2008 Cadillac CTS review

If you’ve been keeping track of Cadillac’s progress over the last several years, no doubt you’ve been impressed with the strides they’ve made to survive instead of succumbing to extinction. While Lincoln has decided the best way to do business is to rebadge and rehash every model in the Ford lineup, including the F-150, Cadillac has been busy cranking out more youthful designs and rewriting the rule book on American Luxury. Their first gen CTS was a hit, and in 2008 a new, larger CTS was released on the world. Motor Trend even gave the 2008 CTS its Car of the Year award. However, given some of the past choices that Motor Trend has made for Car of the Year (remember when they declared the last generation Thunderbird – yes THAT piece of failure – as the COTY?) that’s really not anything to go by. All that did was enable Cadillac to make nice ads for people who don’t really know. Just how spectacular is this new model?

For 2008, the CTS grew in size and feature content, and so did the Cadillac emblem on the front grille. AWD is available as an option, as is a 304hp direct injection V6 engine. Walking around shows that Cadillac has busied themselves with the styling of the car. The headlights are intricate and do a nice job of finishing the look of the front end (as well as taking away attention from that monstrously sized grille), and the front windshield is actually built without a frame around it. Work like this calls for very tight production tolerances; obviously Cadillac believes they’ve achieved the next level. They even include the fake side gills that most manufacturers nowadays believe should be standard automotive jewelry. Overall the look is muscular, substantial; it looks like a car that means business. +1 to Cadillac.

Moving inside, thankfully the interior has been completely redesigned from the last effort. At first glance, it looks much richer than the last series. There is an attractive mix of wood and metal trim in the cabin. The dash looks much softer than before, although there is something hard immediately under the top layer. Same story applies to the doors. Materials still don’t feel quite as good as the foreign competition, but the gap is narrowing. GM has saved the hard plastic for areas where you won’t look right away, but it’s still there. Controls are within easy reach.

Buy the uplevel audio system and it comes with a built in hard drive that allows you to put music directly on it instead of hooking up an iPod. Another nice touch is that is will record from the radio directly to the drive, even up to one hour after turning the car off. Very slick. That will be interesting technology to watch down the road, because I am quite curious how it will hold up in the long run. We all know hard drives have limited life spans, and don’t tend to like exposure to temperature extremes.
What happens when it inevitably breaks and the warranty no longer applies? Call me a pessimist, but I think it’s a logical question that no one has answered yet. The nav system pops out of the top of the dash like a weasel game. I was told that was done in case you don’t want the screen on. Given that the screen also contains information for the audio system, I’m not sure when you wouldn’t want access to it. Maybe the designers thought overly complex was better? Who knows.

There are two odd notes about this car, and one is the front seats. They are as flat as a pancake. I thought this was supposed to be a sport sedan. Sport sedans need sporty seats. They don’t have to be full blown Recaro’s, but they should definitely imply that the car is what it is supposed to be. These seats reminded me of Cadillac’s stereotypical image – boring, unexciting, built for comfort and not for fun.

The other odd item is rear seat access. This is a midsize sedan. They’ve purposely moved it up in size to differentiate it from BMW’s 3 Series or Mercedes C-class. In fact Cadillac would like you to compare it to cars like the 5 Series, and most other midline models. But getting in and out of the backseat you really can’t tell this is the case. Entry and exit are awkward, and rear head space is compromised. It’s rather claustrophobic. Why bother increasing the size of the car if you’re not going to make it comfortable for all? After all, few people buy a car of this size to bomb around in by themselves. Just another GM corporate decision that no one will ever understand.

The one I drove was an AWD model with the direct injection engine. On the road it feels stable. Not sporty, just stable. Just for clarity, stable in this context could also mean adequate, unexciting, or uninteresting. It’s quick enough for what you need, handling is good enough, and therein lies my disappointment with this car. It’s a lot of flash on the outside and inside, but driving it is a rather ho-hum experience. It feels like a heavy, just adequate car. Make a quick turn and it will respond, but not with the confident feel of say a BMW. Plus, with those pancake seats, you’ll just slide around anyway so it doesn’t encourage you to play. It just kind of ‘does it’ and that’s all you get. Worse, on the example I drove, there was electrical noise that came through the speakers that would raise and lower in volume depending on vehicle speed. I’m not going to let one car condemn an entire line, but it doesn’t do anything for the reputation that Cadillac is trying so desperately to rebuild. Yes, this was a brand new, factory fresh car.

The final mystery is the pricing, and it seems Cadillac has taken a lesson from their German competitors. While it’s said you can get one starting in the mid $30k’s, everything you would expect in a luxury car is an option. In fact, if you look at Cadillac’s website, it has a big of list of fancy sounding items. ALL of them have one word next to them – available. Spec out the CTS like a real luxury car and you’ll clutch your chest at the final tally. The loaded AWD one I dove was $50,000. This is not a $50,000 car. It’s nice, among the nicest to ever roll out of the factory with a Cadillac badge; and that’s exactly what I kept saying to myself during my time in it. It’s nice enough – for a Cadillac. It is not quite up to the level of its competitors in feel when driving, or on the inside, even though Cadillac prices it like it is. Even trying to be stingy with the option boxes will still net you a price in the low $40k’s. I just don’t see it.

Before this test, I really wanted to like this car. I really, really did. I’ve been rooting for Cadillac because they seem to be making a strong effort to redesign themselves and appeal to an entirely different generation than what they’ve catered to in the past. For the most part it seems to be working. While the new CTS is nice, ironically that’s also exactly the problem with it. Maybe I expected too much, or maybe I was fooled by the meaningless Motor Trend Car of the Year award. It’s only a nice car – not outstanding or memorable in any fantastic way, and certainly not worth the money they’re charging for it. Their competitors offer more for similar money, and that’s just the bottom line. If you just HAVE to have one, wait a couple of years and hope it depreciates like all other Cadillac’s do. Then you can have a nice car for way more reasonable money.

Photos property of GM


Adrian said...

Well put. The price, domestic build quality (read: questionable longevity) and upper-end sticker make this one a no-go. A devout import-ist, there was a moment (like, 12 seconds) where I considered purchasing one as my next daily-drive luxo-conquest, but alas the "reality" of a CT-S is far less than the "idea" of a CT-S. Keep trying GM.

Marc said...

It's all right, I guess, but I prefer the Mercedes-Benz E350 because it is more reliable, and it has so many options...Seriously, the E-class sets a extremely high standard.

Chris said...

Hi Marc,

I've seen you mention the E350 a few times. It's really made me curious to try to get one for review. It's been the better part of 10 years since I've sampled the E - now I'm curious to see what they're about these days.

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