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2005 Cadillac CTS 3.6 Review

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SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Cadillac

2005 Cadillac CTS 3.6

Third time's charmed, as the old saying goes. For Cadillac, this applies especially to small cars. The company's first, the Cimmaron from the early Eighties, is best forgotten, being the result of a ``get it out quick and dirty'' edict from above, and brought to mind another old saying, about silk purses and sow's ears. Number two was the Catera, in the mid-Nineties. It should have been a hit with import buyers, as it was itself an import, from Germany. But with the Catera, Cadillac was caught between two extremes - having to please older, established Cadillac buyers on one hand, and attracting younger people on the other. The two groups were far too different.

Mistakes made, lessons learned. Number three, the CTS, has succeeded, and for good reason. Introduced three years ago, it abandoned conservative styling for the angles and planes of Cadillac's ``Art and Science'' design language. It had the front-engine, rear-wheel drive chassis layout of its chief German competitors, but was made in the U.S.A. on GM's then-new ``Sigma'' platform. And, to prove its sporting intent, it offered not only an available sport-tuned suspension, but the first manual transmission to be found in a Cadillac in 50 years, although a five-speed automatic was a more common choice.

The CTS lineup has expanded significantly since its debut. The original 3.2-liter, 220-horsepower V6 was supplemented by a 3.6-liter, 255-hp V6 for 2004, matched with a five-speed automatic. There were a variety of small chassis and interior changes, not unusual for a car's sophomore year. Model year 2005 sees even more significant improvements to the CTS line, with the 3.2 engine replaced by a new 2.8-liter V6, a smaller version of the 3.6. The five-speed manual gearbox is replaced by a six-speed Aisin box, which is standard in both models, with a five-speed automatic available in both. And then there is the CTS-V, the first of a series of cars that are Cadillac's answer to the German manufacturers' tuner divisions. Recipe: Take one CTS, add a serious sport suspension and a 400-hp LS6 V8 driving the rear wheels through a 6-speed Tremec gearbox. I've had limited time in one, on a racetrack, and it is not the sort of car to warm hearts in Munich and Stuttgart. ``Impressive'' barely begins the description. ``Rocket sled'' is closer.

But the regular CTS with the 3.6-liter V6, especially with the sport suspension and six-speed gearbox with which this week's test car was equipped, is also an able performer, and at a much more reasonable price. It may be made in Michigan, but it's the closest Cadillac has come yet to a German sports-luxury sedan.

APPEARANCE: If it seems that all auto manufacturers are copying each other, take a look at Cadillac. All angles and planes, with a the corners rounded ever so slightly, the CTS set the tone for the Cadillac cars that followed, with a distinctive look that makes for easy product recognition. The CTS's proportions are compact and toned, with the functional muscularity of a runner, not the bulked-up look of a weight-lifter. Both contemporary and classic Cadillac styling cues are used, with traditional vertically-stacked taillights matched by similarly-styled headlights.

COMFORT: Inside, the CTS is as distinctive as outside. Instead of the contemporary conservative international luxury look of the larger Cadillacs, it gets a high-tech look with variously-textured plastics and what looks like a PC tower case in the center of the dashboard, angled slightly toward the driver. My test car had the optional ``Infotainment'' package, which fits in that center stack and includes, among other things, a DVD-based navigation system, XM satellite radio, and XM NavTraffic, a very useful feature that overlays the nav system map with a real-time display of accidents and incidents on the local highways. It's available for most major metropolitan areas, with more to come, and features one of the better user interfaces for such a system. The front bucket seats are wider and flatter than the German variety, but have good support and comfort. As in most Cadillacs, the front shoulder harnesses anchor directly to the seats for convenience. The rear seat is much roomier than that of the compact-class competition, as is the trunk.

SAFETY: The Sigma platform used by the Cadillac CTS is designed for strength and crashworthiness, with a heavily-reinforced structure and safety cage around the passenger compartment. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard; the latest version of the Cadillac ``Stabilitrak’’ stability control system is available.

RIDE AND HANDLING: In the CTS, GM's Sigma platform utilizes ultra-high strength steel pieces as welded members of its unibody structure, for greater strength and rigidity with less weight. The chassis further features fully-independent suspension, with short-and-long arms in front and a multilink setup in the rear. The optional Sport Package, with which my test car was equipped, is highly recommended. It has a good all-around calibration, not at all harsh or uncomfortable, and the harder the car is pushed, within reasonable limits on the road, the better it responds. The variable-assist steering that is also part of the sport package is light at low speeds for easy maneuvering and gets firmer as speed increases, for stability. A Cadillac that is as fun to drive as any comparable German sports sedan? A few years ago, that would have been absurd. Now it's merely true.

PERFORMANCE: Recipe for sports sedan success: add more power, as long as the chassis can handle it. The CTS's chassis has no problem handling the 3.6-liter V6's 255 horsepower and 252 lb.-ft. of torque, and in fact, the drivetrain and chassis are very well-matched. The new V6 is a contemporary design, with heads and block of aluminum alloy, dual overhead cams per bank controlling 24 valves, and variable valve timing. As the chassis seems to get happier when pushed, so does the engine. It's plenty adequate down low, if not excessive, and builds power in a healthy manner from 3000 rpm up until just before the redline, power characteristics that are best taken advantage of with a manual transmission. And the standard six-speed's ratios are well-chosen for the task. If the 3.6 isn't powerful enough, there's always the CTS-V.

CONCLUSIONS: Cadillac gets it right with the latest CTS.

2005 Cadillac CTS 3.6 Base Price $ 33,135 Price As Tested $ 40,200 Engine Type dual overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 with variable valve timing. Engine Size 3.6 liters / 217 cu. in. Horsepower 255 @ 6200 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 252 @ 3200 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length113.4 in. / 190.1 in. Curb Weight 3600 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower14.1 Fuel Capacity 17.2 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P225/50 WR17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A Brakes, front/rearvented disc / vented disc, antilock and traction control standard Suspension, front/rearindependent short-and-long arm / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 27 / 22 0 to 60 mph 6.5 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Luxury Package - includes: wood trim, memory package, power front passenger seat, heated front seats, universal transmitter,theft-deterrent system $ 2,615 Sport Package - includes: FE3 sport suspension with load leveling, Stabilitrak, speed-sensitive power steering, performance brake pads, W-rated tires on 17-inch aluminum wheels $ 1,325 Infotainment System - includes: AM/FM stereo with in-dash 6-CD changer, DVD-based navigation system, Bose 8-speaker system, XM satellite radio and XM NavTraffic $ 3,125