Quick Drive- 2008 Cadillac CTS

The details are important

By Kevin Miller

05.02.2008

I’ve wanted to drive the second-generation Cadillac CTS ever since it was introduced. I was quite envious when Brendan Moore tested a CTS DI AWD from GM’s press fleet in March, especially because of the high praise he lavished on the CTS. The press photos showed a handsome car with a very well executed interior. As luck would have it, Avis upgraded me to a CTS on a recent business trip to Salt Lake City.

The rental CTS was a base-level car; it had no sunroof, remote start, navigation system, sport suspension, or up-sized wheels. It was equipped with heated (but not cooled) front seats, a Bose stereo with XM and a 6-disc CD changer, and ambient LED interior lighting. Driving the entry-level CTS allowed me to see what basics Cadillac’s designers got right, and what features a potential buyer might want to upgrade.

Although I love the overall shape of the CTS, the styling falls apart for me around the back half of the rear doors. The shape of the window opening at top of the rear door kinks downward suddenly, looking like it is manufactured from cheap, straight segments of metal (though it isn’t). The chrome trim around the rear door’s window looks like two pieces (one at the top, one at the bottom) because it is; the upper chrome is mounted to the vehicle body, while the lower chrome is mounted to the door. The overall look is one of a bunch of parts being slapped together, and it looks anything but premium. The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, which costs about half as much as the CTS, has a much more stylish window trim treatment on its rear doors. It’s disappointing that Cadillac got so much right with the CTS’ styling, yet seemed to have dropped the ball in this detail. Perhaps the upcoming CTS Coupe will escape this styling issue, as its C-pillar trim doesn’t need to split for a door opening.

The first interaction with any car is the key, and Cadillac chose to use a standard GM key blank with the Cadillac crest glued on, and a separate remote locking fob. The fob is a premium-looking unit, but it is HUGE, much larger than the standard GM unlocking fob used on less expensive brands. The fob is bigger (both longer and wider) than the actual ignition key (a CTS with Cadillac’s EasyKey system has only this fob, which has a cut key hidden inside, necessitating the large fob size). I guess this will keep male CTS drivers without EasyKey from wearing too-tight pants, as the key and fob in a front pocket would leave a definite impression on any passers-by. The fob-plus-key nonsense is a powerful argument for ordering the CTS with the EasyKey option. Frankly, when I was handed the keys for the CTS, I found it a little disheartening to see a standard-issue GM key and a larger-than-necessary fob, when several less-expensive GM products such as the Saturn Astra have unique keys.

When I first sat in the CTS, I immediately noticed the stitched upholstery detailing on the dashboard and door tops. This was paired with a faux carbon fiber accent band and charcoal-colored lower dash/door inserts. It is a very handsome look and lends a premium air to the interior. The CTS’s center stack has been lauded before for its modern layout and nice materials, and I’ll add to the car’s praise. The controls on the center stack are nice to look at, nice to touch, and are intuitive to use. The audio display is among the best satellite radio units I’ve seen, as the unit makes it easy to scroll through the stations, and artist, title, and station are all displayed on the screen. My one complaint on the center stack is about the location of the temperature and heated seat controls on the beveled edges of the center stack. As I sat in the car, the driver’s side control was partly obscured by my knee. I found reaching behind my knee to be an awkward reach for the temperature control.

I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon carving some of Utah’s canyons between Orem and Park City; I covered about 120 miles in three hours. During that time, the seats remained comfortable, though the bottoms are fairly flat and the bolsters on the seatback were designed for somebody with a torso wider than mine. I used the automatic transmission’s sport mode, and the Driver Shift Control (manumatic) feature. The CTS was the first manumatic I’d driven that “blips” the throttle on downshifts, it worked very well on approaches to tight bends. While the standard V6 pulled strongly to its redline, making sounds that were far from unpleasant, the high elevations and 85 octane fuel in Utah conspired to sometimes make the engine sound a bit wheezy at lower RPMs.

My drive began with a bottle of water and a bottle of soda in the front drink holders. Unfortunately, those holders weren’t particularly deep and neither the center console nor the front door pockets were large enough to accommodate a 20 oz bottle; I ended up shoving one in the glove box and the other in a seatback pocket so I could easily reach the shifter. While the CTS’ interior is stylish, there isn’t a ton of space for gadgets, and without a standard Bluetooth system, one’s cell phone needs to be in easy reach. Once the drink bottles were out of the cup holder, I finally had a place to put my sunglasses and cell phone where they could be easily reached; it wasn’t easy to reach them in the under-elbow console box.

The one thing that really let the CTS down in the twisties was its base suspension. It allowed the car to feel large and heavy (which it is), and while the CTS was always surefooted, the chassis didn’t communicate very much road feel to the driver’s seat. On the other hand, the steering turned in quickly and offered good feedback. On my run through the canyons, setting the StabiliTrak stability system to Competition Mode helped a bit, by allowing some predictable, easy-to-control wheelspin from the rear tires. Experiencing the car in that situation really showed off how well balanced the chassis is, even without the sport suspension.

While the Cadillac’s Bose stereo had good sound quality, the steepness of the canyon walls often blocked out the XM signal on my drive so I turned off the audio system and just listened to the sounds the car makes. Because the CTS offers incredible sound isolation and is therefore very quiet inside, I opened the windows to better hear the engine and the tires in the canyons. Since the chassis wasn’t giving me much feedback about what was going on with the tires, I used my ears with the open windows to discern grip levels, which were quite high even on the standard tires.

It’s not every day that the car rental gods smile upon you and hand you keys to the Motor Trend Car of the Year rather than a Pontiac G6. If you are considering a CTS and have any appreciation for driving enjoyment, I recommend opting for the upgraded FE2 suspension package, which eliminates much of the undesirable softness and floatiness that I encountered during my time in Utah’s canyons. Aside from a few questionable ergonomic choices (such as the awkward temperature controls and the shallow cup holders), even the base CTS has a very attractive, upscale interior with many comfort features. The base engine is about 15 percent down on power from the V6 with direct injection, but the six speed automatic was able to keep the engine in its power band most of the time. Just remember, if you want a CTS with all of the “good stuff” (meaning the things they show you on the press photos or in advertisements), be prepared to pay a lot more than the base price.

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Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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2 Comments

  1. I have rented a Cadillac CTS (base) a couple of times myself. I would have to agree with most of your conclusions. The base model is a good car, but the car really comes into its own when you tick off the options boxes, a good car becomes a great car very quickly. I know because my brother has the loaded CTS. I have often wondered about the relative value to the car companies of putting lower-equipped models in rental fleets. On one hand, you get exposure to your product, which is good, but on the other hand, if the consumer is driving a trim level that does bring out the car’s greatest potential, maybe you lose a customer because he/she thinks, “well, that’s what the car is like, nothing more to be added”.

  2. I would normally agree with you but I’ve seen a handful of cars which are really at their best without all the options glued on.

    The one that sticks out in my head right now is the Subaru Outback. That car always felt totally right at home in its lowest trim.

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