2014 Cadillac CTS, the new Kaiser of the hill: Motoramic Drives

In the American automobile marketplace, as in life, sometimes one advances simply by staying the course and not cocking things up. Consider Audi, which has seen ascendancy in the sporting luxury car segment by remaining steadfast to its staid yet well-rendered minimalist design identity, and consciously not following the path of its German cohorts at Mercedes and BMW as they’ve turned their backs on decades of sober and/or adrenalized formality and scurried down the rabbit-hole of the baroque, the blobbed, the bootied, and the be-flanged.

An alternate path to vehicular (and personal) glory is to create an identity that is distinctive and original and reflective of an honest emotional proposition, and then continue to refine and improve upon it incrementally over time. Within the specific category of high-end sports sedans, performance, technology, and materials obviously have to keep pace as well, or you end up with something like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. And it helps if you’re also the linchpin of a resurgent domestic icon, because we Americans love nothing more than an underdog — except an underdog that wins.

This is precisely the recipe followed by Cadillac with its CTS sedan.

Starting in 2002, the CTS has taken a sharp-edged, audacious, potent, and distinctly American approach to the sports sedan, and has, over a remarkably short period of time, been integral to the wholesale resurrection of Cadillac. Without that first CTS, there would be no ATS — the marque’s new, smaller four-door — which competes directly and effectively with the benchmark entry-level sports sedans like the BMW 3 Series, and has brought tens of thousands of new, younger buyers into the brand’s chromed wheelhouse. And without it, there would be no third-generation CTS, which, after a daylong drive through central coastal California, has solidly earned the title of our favorite mid-sized sports sedan.

Having gained its aforementioned little brother, and a concomitant stretch of its own, the new CTS is now sized correctly in the category. As such, it’s no longer forced to pull double-duty, simultaneously fending off the Mercedes C-Class and E-Class, the Audi A4 and A6, and the BMW 3 Series and 5 Series. Surprisingly, it has taken advantage of this adolescent growth spurt to lose weight, shedding 7 percent of its body fat and weighing 200 lbs. less than a BMW 528i. In the process, it’s also attracted a bounty of exotic alloys into its frame and components, crafted a near perfect 50/50 weight distribution (in 2.0-liter trim), and adopted a pair of new forced induction engines on either side of its carryover V-6, which now makes 321 hp and 275 lb.-ft. of torque.

On the entry end is GM’s churny turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which produces 49 fewer horses than the V-6, but 20 more torques (272hp/295 lb.-ft.) Cadillac folks expect it to be the volume leader in terms of sales, and buyers would be wise to agree. It produces plenty of power, it makes the car drive lighter and smaller, and it’s more efficient. Sadly, it comes only with a six-speed automatic gearbox, when others in the category offer eight. (Caddy is working on this.)

Eight gears are available with the naturally aspirated V-6, as well as with the new twin-turbo V-6 — whose 3.6 liter displacement matches the mid-grader but whose components are 90 percent different, conspiring to produce an output of 420 hp and 430 lb.-ft. of torque. This is the hammer of the bunch, now called VSport, and occupies a penultimate slot in advance of the next generation CTS-V, whenever that might bow.

If you don’t feel you have enough choices yet, the two less potent engines can be had as either all-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive (VSport cars are RWD only). All models arrive with wheels ranging in dimensions from 17-inch to 19-inch, with the larger two sizes able to be paired to GM’s magical Magnetic Ride Control system. The four cylinder and un-boosted six can be trimmed in any of four packages: Standard, Luxury, Performance, and Premium, while the VSport comes only in Sport and Sport Premium. Whew. Starting prices are around $46,000, and can escalate into $70,000 if you up-package and/or include options like the new Driver Awareness or Driver Assist packages, which add blind zone, lane departure, cross traffic, and collision alert systems; and auto braking, collision prep, adaptive cruise control, and active seatbelt tightening.

Got all that?

No matter which arrangement you choose, you’ll get a remarkably handsome, hard-charging, sticky sedan that feels as solid as a Mercedes and as involved as a BMW. Enhancing your enjoyment is a cabin that is by far the best one Cadillac has ever created, with hand-stitched leathers in delicious colors, a jeweled and reconfigurable LCD instrument panel, and unvarnished open-pore wood accents that look like real wood because they are.

We might recommend, like a good stylist, that the CTS take one thing off inside — one surface element, swoopy cutout, texture, or material. Like a Wall Street steakhouse at lunch, the interior is rich, but too busy. Also, the brand’s haptic, poke-based, CUE interface is present front and center in the center stack, and it still sucks. We’re getting used to it, but it remains finicky, clunky, and distracting. Other brands have suffered through this kind of virulent criticism of their electronics before, and they’ve overhauled them. Caddy, for now, stands firm.

But whenever we got frustrated with CUE, we cured this by either stepping on the gas, screeching through a twistie and throwing the back end around, or stepping out of the car and admiring its handsome, juicy surfacing, and minatory sneer. Did we mention that we love the way this car looks?

A daylong drive is not ownership of a car. But it is, for those of us who drive five-dozen extraordinary vehicles every year, time enough to know that you’re falling in love. The new CTS not only has our attention, but our affection. Take it out for a test, and we expect you’ll agree. While the Germans bicker over whose designs can be most rococo, and whose driving experience can be most autonomous, Cadillac has screamed ahead and built the world's best midsize luxury sedan.