'I could relish the CTS for one reason alone: its different-ness'
The American marque has worked hard to throw off its reputation for cheapness – and this enjoyably different luxury cruiser is the result. John Simister reports

How many Cadillacs have you seen on British roads? The fingers of one hand should suffice. To improve matters, GM UK – the umbrella for Vauxhall, Saab and Chevrolet – has now stepped in. Leaving it to the European importer in Holland to deal directly with the British distributor wasn't working, so control of the UK sales operation has been brought in-house.

This is timely, because Cadillac has two new cars to sell. One is predictable, an estate version of the Saab 9-3-based, Saab-built BLS. The other is the first US-created Cadillac said to be able to match Europe's premium-car best. Meet the new BMW 5-series-sized, Cadillac CTS.

Haven't we been here before? Almost. In March 2005 we ran a road test of the previous CTS, launched in 2002 but not Euro-available until it was three years old. Its sharp-edged, folded-paper styling was striking and its driving qualities were Euro-credible, but there was still too much American cheapness inside, even though Cadillac is GM's top US luxury brand.

Now, here's the new CTS, the first Cadillac for decades with a high-quality interior created with feeling and not an eye for expediency. In place of vinyl acreage is "cut and sew" – it sounds like a craft kit – leather which covers, with subtlety, the dashboard and doors as well as the seats. If wood appears it's real, if it doesn't its place is taken by aluminium or a glossy carbonfibre-like finish because Cadillac, mindful of its European rivals, has acquired a "sporty" edge.

The instruments are understated, the switchgear and opening compartments work smoothly, the pieces fit together snugly and the stereo and sat-nav graphics are almost Apple-like in their stylish clarity. There's a 40Gb hard drive to record CDs and up to an hour of radio broadcast, too. More's the pity, then, that the MP3-player interface doesn't recognise an "older" iPod if formatted for a Mac.

But then, it seems that Cadillac buyers, according to the launch presentation, are more likely to be of a PC mindset, and I don't mean politically correct. Suffice it to say that the perceived Cadillac customer (a self-centred, environment-hating bully with deep status insecurities) won't be getting a dinner-party invitation from me.

Don't blame the car. It deserves better. Witness the fact that whereas Chevrolets, Buicks and Pontiacs are all engineered by same specialists in powertrain, body and so on, Cadillac has its own specialists. "The top management doesn't like it," says CTS chief engineer Liz Pilibosian, "but we've managed to keep it that way and it works much better for us."

That makes Cadillac a proper marque, not just a brand. That the GM high-ups can't see this as a good thing tells you a lot about where GM has gone wrong. Look at what it did to Saab, for example, only now beginning to regain some proper creative autonomy.

The CTS comes across as a car designed to be as good as its creators can make it, rather than a car only as good as some GM suit thinks it needs to be. The shape, though derived from that of the old CTS, is less severe in its cliffs and watersheds, with curvaceous swellings to cover wheels set wider apart. There's also more chromium plate, tastefully done while hinting at Cadillac glitz; the front-wing vents just ahead of the doors are proper plated metal, and they're functional.

Still apparent are the stepped headlight reflectors, the bulbs stacked vertically either side of the grid-like grille, and vertical tail lights with LED "light tubes" within. There's ambient lighting in the cabin, too, a subtly-shielded glow.

Underneath, it all is suspension of some sophistication, including double aluminium wishbones at the front. And, like BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes, and unlike most other modern US GM cars of comparable size, the CTS has rear-wheel drive. A four-wheel drive version is also offered, aimed at snowy climes, while engines are a 2.8-litre V6 with 211bhp or, as tested, a direct-injection V6 with 3.6 litres and 311bhp. A turbodiesel V6 will follow, as probably will a potent V8: the previous CTS was available with a Corvette engine as the CTS-V, and there should be be right-hand drive versions this time.

Does it all work? Is the CTS really a credible BMW or Audi alternative? First impressions are promising. The engine starts with a smooth but interested snarl, the selector for the six-speed automatic transmission moves precisely, the foot-operated/hand-released parking brake is an Americanism (and Mercedes-ism) which will be absent from right-hand drive cars, which will have an electric parking brake instead.

I'm not keen on the driving seat. The backrest is very hard, and the electric lumbar-support adjuster clunks and clicks as it operates.

We're off. The CTS feels taut and solid; too taut on this firmest of three suspension specifications, because it can't smother pock-marks in the road. Not only is that most un-Cadillac-like, as if taking the mission to match "sporty" German brands too far, it also augurs ill for the UK. Luckily, the middle specification is likely to become the UK norm, and even that may receive some UK-specific fine tuning.

Our lady in the sat-nav stumbles before saying "metres" as if she meant to say "yards". She has a slightly Sloaney accent, with inflections of South African, rather than an American one, though, which helps make the CTS less of a culture shock. And her chuckle while saying "exit" leads you to expect fun around the corner.

In search of that, you might press the accelerator hard and trigger a gearbox downshift. You'll regret this, because although the CTS has a keen and lively engine it also has a rather abrupt auto-shift. Pilibosian is going to sample a Jaguar XK to see how it should be done. Her research might also lead to a less manic Sport mode; it assumes you want to rev the engine to death and won't relinquish a gear until you're at 6,000rpm.

The manual version is much more pleasing, apart from a nasty vibration in the clutch pedal when changing up at high revs. In the manual you can better enjoy steering and handling, which bear comparison with the European establishment, while relishing the fact you're driving something different. I could like the CTS for that reason alone, its different-ness. With little snags fixed, this CTS would be a credible alternative to the obvious – a first for Cadillac. And at current exchange rates, this could just become GM's most profitable car.


Model: Cadillac CTS 3.6
Price: from £34,000 approx (range starts £26,000 approx), on sale September 2008
Engine : 3,584cc, V6 cylinders, 24 valves, 311bhp at 6,400rpm, 276lb ft at 5,200rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual or auto, rear-wheel drive
Performance: (auto) 150mph, 0-60 in 6.3sec, 25.5mpg official average
CO2: 264g/km

The rivals

BMW 530i SE £34,265

Styling is still a challenge, but 530i is a delight to drive and remains a status symbol. You'll learn to live with iDrive control. Avoid the Active Steering option.

Chrysler 300C 3.5 V6 £26,315

The most successful US car here in years, the loosely Mercedes-based 300C looks menacingly muscular and is good value here. Lacks CTS's sophisticated finish.

Audi A6 3.2 FSI SE £31,525

Desirable to own, reasonable to drive, the Audi oozes interior quality and is significantly less thirsty than the CTS. Relatively good value, too. Quattro version available.

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