Driven: 2018 Cadillac CTS 3.6

It’s been a long time since Cadillac started going after the Germans, attempting to play the sports sedan game instead of sailing land yachts.

That’s why nearly every review of a new Caddy talks about how the brand is reinventing itself and turning from shipbuilder to ‘bahn burner. Yes, I do realize that I’m calling for the death of a cliché by using an equally tired one, but please bear with me.

After 31 years, the revolution is either complete or it’s not going to happen. That’s seven-generations of Seville, STS, Catera, and CTS. If the tide can’t be turned in that many years, it’s never going to turn. So has Cadillac managed to build a real sports sedan, or is it still searching the wilderness for an identity?

To find the real answer, don’t look at the monsters that are the CTS-V and the V-Sport. A twin-turbo V6 and a 640 hp supercharged V8 can both hide many sins behind the stupefying grin that comes with a thundering wave of torque.

Look to the lesser models for the answer. Is the car still good without the tires on fire? 

My test car is a CTS 3.6 Premium Luxury. That means it has a 3.6L V6 under the hood, all-wheel drive, and–on paper at least–lots of premium and luxury. I’ll talk about those last two later, but I’ll start with the 3.6L V6.

The V6 makes a powerful 335 hp, which it can stretch all the way up at 6,800 rpm. In GM engines of the past, you’d be hard-pressed to get the gearbox to let the engine anywhere near that power peak. Once you got there, you’d be greeted with a noise that would make you regret ever having prodded the gas.

Not anymore. This V6 loves to rev and the PCM loves to let it. 6,800 rpm peak power, 7,000 rpm redline? No problem. Even in Touring mode, the transmission drops gears with vigor and holds them all the way to an indicated 7,200 rpm with the throttle open more than about 80 percent. Put it in Sport mode and the CTS downshifts even more eagerly and will hold those gears longer.

When the revs climb, the CTS comes alive. The V6 takes on a mean, mechanical growl that comes from deep inside the engine bay. As that happens, the twin exhausts start to bark in agreement. It’s not as smooth as Mercedes’ inline-six, but it’s not supposed to be. This engine sounds the business. You’ll want to hear it sing, and while the V’s supercharged V8 makes close to double the power, the 3.6 is anything but slow.

The eight-speed automatic is quick to downshift, but it’s also a smooth operator. The low-speed operation doesn’t lead to hesitation or bucking like is common in many modern cars with seven or more speeds in the transmission.

On the highway, or cruising in town, the V6 is quiet and smooth. Isolation from exterior noise is excellent in a class where quiet is one of the key attributes. But the big rpm power that’s just a twitch of your right foot away is always tempting.

But the CTS’ quietness is hardly a surprise, though. Quiet and smooth are two of Cadillac’s best attributes, and this CTS is no different.

This CTS gets Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control. That means dampers with a magnetic fluid inside. The car reads the road 1,000 times per second to make adjustments to the ride. It means amazing suppleness over even the worst bumps, potholes, and expansion joints. It also means impressive body control with very little roll and virtually no wallowing over even the biggest whoops. The truly impressive part is that it manages to do both. Throw it into a corner in Sport mode and get surprised by a crater in the pavement? Ok, if it’s a really deep crater you’ll feel it. But the ability it has to take the shock out of that bump while avoiding upsetting the handling is impressive.

The steering is quick, but in Touring mode it’s strangely firm. Turning the wheel into a turn or steering for parking takes a surprising amount of effort, but it returns to center with what feels like a lot of boost. The contrast is annoying and makes it more difficult to make small adjustments on the road. Toggle into Sport mode, though, and the effort ramps up even more. This time it ramps up in both directions, making it too firm for one-handed driving but much more consistent.

On the outside, the CTS has elegant styling. Cadillac’s current styling language has done a wonderful job of balancing between the simple lines of the German sedans and the overwrought styling of older Caddys. This car looks good from just about any angle. The boomerang headlights accent the front, and the v-shaped rear spoiler amplifies taillights that rock just the right amount of ’50s style tail fins. The only downside of the sharp styling is a high rear deck that will hide any compact sedan that stops behind you at a light. The solution to that visibility issue is the available rear-view mirror camera system, but tech still isn’t a replacement for a big greenhouse.

The interior of the CTS looks as good as the outside. 20-way adjustable seats in beautiful Kona brown leather. Open-grain wood trim. And that camera mirror that even has it’s own washer fluid jet to keep it useful. It also has the latest version of Cadillac’s CUE interface which is quick, responsive, and intuitive.

But the shine started to wear off as soon as I sat in the driver’s seat. This is a big car on the outside, but it’s cramped on the inside. The wide tunnel and door panels make for a narrow space for the driver. The big sunroof cuts into headroom too. I don’t feel comfortable, and I should in a car this big.

In the back, it’s not much bigger. I was cramped in the rear seat, although headroom was better than up front. Tall drivers, or at least drivers who sit high up, won’t appreciate the head-up display either. If your head is near the headliner, it moves you out of the range of the screen and makes it blurry.

The digital dashboard display works well and shows all the info you need clearly. But it’s controlled by steering wheel buttons that are inconsistent and oddly placed. Unless your hands are NBA-sized, the buttons are too far inboard to use comfortably without taking your hand off the wheel. Some of the buttons are marked by a symbol, but for others, the symbol is beside the button. It’s frustrating to remember which one is which and means more time with your eyes off of the road.

The climate and audio controls in the center stack have the same issue. Kudos to Cadillac for having real controls, but in this case, they are touch-feedback buttons instead of actual switches. You don’t touch the silver bit, you touch near it. And they don’t respond if it’s cold, or if it’s humid, or if it’s Tuesday. They’re frustrating to use, no matter how good they look. A bad volume control on the dash is fine if the steering wheel control is good. The inverse works too. But here they are both frustrating in their own unique ways.

The CTS is a car that looks amazing inside and out, drives brilliantly, and has a responsive powertrain. It’s very good, even without the tires on fire. But when it comes to the little things – the everyday things like the control interfaces – it disappoints.

Is this a real sports sedan? Absolutely. One of the best in the class. But are the ergonomic headaches worth the rest of the car?

That’s a tougher question to answer…

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