed mainly to the affluent superannuated, hardly a recipe for growth in a market whose dynamics were changing as a result of ever greater global competition and changing consumer tastes. The CTS changed all that, introducing a new and much edgier styling direction and combined it with a chassis and mechanical bits that were intended to deliver a contemporary American interpretation of a sports saloon. It was well received, and collected the North American Car of the Year award, and sales took off, with the car selling between 40 to 50,000 units a year, and to a much younger demographic than had the marque had been doing. A second generation model appeared at the 2007 Detroit Show, for the 2008 model year, and this time the reviews were even more glowing, winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year 2008 award and featuring in Car & Driver’s “Ten Best”. Many in the American press declared not only that this was a car to take on the established German competitors in this market segment, but that it actually beat them. Having tried to relaunch the Cadillac brand in Europe with the first generation CTS and achieving negligible sales, yet another relaunch came with this second generation car, with some very optimistic sales targets indeed. Noting not just a paucity of dealers but the critical absence of a diesel engine or even a small enough petrol with low CO2 ratings, it should come as no surprise that European sales have been utterly pathetic, struggling to get into double figures in the course of a year in the UK. Lacking the necessary ingredients to compete in Europe does not make a car innately bad, though, so I was intrigued when I finally got to sample a second generation CTS at the end of 2012. What I found was a car, rather like all other Cadillac models I had driven, which promised rather more than it delivered. It was far from a “Bad Car”, but it was not even close to the European rivals in so many respects that I just had to wonder whether GM had tried any of them, preferably having cast their rose-tinted spectacles to one side. The third generation CTS followed soon after, launched at the 2013 North America International Auto Show in Detroit, though it was not until late in the year before sales started Whilst still recognisably a Cadillac, and indeed a CTS (though from some angles telling one apart from the smaller ATS requires a marque expert to be sure!), this new and larger car courted controversy with its bold front end, with vertically stacked daytime running lights, and headlights which reached well back along the bonnet line. Under the skin, it was more conventional, taking the same formula as before, but updating it in every respect. Once again, the car was lauded, with it winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 2014 and again taking a place in Car & Driver’s annual “Ten best”, though despite the press’ enthusiasms, it has to be noted that sales have been rather less than its maker had hoped to achieve. Although Cadillac will sell you one in the UK – in left hand drive form – through their one dealer, the chances of driving one were on home soil even remoter than those even of seeing one. And I don’t recall ever coming across one on British roads. It seemed that it was going to be a struggle to get behind the wheel in America, too, as this generation CTS did not feature in the Hertz fleet when the model was new, and there was then a 2 year period when Hertz and GM (allegedly) failed to agree terms and there were very few of their cars in the Hertz fleet. That changed in late 2017, and GM products started to reappear. I managed to secure an ATS from Hertz’ Phoenix location in September 2017, and spotted that there were also a few of the larger CTS on fleet. There don’t seem to be many, though, so when I found one at the LAX facility, I decided to see if it were available for the day. And it was. So here, finally, is a report on the third generation CTS.
Evidence of the continued trend for down-sized engines comes when you spot the 2.0T badge on the boot of the car. That means that there is a 4 cylinder turbo engine under the bonnet, something that until recently would have been unthinkable in a Cadillac. It is the same unit as you will find in a number of other GM products at present, and it generates 268 bhp, and it is coupled to an eight speed automatic transmission. Whilst lacking the smoothness that you get with a V6, most of the time, perhaps surprisingly, you will not feel that short-changed. At low speeds and everywhere apart from the uppermost part of the rev range, this is quite a refined engine, and it is powerful enough to make the CTS feel brisk. Head towards the redline, and it is a different matter, but you probably won’t do that very often, as there will be little need. The transmission did an excellent and pretty seamless job of finding the right ratio, and there was ample acceleration from any speed without having to work the engine particularly hard. Noise levels whilst underway and most especially at a steady speed on the freeway proved exceptionally low, with engine, tyres and the wind all extremely well suppressed. I drove the CTS a total of 180 miles in the day I had it, and needed to put 6.5 gallons in to replenish the tank. That computes to 27.7 mpg US or 33.0 mpg Imperial, a creditable figure for a large car, and perhaps some vindication for the adoption of the 4 cylinder turbo engine. Stop/Start technology is fitted and it proved effective, restarting the engine promptly when the accelerator was pressed.
Those expecting comments about the other driving dynamics to be laden with criticism are perhaps in for a surprise, as this was actually rather an agreeable car to drive. The steering proved well judged, with the weighting about right, and plenty of feel. The handling was definitely good, and indeed many pundits have praised this aspect noting that this is a fun car to take on bendy roads, and I have to agree with them. It is. There are good levels of grip, there’s next to no body roll, and there’s no trace of understeer. Equally impressive, this is all delivered without penalising the ride, which was soft enough for comfort, but not too soft for it to feel at all wallowy, like Cadillacs of yore. The car rides on 245/45 R17 tyres. The brakes were well up to par. There is a largely superfluous electronic handbrake, fitted in the centre console. The one weak spot was visibility. The door mirrors are simply too small, so there’s quite a restricted view of what is behind and alongside, although a blind sport warning system does help. A rear-view camera made judging the back end easier, and was quite useful given the fairly steep rake to the rear screen. There was also a lane departure warning system, with a series of red warning lights flashing in a head-up display area, and also a vibration through the seat when it thought I had transgressed (for good reason – to avoid a huge pot hole!), which took me a bit by surprise.
Perhaps the thing which impressed me most about the CTS was the interior. I recall that of the last car being an ill-co-ordinated confection of various materials, textures and colours, none of which were particularly nice in isolation, but when combined led to a look that may have suited American tastes but were hopelessly wide of the mark for what European buyers in this segment would like and expect. That is no longer the case here. For a start, the wood inlays were dark and in a nice matt finish that genuinely did look classy, and most of the rest of the dash is covered in leather. There is judicious use of chrome highlights and the gloss black inlays are minimised. The overall design is relatively unfussy, too. There are three dials, all of them digital, in half-moon shapes in the instrument cluster, with the outer ones – speedometer and a combined one for fuel level and water temperature – arranged vertically, and the middle one – rev counter – horizontally, leaving a space below which contains the trip computer data. There is a lot of data present here, but careful grouping and use of colours means that it is easy to assimilate. One feature I had not seen before was one that told you how close the car in front was, in time, with a reading if you got closer than 2.5 seconds, and were moving at speeds greater than crawling in traffic. The graphics in the whole dial pack were clear and easy to read. Stock GM column stalks, with their serrated end points were used for lights and indicators on the left and wipers on the right. The centre of the dash is dominated by the integrated display screen for the CUE Infotainment system, and the controls for the dual zone climate control. The lower part of this felt rather flimsy to the touch, but then I discovered that the reason for this is that if you press on the very bottom of the unit, it lifts up to reveal a useful stowage cubby. It is powered up and down, as is the cupholder cover in the centre console. Whilst the graphics are crisp and modern looking, the CUE system remains as frustrating as ever, despite the improvements that GM claim to have made. It is slow to respond to your impression on the screen, and seemed not to respond at all, sometimes, to voice control. As there are no conventional knobs and buttons, though, you don’t have much choice, save for a couple of audio functions for which there are repeaters on the steering wheel spokes, though these never had the effect I was expecting when I pressed one of them. To operate the climate control, there are little metal ridges in the display area, but you actually need to press the touch-sensitive pad above them for operation. CUE has been a bone of contention for years now, and GM just seem to ignore all the complaints. Whilst the removal of lots of buttons does make the cabin look less fussy, it is no good if the resulting set-up is too hard to use.
When I got in the CTS for the first time, I did the usual of reaching for all the controls to get the driving position I wanted. There’s electric adjustment for everything: seat, steering wheel and mirrors. I set all of them to how I wanted, and headed off for a few hundred yards before stopping the car in a favourite shady spot to take the photos of the interior. When I started the engine again, the memory setting that I had not made then powered the seat back (a long way), and the column down as low as it would go. I re-adjusted everything, and then remembered that I had had the same experience (frustration) with another GM car recently, so thought I should store this setting as one of the two available memory positions. I pressed what I thought would be the appropriate buttons on the door, and stopped the engine, to see what would happen. Sure enough, as soon as I started it again, the seat went back to that setting that I had started with. At this point, I reached into the glovebox for the handbook, and followed the instructions there. Or so I thought. Except that on checking again, the seat once again powered all the way back. Starting to get frustrated, I spotted that as well as the 2 settings, there is a third button for “exit”, and I then set this one to be my desired combination of seat and wheel. Success! Neither seat nor mirror now moved every time I got in and out of the car. Clearly there was some other setting somewhere which I had not found – I am guessing in the Settings function on the CUE system – which I also need to alter. Having done this, I can at least report that the seat itself proved very comfortable, and the leather trim – and I think it was genuine cow-hide and not the increasing trend for man-made leather that a lot of brands are adopting – was of a good quality. Both front seats have both a heating element and cooling fans.
Those in the back may not feel quite as comfortable. With the front seats set well forward, there is ample legroom, but push the seat well back, as the passenger seat was when I got in the car, and there is a surprising lack of space, meaning that accommodation could get quite tight in the CTS. Headroom is not an issue, and the car is wide enough that three adults should fit across the CTS, though the middle occupant will have to deal with the central tunnel. There is a drop down armrest with cup holders and a cubby in its upper surface.
The boot is a decent size, though I think the German rivals all offer more cargo capacity as well as having more space in their back seats. There is a bit of space under the floor around the space saver tyre for odds and ends. There is a ski flap, but the rear seat backrests are fixed in position, so you will be limited in the amount of larger stuff you can accommodate unless you have paid for the optional folding backrests. Hertz clearly had not. Inside the cabin, there is a modest glovebox, a cubby under the central armrest, a pair of cupholders which have an electrically assisted cover, bins on the doors and that hidden compartment behind the climate control panel. Those in the back get map pockets on the back of both front seats and door bins.
Cadillac offer the CTS with a choice of four different engines and several different trim levels. The 2.0 litre 268 bhp Turbo four-cylinder engine comes standard in base and Luxury models, while the 335 bhp V6 is optional in the Luxury trim. Premium Luxury models have a non-turbo V6, while a 420 bhp twin-turbo V6 powers V-Sport and V-Sport Premium Luxury models. A supercharged V8 comes in the CTS-V. Rear-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is available for $2,000 in base, Luxury, and Premium Luxury trims. V-Sport and CTS-V models are only available with rear-wheel drive. For 2018, the base CTS starts at $46,495 and comes standard with leatherette upholstery, power-adjustable front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, an 11-speaker Bose audio system, satellite radio, HD Radio, Bluetooth, an 8-inch touch-screen infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, a Wi-Fi hot spot, wireless device charging, a rearview camera, and rear parking sensors. The Seating package ($2,500) adds leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power-tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, and split-folding rear seats. Priced at $52,195, the Luxury model adds leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power-tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, split-folding rear seats, a panoramic sunroof, a 13-speaker Bose surround-sound system, navigation, forward collision warning, lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and a Safety Alert Seat. The V-Sport package ($2,465) adds an adaptive suspension, performance brakes, and unique styling elements. The Premium Luxury model starts at $59,695 and comes equipped with the non-turbo V6 engine, an adaptive suspension, heated rear seats, tri-zone automatic climate control, a head-up display, a 360-degree camera, adaptive cruise control, and automatic emergency braking. The Performance Seat and Cluster package ($1,830) gets you 20-way power-adjustable front sport seats, sport pedals, and a digital gauge cluster. The V-Sport package ($1,465) adds performance brakes and unique styling elements. With prices starting at $61,195, the CTS V-Sport has mostly the same features as the Luxury model, but it comes with performance upgrades like a twin-turbo V6, an adaptive suspension, performance brakes, and a limited-slip differential. The V-Sport Premium Luxury trim costs $71,295. It has the same performance upgrades as the V-Sport model and the same comfort and tech features as the Premium Luxury trim. The high-performance CTS-V is priced at $86,495. It comes with a 640 bhp supercharged 6.2-litre V8, an adaptive suspension, performance brakes, and a limited-slip differential. The CTS-V has the same features as the Luxury trim. The Luxury package ($2,500) adds tri-zone automatic climate control, heated rear seats, and split-folding rear seats.
So my summary is that the CTS is a surprisingly good car, as opposed to one that a patriotic US motoring press rates but no-one else does. It still does not quite beat the established order of luxury saloons from Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Volvo, but it gets close. Far closer than any Cadillac has done in the past. It is still not perfect. The CUE system really does need a major rethink, or to be binned completely, and there were some other niggles, like the tiny door mirrors. The CTS would not sell in Europe, of that I can be sure, as even European designed and built cars like the Jaguar XF and Volvo S90 are failing to crack the German trio’s stranglehold on this market segment, even though both are excellent cars that are at least as good as their teutonic rivals. But in America, I can now see how a buyer might just prefer one of these to “an import”, and they would not be placing patriotism too far ahead of product quality if they were to do so. And were I to get hold of the top end models, the V-Sport and the CTS-V, I understand I would probably find that capability gap somewhat smaller. Sadly, although there were rumours that Hertz would be getting some CTS-V cars, these have now gone quiet, with no sign of the cars on fleet. But even if faced with a regular model, like I was, fear not, and give it a go.