Caddy Shock: Bold New Cars Hit the Road

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Finally, a swank new Caddy

It's Christmas Eve, I'm wishing away the last minute shoppers as I crawl east on 57th Street — and the cop directing traffic at 5th Ave. stops me. "Sir," he inquires reverently, as other drivers stop and stare, "is that really a Cadillac?"

You bet your nightstick, officer. It's the 2003 CTS, which will go down in history as the car that started Cadillac on its march back to quality. If you were ever a fan (as in, the '59 Eldorado) it's finally time to blow away the nightmares of GM's experiments with "small" or "sporty" Cadillacs, like the Cimarron or the ridiculous Catera, which is really an Opel (a company which, by the way, just announced a historic $608 million loss).

The CTS is a new breed entirely. Rolled out to great acclaim at the Detroit Auto Show last week, this luxury sportmobile may not exactly be elegant. But not since I drove the limited production BMW Z8 roadster last summer have I been behind the wheel of a car that prompted so many oohs and ahs, and not a few Wows — including one from yours truly when I punched it on the FDR drive just minutes later.

The CTS is edgy and forceful, but it has its own 21st century grace. At General Motors, they call this chiseled blend of trapezoids "art and science." Not everyone will agree with the "art" part. But if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, this car at least demands that you take more than one look, which is incredibly refreshing in an era when we've all grown accustomed to cars and SUVs that look like nothing much except each other. Inside the cabin, the approach is more subtle, but still very futuristic, with a console angled slightly toward the driver, making the gauges easily readable and placing all the necessary controls within reach. With the exception of a pretty cheesy foam headliner, the CTS is finished more like a European car than an American one (read: the dashboard and door liners actually fit together without those yawning gaps). The wood on the top of the steering wheel is...wood. There aren't the bewildering array of buttons and switches that the Japanese taught Detroit to love. But there are some very useful, innovative touches, like the jog dial stereo volume knob on the steering wheel. The biggest problem I had: it took several days to figure out how to set the clock. At one point I pressed the "OnStar" button that offers a wireless link to a central operator for nearly all GM cars these days, but the CTS is so new that even the technician at the other end of the line couldn't help.

General Motors touts the CTS as a BMW fighter, and for once, they may be able to sustain the claim. Its 3.2 liter V6 engine is tied to one of the smoothest, tightest automatic 5 speed transmissions around (secret: it's the same transmission offered on the Bimmer 5-series) and the suspension is tuned like a cherished Stradivarius. This baby hums. Best of all: the CTS starts at a mere $29,990 — nicely competitive with its top competitors, the Lexus ES300, the Audi A4 and the BMW 3-series. And the only reason a cop would saunter over to your Bimmer is to give you a ticket.

The CTS matters for other reasons, though. It's the first in what General Motors says will be a parade of like-minded, provocative Cadillacs. Another stab in the same direction comes from a company that two years ago was given up for dead: Nissan. The 2002 Nissan Altima, which won top honors at the Detroit Auto Show last week as the North American car of the year, is a screamer, with 240hp and a body design which, like the CTS's, makes you look twice. The Altima's interior is a little on the plasticky side, and for some reason its side mirrors don't fold away, but the price is right, around $23,000 for the V6 (a mere $17,000 for the basic 4 cyl. version). And the Altima is the first commonplace sedan to draw a second and third look on the road. You can't say that for Toyota's redesigned Camry, which costs more and has the decided feel of a lightweight.

Which brings me to the real lesson here: as the Altima, the CTS and a panoply of new rolling stock at the Detroit show signal, car companies everywhere have suddenly awakened to the need to give us interesting cars again. We want cars born of passion, not focus groups, please. Every car company has just about the same technology and engineering capability, and it's all better than ever. Finally, after a decade of producing completely reliable — but truly boring — cars, there are some interesting ideas out there. The CTS just happens to be the first one that made it into production. Bring on the revolution, and not just from GM!