Motoring: Caddy lacks charisma

The Cadillac STS is big and bold, but may be a bit too bouncy.

A TYPICAL British early summer's day. Spots of rain spatter the windscreen, so I set the wipers to give an intermittent sweep. A dot-matrix strip, a miniature version of the overhead warning signs on our more recently refurbished motorways, lights up beneath my car's instruments. "Headlights suggested," it says.

Now the rain has stopped, the sun is out, but I'm driving into the shade of a wood. "Headlights suggested". Polite, but insistent, it's for my own good and I ignore it at my peril. But at least the maker of this automobile won't need to worry about being sued for not having suggested I put the headlights on. Welcome to the Cadillac Seville STS, the all-American luxury sedan.

An American car. In Britain. Why? Well, if you visit any forward-looking US city you'll see that the average car is more European-flavoured than ever before, looks-wise, size-wise, design-wise. So General Motors figured that its most prestigious US brand, Cadillac, could maybe do a reverse translation and catch on over here.

The Cadillac Seville STS (Seville Touring Sedan) has a 4.0-litre, 305bhp V8 engine, is the biggest and most powerful front-wheel drive car you can buy, and is the first transverse-engined V8 saloon available here since the Ferrari-engined Lancia Thema 8.32 of a decade ago. It looks big and bold, but not especially American apart from its chip-cutter front grille.

The proportions are those of a smaller car, but Xeroxed up to roughly Jaguar size. And at just under pounds 40,000, it's being pushed as a bargain- priced, gadget-heavy alternative to a Jaguar, a Lexus LS400 or a big German car. The ad campaign appears to have been translated from American to English via German.

The warning messages I've hinted at, although there are many more in the repertoire. The Seville has, optionally, "adaptive" front seats that use eight pressure sensors and l0 inflatable air cushions to mould the seat to the occupant's shape. It's then rechecked every four minutes. The front seat belts are built into the seats, with an inertia reel at each end of the belt), all adjustments are electric (obviously), and there's an ear-splitting Bose stereo system with a CD player stashed under the centre arm rest. Leather and wood abound; they look synthetic, but they are real.

However, plush and weighty as the Seville seems, it's a little short on substance. Some of the plastic mouldings are sharp-edged, and the centre arm rest wobbles. The grandeur is applied rather than innate. The Cadillac does, however, move with some urgency.

This is a big, powerful, eager engine, surprisingly vocal when worked hard but with thrust to spare. It's matched to a smooth and co-operative automatic transmission, and together they squirt you efficiently through traffic and whisk you effortlessly on to the freeway. A traction-control system helps the front wheels to cope with all this energy; you can switch it off, but then that infernal message display keeps reminding you of your fecklessness. If you then turn the wipers on, but not the headlights, it gets very disapproving indeed. Soon, you'll reinstate the traction control; "Traction ready," it will announce, and you can relax.

So far, then, a credible effort at taking on European and Japanese rivals. But there's one trait that ruins the Seville for me. You're edging forward in stop-start traffic, and each time you stop the Cadillac rocks back and forth on the springy rubber suspension mountings that help isolate you from the road. Wriggle your body, and it does it again. It's like driving a jelly. So it's no surprise that spirited driving on the open road has a nautical quality to it, which even the Continuously Variable Road Sensing Suspension can't quell. But it's comforting to know that StabiliTrak will keep you on course on a slippery road, by braking each front wheel individually.

Why would anyone buy a Seville? Some Americana comes across as cool here; the Neon, Voyager and Jeep Cherokee from Chrysler are popular, the Ford Explorer less so. But the Seville is the first attempt to sell an archetypal big saloon, and it can't quite compete with the opposition's sophistication. It does, however, make a refreshing change from the established elite.

Incidentally, you can get rid of the headlight suggestion. Switch the lights to automatic, and they'll come on as soon as the world goes dark or grey. All you need to do then is ignore fellow road-users' quizzical looks.

Cadillac Seville: pounds 39,750

Engine: 4,565cc V8, 32 valves, 305bhp at 6,000rpm. Transmission: four- speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 150mph, 0-60 in 6.8sec, 15-20mpg.

Rivals:

Audi A8 3.7 V8: pounds 43,965. The only other front-wheel drive car with a V8 engine. Lightweight aluminium body and chassis help pace and agility, but ride is firm. Technically intriguing, handsome, an all-round fine thing.

BMW 740i: pounds 50,570. At pounds 10,000 more than the Cadillac, and with a less powerful engine, the BMW looks even worse value than the Audi. But, as with the A8, road manners and detail finish are way ahead. That's where the money goes.

Jaguar XJ8 4.0: pounds 40,975. Like the German cars, the Jaguar can't compete with the Cadillac's gadgets, but it's smoother, more solid, better made and on the pace for pace. Looks a little dated, but feels ultra-modern to drive.

Lexus LS400: pounds 49,975. This is the car that stole Cadillac's market in the US, and is the Seville's closest conceptual rival. But the STS can't match the LS's quietness and exquisite build quality. Nor would you expect it to, at the price.

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