Most Improved Car of the Class of 2008? – The 2008 Cadillac CTS

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Better say this right up front, with the possible exception of the new Chevy Malibu, Cadillac’s second-generation CTS may well be the most improved new car of the 2008 model year. To be sure, it’s the most impressive vehicle to carry the Cadillac badge since the stunning 1967 front-wheel-drive Eldorado.
This car is so impressive it’s tough to recall how Cadillac got into the performance luxury sedan business to begin with. Like so many stories regarding General Motors as of late, this one has a significant overseas component. Almost five years after the astonishingly moronic proclamation of a now (fortunately) retired Cadillac chief engineer that, “Cadillac will be a front-drive car company,” the Catera debuted.
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Little more than an Opel Omega with cosmetic revisions limited to a revised grille and rear decklid garnish with the requisite chassis retune and FMVSS compliance changes, the Catera was an expedient way to provide U.S. Cadillac dealers with a car the division hoped would help retain customers who had been leaving the nameplate for BMW and Lexus entries. Initially offered with a peculiar 56° vee 200HP 3.0L 24-valve DOHC six-cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed automatic, the Catera was the unfortunate recipient of what was barely a mid-pack powerplant. And the sometimes finicky V6 aside, while no 3-Series, the Catera was a decent car clothed in a decidedly innocuous wrapper. But if there’s one thing a Caddy should never be, it’s innocuous. Not surprisingly, the Catera incurred the wrath of many journalists and self-proclaimed “analysts” from the get-go. One such insightful wag decreed the Catera spelled the “end of Cadillac” because it was not offered with a V8 engine. Yeah hum.


Initial Plan – Use Australian RWD Platform – CTS’ Sigma Platform Developed in Warren
It’s encouraging to not that the folks at Cadillac were well aware of the the Catera’s shortcomings. All of them. And with said list in mind GM began work on what would become the Sigma Platform. With the global market in mind, lead-engineering work initially began in Australia. It was originally planned to use the Sigma platform for a rear-drive Cadillac sedan to replace the Catera as well as replacing the Australian Holden Commodore/Statesman/Caprice ranges. Early on it became obvious that the requirements needed by Cadillac for a car to go up against the likes of BMW’s 3- and 5-Series, the Mercedes C- and E-Class as well as rear-drive Lexus entry- and mid-market models would lead to a platform much too expensive for the hyper-price-sensitive Australian market. As a result, Holden was out of the program and lead-engineering for Sigma moved to GM’s Warren, Michigan technical center.

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During it’s development, Sigma evolved to allow both larger sedan and SUV derivatives to be added. First up was the original CTS that went on sale as a 2003 model. The first passenger car to use Cadillac’s “Art & Science” design philosophy, to call the CTS radical was something of an understatement. Severe chiseled surfaces and in-your-face grille, and light graphics were unlike anything seen on any Cadillac product. [In fact a wall display in the Cadillac exterior studio proclaimed “All Luxury Items Come from Europe”. Then design-head Wayne Cherry thought this was reality – Hmmmmm – Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, etc].
Interior Was Expensive, But Didn’t Look That Way
The severity of design continued to the interior where the design of desktop PCs were used as inspiration for the instrument panel appearance… with what can charitably be called disastrous results. The first generation CTS eschewed leather-look grains on soft trim employing weird geometric grains instead. Initially wood trim was completely absent from the interior. The sales department pleaded with the styling gurus and ended up with a few cosmetic strips on the glovebox and door-pull handles. Still the car’s polarizing design was able to find a decent number of buyers.
First Generation CTS Powertrain Lineup Evolved… Gimme the CTS-V
The CTS launched with a 220HP 3.2L version of the Catera’s bizarre Elsemere Port V6 as the sole engine offering. Transmissions were all-new with a standard (but seldom ordered) 5-speed manual and optional 5-speed automatic. For the 2004 model year automatic CTSs were equipped with GM’s new “High Feature” V6. The twin-cam 24-valve V6 displaced 3.6L, featured variable valve timing and spun out 255HP. Also new of the 2004 model was the 400HP 5.7L V8 CTS-V performance model. By the time the 2005 model year rolled around, the 3.2L V6 manual engine had been dumped. In its place was a 210HP 2.8L version of the new 3.6L V6. Unlike the previous manual transmission offering the self-shifter now was fitted with six forward gears.
To be sure, the car’s chassis setup was spot-on as media wags and owners soon discovered. Suspension employed short/long control arms with a nested coil spring at each front corner and a well-developed coil-sprung multilink arrangement in the rear. This is a far cry from the MacPherson Strut front and semi-trailing arm rear suspension setups originally envisioned by the Australian engineers at the start of the program. One downside of the trick rear suspension was its unpleasant ability to transmission an amazing amount of road noise into the rear seat area. From either the driver’s or front-seat passenger’s standpoint the levels of NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) were quite well attenuated, the back seat was a boom-box at anything over 30mph. Why this was never corrected during the original car’s lifecycle is still a mystery. Maybe it was the engineering time and money needed to get the fire-breathing Nürburgring-tuned 400HP V-8 CTS-V performance version on the road. Or possibly focus on the second generation CTS was considered more important. At the same time additional Sigma Platform engineering resources were being eaten up by the SRX and (stillborn) Saab Crossover SUVs and the Seville-replacing STS sedan. As to why the rear noise problem was never addressed, it’s destined to remain an enigma wrapped in a conundrum that is sheathed in mystery outside of the Sigma Platform team. Personally, I like the second possibility. It’s encouraging to see an engineering unit obsessed with progressive change and the elimination of any problem when designing and developing the next generation of any product. The idea of making the second-generation CTS the best product it could be is truly an admirable goal.
Second-Gen CTS Achieves Goal of Righting 1st Gen Missteps
And the goal has been attained!
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Starting with the first CTS’s Sigma platform, the new version comes across as far more than a evolution of the original car. Pretty much every one of the weaknesses of the last CTS have been eliminated outright. The severe, angular, quite funereal cabin has been swept into the dumpster of failed design philosophies. In its place is an interior that is second to none in its price class for quality of materials, fit or finish. Design of the new car’s interior, specifically the instrument panel is noteworthy as well. Overall, the interior is a significant improvement aesthetically and functionally.
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With dual zone climate control standard, temperature displays as well as controls are situated at the base of the console on each side of the stack. Optional seat heaters or heaters and coolers have their controls located along side the temperature controls making for easy adjustment of driver and front seat passenger comfort. The interior is full of small and obvious well thought out details from the stylized Cadillac “vees” adorning the seat backs and center console to the cut-and-sew trim on the instrument panel and door trims. Unlike GM cars of yore, if you see any stitching in the CTS it’s all real. None of that molded-in stitching that seems to linger on in certain Chrysler and Ford products.
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Powertrain Improvements are Impressive
The previous version’s NVH problems are completely absent with the interior a quieter place than a 3-Series but nowhere near as isolated as that of a Lexus IS. I’m pleased to say that CTS rear seat occupants can now converse without shouting. Under acceleration the 3.6L DOHC 24-valve VVT engine makes an appropriate and almost mellow growl. About the only criticism that can be leveled regarding the car is its almost anodyne exhaust note. From a styling standpoint, this car has an attitude. When the loud pedal is stomped on mightily, it should sound like it has one as well.
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Under the CTS hood the engined have been shuffled around somewhat. As far as the North American market is concerned, the base 210HP 2.8L “High Feature” engine in gone. In it’s place is an improved version of last year’s 3.6L mill. Engine output has been upped from 255HP to 263HP. For customers interested in spending an additional thousand-bucks, can get a direct-injection version of the 3.6L that sees output raised to 304HP. Just to put this in perspective, that’s 304HP produced by of 217 cubic inches.
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As this is written, the 263HP engine is available with a standard 6-speed manual or optional ($1300.00) 6-speed automatic transmission while the direct-injection motor can only be had with the autobox. In late October, the manual will be offered with the 304HP powerplant. A powertrain first for the CTS is the addition of all-wheel-drive. Using the system offered in both the SRX and STS, improved traction can be had in conjunction with either engine. Ordering AWD forces a 6-speed automatic transmission. A limited slip differential is offered on all rear-drive models.
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Three Levels of Chassis Tuning – Sign Me Up for the Mid-Level
Three levels of chassis tuning are offered. Not surprisingly, the base setup is tuned for comfort and fits P235/55R17 H-rated Michelin all-season tires of 17 x 8.0-inch aluminum wheels. Still the standard car can hustle along darned well in the twisties. Mark that up to standard Bilstein shocks at each corner and direct-acting anti-roll bars at both ends. While understeer is the order of the day, it’s not excessive and doesn’t put the damper on, er, spirited driving altogether. The first upgrade in the suspension department goes by the order code FE2 and substitutes V-rated P235/50R18 tires on 18 x 8.5-inch rims. Again the tires are Michelin all-season and the wheels alloy. Spring and damper rates are beefed up with FE2 for a firmer, but still comfortably compliant ride. Front and rear anti-roll bar diameters have been increased compared to the FE1 (base) chassis setup.
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This is what would normally be the top level of chassis tune for a Cadillac and it is an excellent compromise between comfort and handling, with the tip going to reward the enthusiastic driver rather than someone seeking an luxuriant ride. With FE2 in the hands of a good driver the CTS can be threaded along a nice winding road with elevation changes better than an IS 350 and can easily keep up with a standard-suspension 3-Series. For the more hard-core driver the CTS is offered with FE3 suspension. With this package, Nivomat self-leveling shocks replace the Bilsteins and the spring rates have been increased once more but anti-roll bar diameters are carried over from the FE2 setup. While tires and wheels are the same size as those included with the FE2 option, they are Y-rated Michelin summer performance tires. If you’re thinking of ordering a CTS with FE3 and live in the snow-belt or Rockies, call Tire Rack right now and get yourself a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks. The FE3 tire is mighty nice on the backroads of Monterey County in August but it’ll get hard as linoleum when the temperature drops below 45°F. Oh yeah, FE3 also includes the aforementioned limited-slip differential. All three chassis setups were tuned on the
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All-Wheel-Drive a Welcome Addition for CTS Sales in the Snow Belt
Chassis and drivetrain options are reduced if one chooses for the all-wheel-drive option. With AWD, base and FE2 are the only chassis tunes on hand. And if you want an manual gearbox with your extra traction in this segment, you’ll have to go to an Audi or BMW dealer. After spending an extended time in an FE2 equipped 304HP CTS with AWD on California 25 near the Pinnacle National Monument, I ca say it is a rewarding a car to drive on that piece of road as a BMW 535. Yep. Came a something of a shock to me. For while the first CTS was not a bad drive, it always came across as a little bit primitive. Rack it up to the seemingly unfinished interior, the clumsy exterior design details, the car’s incomplete NVH development or its totally wonky manual shifter, but unless you’re talking about the V8 V-Series model, the CTS has never had that all-of-a-piece that seems to permeate BMW’s 3- and 5-Series cars. Until now. The second generation CTS shows what GM can do when it puts it corporate mind to it and lets the car guys do what they do best. And there’s more to look forward to with a CTS coupe and wagon in the pipeline. Both are scheduled to be shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this coming January.
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Pricing of the latest CTS might come as a bit of a surprise. The new standard 3.6L 2008 model carries a base sticker price of $32,990. FYI, that’s $540 below the price of a 2007 CTS with the same engine. And trust me, the 2008 CTS is a much better equipped, better performing, better looking… oh Hell, it’s just a much much better car.
Oh yes, regarding the 400HP V8 CTS-V, it is gone.
For a bit over a year.
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When it returns it’ll have a supercharged 6.2L small-block V8 making MUCH more than 400HP under it’s domed hood. Just the thing for liquifying its rear tires when moving away “smartly” from signals.

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