SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Despite the buzz and the accolades heaped on Cadillac's ATS compact sedan, Caddy executives are quick to say that the elder-brother CTS is where the brand's true identity lies.
When it arrived in 2002, the CTS returned General Motors' wayward luxury brand to its rear-wheel-drive roots and gave it back a modicum of respect in luxury circles. The third-generation 2014 CTS, which hits showrooms next month, shows how far Cadillac has come in its quest to beat its German luxury rivals at their own performance game.
The redesigned CTS moves to a new platform that makes it lighter than the Mercedes-Benz E class, BMW 5 series or any other mid-sized luxury sedan, with better handling and fuel efficiency than the outgoing CTS, despite much more content. Those enhancements are reflected in price increases ranging from around $6,000 to $16,000 over comparable '13 CTS models.
The basics: The CTS is the second vehicle to move to GM's lightweight rwd Alpha platform, which also underpins the ATS, which debuted last year. Compared with the outgoing CTS, which was used in the 2008-13 model years, the redesigned CTS is 5 inches longer for a roomier rear seat. But it sheds nearly 250 pounds, thanks to more aluminum in place of steel in the doors and engine cradle, along with other mass-saving moves. A lower and slightly wider stance aids driving dynamics, too.
The sedan keeps a 3.6-liter V-6 but adds two powertrain choices: the same 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo that's used in the ATS, and a 3.6-liter twin turbo V-6, which comes only on a new Vsport model. All-wheel drive is available on all models. All V-6 rwd models get a new eight-speed automatic transmission with magnesium paddle shifters; others get a six-speed automatic.
The Vsport, which Cadillac estimates will account for 10 to 15 percent of volume, produces 420 hp and 430 pounds-feet of torque and propels the sedan from 0 to 60 mph in a crisp 4.4 seconds. During a media test drive here last week, the car's electronic sound-enhancement system gave the engine a throaty growl in an otherwise hushed cabin as the motor effortlessly pulled through undulating coastal terrain.
The Vsport, slotted below the track-ready V series, comes in two trim levels. The base gets 18-inch wheels, a magnetic damping system and an electronic limited-slip differential; the Premium package, which tops the CTS price range at $69,995, including freight, adds a 12-inch digital instrument panel and a panoramic sunroof.
Notable features: The car's lower and longer profile gives it a more swept-back look. The signature design cue is the vertical LED headlamp configuration, which juts up from the bumper and then bends back into the front fender for a more-vertical look than any previous Cadillac headlamp. One journalist here referred to the blade-like LEDs as light sabers.
The sedan comes standard with more than 20 features that weren't on the '13 model. They include the CUE infotainment system; Brembo brakes; electric power steering; selectable drive modes for icy weather or track time; and an assortment of safety gear and LED lights. The interior is more refined than in the outgoing model and includes an 11-speaker Bose sound system and an electronically controlled lid to the cupholder compartment.
What Cadillac says: Dave Leone, executive chief engineer for performance luxury vehicles, calls the CTS "the core" of Cadillac's lineup. "It's priced aggressively. It's going right at the heart of the segment, and it performs with the best of them," he said.
For now, the existing CTS wagon, launched in late 2009, and coupe, on sale since 2010, will continue to be sold as '14 models. Plans for future variants derived from the new platform "should become clear by the end of the 2014 model year," said Jim Vurpillat, Cadillac's director of emerging markets. A V-series model and a new coupe are expected, but the wagon likely will be dropped.
Compromises and shortcomings: CUE is a work in progress, suffering from slight touch screen input delays and a busy, cluttered instrument panel. The six-speed automatic transmission on 2.0 turbo models was choppy in some situations, failing to upshift immediately on downhills, for example.
The market: Cadillac executives have said they expect the redesigned CTS to increase volume, despite cross-shopping with the ATS. CTS sales fell 38 percent this year, to 22,002, slowed by the ATS introduction. Its peak was 61,512 units in 2005. IHS Automotive forecasts U.S. sales of the redesigned sedan of around 33,000 in 2014, rising to about 38,500 in 2015, when it expects a new coupe to add 8,500 units.
The skinny: The '14 CTS will further burnish Cadillac's growing reputation for performance. But the pricing strategy will be a big test of just how far the brand has come. The higher sticker will spook some Caddy loyalists. Can Cadillac offset that by poaching BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Lexus buyers?