Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge
by Laurance Yap
That so much effort was expended on the sound system in the new Cadillac STS shows the lengths that Cadillac is going to in order to re-establish itself as a first-tier luxury carmaker.
Car audio has always posed an interesting challenge to sound engineers. Though the environment in which their stereos are installed is much more controlled than, say, the average living room, it’s also awkwardly shaped and susceptible to outside disturbances like road and wind noise. To counter such influences, the Cadillac’s Bose system uses a battery of fifteen speakers – four of them even mounted below the headrests in the front seats – and AudioPilot technology, which rather than simply adjusting the volume upwards as outside noise increases, actually adjusts the sound signal to cancel out that noise.
The result is a cabin that, even at low volumes, is a terrific place to listen to music. (Needless to say, the true test of a high-end audio system is passed as well: even on the highest volume settings, the STS’ stereo is never painful on the ears.)
Indeed, the STS is packed with high-end technology that goes way beyond its amazing radio. Nestled under its hood is a silent-running Northstar V8 that’s more powerful than its predecessor but is also more economical and runs on regular gas. It routes its power to the ground through a silken five-speed automatic with additional modes for sporty and manual shifting; a new-generation stability control system is even more effective, and even less intrusive, than before. Its suspension uses magnetic ride control, sensing the road a thousand times a second and adjusting its responses accordingly (it’s also switchable into a performance-oriented mode which is great for twisty roads).
Photo: Laurance Yap. Click image to enlarge
And it’s guided along the road not only by the latest DVD-based satellite navigation system, but also features active cruise control which locks onto the car in front and maintains a safe distance. Get too close when you’re not using cruise, but when the system is armed, and it’ll even warn you audibly if you’re approaching the car ahead too quickly.
Wanting to compete against the big-name Germans (think 5-series and E-class) in terms of technology and powertrains, Cadillac has built the STS on a rear-wheel-drive platform, an extended and widened version of the Sigma architecture which underpins the CTS sedan and SRX sport-ute.
Photo: Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
The result is a car that’s a true delight to drive, with a taut, well-controlled ride, linear and precise steering, and strong brakes that seem capable of hauling the car down from big, big speeds repeatedly without fading. Power from the 320-hp V8 – did I mention that you can now get a 3.6-litre V6 as well as the 4.6-litre I tested? – is delivered in a seamless rush with just a hint of exhaust snarl, and the transmission is quick to respond to passing requests. Driven more gently, the entire drivetrain (could it be that noise-canceling technology at work?) is eerily quiet, and the ride is glassy-smooth except over the sharpest lateral intrusions, which cause the car to do a little sideways hop.
A price restructuring has accompanied the STS’ redesign, as well, and here Cadillac’s approach also mirrors the Germans’. Base prices for the V6 start at just over $50,000, with the V8 starting just under $70,000 – which isn’t bad at all considering that the STS gives you more space, particularly in the rear, than any of its mid-size Teutonic competition. But those base prices are deceptive, as many of the most desirable features are optional.
My tester, which carried a base price of just under $69,000, had ballooned to almost $90,000 with the addition of a couple of option packages – a “preferred equipment package” for $16,000 that included the high-end stereo, navigation, and other luxury appointments, and a $12,000 package for the cruise control and some other bits. That’s a lot of money, but it is right in line with what you’d pay for a similarly-equipped E500 or 545i; as with its other models, Cadillac clearly feels the STS is now good enough to compete without a major price advantage.
Judged on its looks and its overall driving experience, it’s hard to dispute with Cadillac’s positioning, but there are a few bits about the STS where the company still has a ways to go before it can achieve true parity. It’s not just the column stalks that you’ll also find on a Pontiac Grand Am, or the slightly hard, scratchy plastic that cloaks the surfaces on the dashboard and console that you don’t normally touch. But it’s also the ill-resolved interface for the audio and navigation systems, which is split between a touch screen that is incredibly slow to respond to commands, and a bunch of buttons scattered several inches below it to switch between its various modes. Some options – such as the settings for seat memory – are buried several menu levels deep and, frankly, make BMW’s iDrive look incredibly intuitive by comparison. Things you might want to use while driving, such as the switch to go from touring to sport mode on the suspension, are disabled when you shift out of park. Clearly, some more thought needs to go into the Cadillac’s interface, which lags behind its competitors in terms of thoroughness and ease of use.
That said, overall, the STS is a very fine luxury car indeed, one that drives as well as you could hope and is the match of anything in its class, or even in classes above, in terms of technology and engineering. It has a couple of rough edges, but no car is perfect; the attractions of its distinctive, sharp-edged style, and its simply astonishing entertainment system go a long way to redressing the balance. While a Cadillac may not be the conventional choice in a class littered with high-end German machinery with impeccable credentials, the STS is now at least a choice you can easily justify on more than looks alone. It has a depth of ability and quality that bodes well for Cadillac’s continued renaissance.