2003 Cadillac CTS
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by Haney Louka

photos by Laurance Yap

This ain’t your daddy’s Caddy

We’ve all heard this one before: a new domestic sedan that has been designed to do battle with the imports. Yeah, right. Here comes another Euro-wannabe that leaves more than a little to be desired.

But wait a minute. Let’s look at the specs before jumping to such harsh conclusions. A 220-hp V6? That’s a good start. How ’bout we dig a little deeper. Rear wheel drive? Nice. And a five-speed stick? Wow. We’re talking about a bona fide sports sedan here.

But what has General Motors’ luxury nameplate done to make the all-new CTS stand apart from the crowd? Well, folks, all it takes is one look. The CTS is certainly not your daddy’s Caddy. Nor is it a me-too BMW chaser. Nope, Cadillac has boldly gone in its own direction and the end result is a thoroughly competent, entertaining, and distinctive addition to the viciously competitive entry-luxury segment.

And for those who find the CTS’s face a little unusual, get used to it – this is the direction Cadillac is taking with all of their vehicles. The only other model in the lineup that has been given this treatment so far is the gargantuan Escalade.

The CTS replaces the outgoing Catera, which was a less-than-successful entry in its class. I think for the most part, that model lacked the flair that seems to simply ooze from every nook and cranny of the CTS.

Three models to choose from

2003 Cadillac CTS
Click image to enlarge

The CTS comes in three flavours: base sedan, Deluxe, and Sport. The $39,900 price of admission for the base sedan buys a long list of standard features. Most notable are 16-inch alloys; dual-zone climate control; auto-dimming mirror; a nifty personalization system (more on that later); wheel-mounted controls; leather seating surfaces (power on driver’s side); an eight-speaker Bose sound system with six-disc in-dash changer; and a host of performance-oriented mechanical features which I’ll get to in a moment.

The Deluxe model ($43,525) adds a HomeLink remote garage door opener; a digital voice recorder; genuine wood trim; a theft-deterrent system and a few other goodies.

Those who shell out $45,675 for the CTS Sport are rewarded with 17-inch tires on polished alloys; “Stabilitrak” chassis control system; and sport suspension.

My test vehicle was a CTS Sport equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission ($1,525), high-intensity discharge headlamps ($850), and a split-folding rear seat ($450) for an as-tested price of $48,500.

2003 Cadillac CTS
Click image to enlarge

Nuts & Bolts

Based on GM’s new rear-drive “Sigma” platform, all CTS models are powered by a longitudinally-mounted 3,175 cc V6 that produces 220 hp at 6,000 rpm and 220 lb-ft of torque at 3,400 rpm. Throttle is controlled via a drive-by-wire system.

As is common in this class, this motor employs dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The cylinder banks form a relatively narrow 54� vee that, according to GM, was required to fit in the CTS’s engine bay.

A standard-equipment five-speed manual manufactured by renowned transmission builder Getrag transfers power to the rear wheels. In the case of my tester, a five-speed “Hydra-Matic” automatic performs that function. While there is no manual mode for this box, something most competitors offer, there are “Sport” and “Winter” modes that help adjust the transmission’s behaviour according to either the conditions or the mood.

The CTS is suspended on independent control arms in front and a modified multi-link setup in the rear. The Sport model also benefits from automatic load-leveling shock absorbers back there. Discs at all corners with anti-lock control provide stopping power.

Uniting all of these mechanical systems is GM’s version of stability control, which goes by the “Stabilitrak” name. Stabilitrak detects an impending slide or spin and helps the driver restore control by applying the brakes at individual corners to try and match the vehicle’s direction with the driver’s steering inputs. It’s a great concept and I look forward to seeing it on more new models in the near future.

Inside & Out

There’s no denying that the CTS’s styling is unique. In sharp contrast to most vehicles on the road, there isn’t a rounded corner to be found here. Cadillac heralds this chiseled bod as the first full vehicle application of their new “art & science” design philosophy.

What is in question, though, is whether that uniqueness is a good thing. People have a ‘love it or leave it’ reaction when they lay eyes on the Caddy, and during my time with the car, it seemed that more folks felt the latter. Still, I applaud Cadillac for putting such bold lines into production, as this is one of the freshest new exterior shapes to enter the automotive scene in recent memory.

The styling still requires a little perfecting, though. While the high beltline and low greenhouse give it a sleek overall appearance, the fenders are a little too tall. The effect is such that it makes even the Sport’s 17-inch 50-series tires look inadequate. Those huge fenders just swallow them up.

2003 Cadillac CTS
Click image to enlarge

The CTS’s uniqueness carries through inside, where few would recognize the interior as that of a domestic sedan. There’s a prevalent Euro-flavour in the muted tones and restrained use of wood trim. And that’s real wood trim, the kind that can be identified by mild imperfections in the grain and a visual depth that plastic just can’t duplicate. Bravo.

The interior plastics are hit and miss, however. The hit is the uniquely textured soft plastic that graces much of the dash. It’s stylish and subtle in the businesslike way that BMWs manage so effortlessly. The miss, though, is the light grey plastic on the interior door panels. While it is of the soft variety, it still looks downscale compared to the rest of the interior-and the competition. Having said that, the switchgear is beyond reproach. Window switches, door handles, wheel buttons, and knobs-there’s nothing in this department that the competition does better.

There’s plenty of room to be found in the rear seat. That shouldn’t be a surprise, given the CTS’s 113.4-inch wheelbase-longest in its class-that translates into a similarly class-leading 37 inches of legroom back there. Rear centre passengers may be kissing their knees, though, given the tall hump that houses the rear wheel drivetrain.

The Personal Touch

2003 Cadillac CTS
Click image to enlarge

Cadillac employs a unique personalization system that allows two drivers to customize settings to their liking. Linked to the remote key fobs, the system memorizes such things as seat and mirror position, radio station presets, and general user preferences, such as whether the exterior lights flash when you remotely unlock the car. It will even restore the radio station and volume that Driver 1 set after Driver 2 has been in the car. But the best part of the system is that there are a total of eight “soft” keys (four on the centre stack and four on the steering wheel) that have no fixed function. Each of the two drivers can select the desired function for each of the eight buttons to their liking. This allows commonly used features, such as fan speed, temperature settings, audio functions, or telephone functions, to be available at the push of a single button.

Kudos to Cadillac for developing a system that, through customization, can be made intuitive for any driver.

The Driving Experience

Cadillac’s PR people make no attempt at hiding the fact that the CTS was developed at Germany’s famed N�rburgring race track, but they needn’t be so vocal about it. All it takes is one drive to discover that this Caddy is a true contender and not a pretender.

The five-speed automatic has three modes: Normal, Sport, and Winter. In Normal, shifts are as relaxed and smooth as you’ll find in any slushbox. Hit the “S” button on the centre console, though, and be prepared for a jolt. Shifts are noticeably quicker, and smoothness is nowhere to be found, even at light throttle.

While it almost seems artificially harsh, I found myself leaving it in Sport mode most of the time as I like the quick, crisp shifts. Aside from its schizophrenic personality, the transmission is quite adept at following its driver’s mood by the second. After a short stint of blasting out of tight corners, the transmission was looking for more as it held lower gears for prolonged periods of time. But seconds after the tame driving resumed, the tranny’s brain reverted back to a more sedate shift program. As automatics go, this is one of the best.

The 220-horse V6 is a bit out of its league in the CTS. While it’s strong enough, it didn’t feel particularly lively having to haul around 3568 lb worth of steel and leather. And the note that’s heard while hustling those horses is a little on the industrial side. It’s not anything offensive, to be sure, but having competitors like the BMW 3-Series and Infiniti G35 makes a sweet soundtrack that much harder to achieve.

The remaining ingredients for a flavourful sports sedan are in full attendance though. Steering feel is top-notch, with rapid response and a nice weight. Effort is in that not-too-heavy, not-too-light range that makes for a great twisty-road companion. Braking feel is also excellent, with the four large discs bringing the CTS to a halt with strength and confidence. Body motions are also extremely well controlled for a car of this size.

Summing it Up

The CTS is a true competitor through style and innovation rather than imitation. Even if the styling isn’t quite my cup of tea, it’s a highly subjective area that Cadillac hopes will attract enough buyers in this image-conscious segment of the market. But by all important sports sedan measures, Cadillac has finally come up with an entry level model that’s making a splash.

Shopping Around

The entry-sport-lux market is hot with new models and high performance. The CTS has to beat the following models to make it into buyers’ driveways:

  • Acura TL
  • Audi A4 quattro
  • BMW 3-Series
  • Infiniti G35
  • Jaguar X-Type
  • Lexus IS300
  • Lincoln LS V-6
  • Mazda Millenia S
  • Mercedes-Benz C-Class
  • Saab 9-3
  • Volvo S60

Technical Data:

2003 Cadillac CTS
Base price $39,900
Price as tested $48,500
Type 4-door, 5-passenger sport sedan
Layout front-mounted longitudinal V-6, rear wheel drive
Engine 3.2 litre V6, DOHC, 24 valves, drive-by-wire throttle
Horsepower 220 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 220 lb-ft. @ 3,400 rpm
Fuel premium recommended
Transmission 5-speed automatic with Sport and Winter modes
Curb weight 1643 kg (3568 lb.)
Wheelbase 2880 mm (113.4 in.)
Length 4828 mm (190.1 in.)
Width 1,780 mm (70.1 in.)
Height 1441 mm (57.7 in.)
Cargo volume 362 litres (12.8 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 12.7 L/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 8.4 L/100 km (34 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km

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