Cadillac Back: The Surprising, Superlative CTS

Nov. 6 (Bloomberg) — When General Motors’ Cadillac division put a resurgent foot forward in 2002 with the release of the CTS sedan, I rooted for both the car and the fresh ‘tude. This is not your granddaddy’s ride, announced the new model, with its sharp exterior design, gutsy engine — and dismal interior.

Ah, yes, the interior. While Cadillac’s designs suddenly were cool, the interiors were poorly conceived and rife with lousy interfaces.

So now the redesigned 2008 CTS is in front of me, broadcasting more than a bit of braggadocio via the 18-inch wheels, shiny black paint job and a Caddy crest the size of my fist on the grill. Nothing wrong with a little outside flash, though, so (deep breath) I open the door to find … the most charming interior I’ve seen in a long time.

An auto’s interior is akin to a home’s, and the CTS’s mix of optional leather with hand stitching and dark wood evokes Modern Country Retreat rather than, say, Teutonic Minimalist Flat or even American Cost-Cutting Studio.

A handsome African wood, sapele, runs in a horizontal strip along the doors and across the dash. The structural design reminds me of a cockpit, with an angular center console that folds around passengers’ bodies and the controls naturally angled toward their user.

And like a good living room, the important stuff is close at hand: The driver’s temperature control and digital readout are nestled near your right leg, easy to adjust without having to reach over. The infotainment system and its controls rate extremely high. Let’s come back to that.

Also worth noting is the roomy back seat, big enough for a catnap or even three passengers.

Nimble in Traffic

I roll the Caddy into traffic, aware that its expansive grill, high beltline and robust body lend the appearance of a big car that won’t wilt under intimidation by SUVs. Though wider, the CTS is actually the same length as the original. And yet it is nimble, making for a surprisingly adept city machine.

The 3.6-liter V-6 is available with direct-injection, which yields 41 more horsepower than the standard engine, attaining 304 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque. Even with better performance, gas mileage is about the same as the regular engine.

With three available suspension levels — from cushy to race-ready stiff — and all-wheel-drive available, customers have lots of options (perhaps too many). My tester has the middle “this bed is just right” suspension, and the six-speed auto transmission (a six-speed manual is standard). The automatic transmission is fair, albeit not brilliant under sports-style driving. It also lacks shifter paddles, which annoys.

A Bit Lurchy

When I get onto the highway and start pushing a little harder, I find that the CTS handles well, though the weight transfer feels a bit lurchy during high-speed lane changes. That may be the result of the all-wheel-drive option, which adds weight and feels extraneous to the CTS. I would do without.

It doesn’t outperform the BMW 5 series, Caddy’s benchmark. Yet in a drive-off, it would no longer feel as if you’ve brought a knife to a gunfight.

Cadillac does nail its other goal, though: To bring upmarket amenities to an entry-level luxury car (the base price on the non-direct-injected CTS is less than $33,000). The $8,015 premium luxury package on my $47,590 tester includes 10 speakers, a 40-gig hard drive, GPS navigation and the extra-long “ultraview” sunroof. That’s a pretty good value.

The infotainment system is operated by a touch screen that electronically slides out of the dash when you turn on the car. In this era of the iPhone, you’d think more carmakers would use the touch-screen system, yet few luxury makers such as Audi or Mercedes seem to.

Virtual IPod

The screen is especially useful when coupled with the iPod integration system. Plug an iPod into the car’s USB port in the center console and a virtual iPod appears onscreen, letting you control albums, playlists, everything. Count that as the most useful amenity of the year. The internal hard drive also allows you to rip CDs or download MP3s directly and even pause and rewind live radio, like a TiVo.

I’m testing out the navigation system on my drive home, and it suddenly pings, verbally alerting me to a traffic jam half a mile off. The XM subscription includes real-time traffic in many urban areas, and minutes later (unhappily) I hit the backup.

The system gives me the option of another route: It says it’s a mile longer, yet will save me 20 minutes. At this point I flash back to the previous CTS’s navigation system that once tried to send me from Philadelphia to New York using only back roads. At the trip’s end I considered extracting the entire system with a crowbar. Should I really give this new one a chance?

I surrender. It directs me off the highway, and I end up in the Bronx, idling at stoplights. This doesn’t bode well, yet the system indicates that I’ll be home in 25 minutes. My two passengers threaten to bale out and take the subway instead. Give it a chance, I say.

And so it is, about 22 minutes later, that I’m in Manhattan, on my block. The system knew what it was talking about. Count me happily, blessedly shocked.

Caddy, I always believed you could do it. Really.

The 2008 Cadillac CTS at a Glance

Power: 3.6-liter V-6 with direct injection, with 304 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic or six-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds.

Price as tested: $47,590 ($34,545 base with direct- injection).

Best features: Fantastic interior and high-end electronics for a fair price.

Worst feature: Lackluster automatic transmission.

Target buyer: Those in need of a pleasing daily driver who have been hoping for a reason to buy American again.

(Jason Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)