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A Classy Caddy at a Nice Price


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In my ne'er-do-well years growing up in central Illinois, I used to drive down to the Kentucky Derby every year with friends. My ambition was to own a big Cadillac so I could join the seemingly endless procession of high rollers cruising south towards the race. If I were to revive that ambition today, the car I would dream of is the new Cadillac DTS, a spacious, old-fashioned made-in-Detroit luxury car with a retro feel that can be decked out with every conceivable modern technology and convenience.

While other new Caddies, such as the STS and CTS, are designed to attract new owners by offering credible alternatives to Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, and Mercedes, the newly updated DTS (née DeVille) is designed to keep traditional Cadillac buyers happy.

With the Kentucky Derby still months away, I put a DTS test car through its paces over the Thanksgiving holiday, doing everything from weaving in and out of Interstate traffic the evening before the holiday, to cramming three women in winter coats into the rear seat to see if they would be comfortable, to easing the car up an icy country road.

WHAT YOU PAY FOR. My conclusion is that Cadillac is continuing its comeback, despite General Motors' (GM) financial troubles. The DTS is a sophisticated front-wheel drive car with a relatively fuel-efficient Northstar engine that's one of the real bargains in its category.

The 2006 DTS starts at a relatively modest $41,990. At that price, it comes with a 275 horsepower V-8 engine and a fair number of standard features, including traction control, eight-way power leather seats, Xenon headlights, and tire-pressure monitors. From there, you can step up to the Luxury II version of the car ($44,490), which comes with additional heated seats, steering wheel, and windshield washer fluid, as well as parking assist and rain-sensitive windshield washers.

The Luxury III version ($48,490) has massaging seats, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, an upgraded Bose sound system, and burled walnut trim. Even when you add a navigation system, power sunroof, adaptive cruise control, chrome wheels, and fancy Tuscany leather seats to the top-of-the-line "performance" version of the car, which has a slightly more powerful 292 horsepower V-8 engine, the price tops out at around $55,000, taking into account the $500 cashback GM is offering until Jan. 3.

COFFEE STOP. It all comes together in a comfortable package, especially if you pay up for the fancy features. The interior is clean and tasteful, though not as tightly made as the ones in rival German and Japanese cars. I prefer the lighter colored Eucalyptus wood trim in the Cadillac STS, but the dark walnut in the DTS has the classic feel of an English smoking room (an impression accentuated by the fact that the DTS is one of the few cars that still has standard front and rear ashtrays and cigarette lighters). And it almost goes without saying that the trunk is large, offering nearly 19 cubic feet of storage space.

Despite all the technology in the car, the controls are easy to use. I picked up my test car after dark and was able to figure out the navigation and sound systems, trip computer, mirror adjustments, etc., without opening the owner's guide. There are manual controls as well as electronic ones for most functions -- you can tune the radio with old-fashioned knobs if you want to, for instance. The instrument cluster is large and easy to see.

Most of the high-tech gizmos actually work, too. GM's navigation system can be controlled via a handy touch screen (though for safety reasons you can only program it with the car stopped). I picked the "fastest" route on Thanksgiving eve, and it guided me to a highway free of traffic jams. It also helped me find a nearby McDonald's at one point, so I could get coffee at the drive-through.

MAGNET POWER. I was skeptical of the need for heated windshield-washer fluid, but the feature seemed to help keep the windshield cleaner than on most cars as the temperature dropped below freezing. You push a little lever and the car heats up the fluid and then automatically goes through a round of spraying and wiping on its own.

As you would expect, the ride is plush rather than sporty. Even without the Magnetic Ride Control -- which comes on the performance version of the car and adjusts wheel and body motion via "magneto-rheological" fluid in the shock absorbers -- the ride is incredibly smooth. The engine isn't particularly large, considering the DTS weighs a hefty 4,000 lbs, but this car really motors when you need fast acceleration, even with the standard engine. At one point, my rear passengers during a day trip to Boston exhaled an involuntary "wow" of surprise when the car surged forward after I floored it to avoid getting pinched between two 18-wheelers.

On the downside, the exterior fit and finish isn't as tight as it should be: The gaps around the doors and hood are too wide, and the gas-tank door popped open twice on my test car. In my limited tests, the DTS doesn't do particularly well on ice, despite having front-wheel-drive and traction control. I nearly slid off the road getting up a hill in rural Pennsylvania.

YOUR WAY. Also, the DTS is rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway, but it didn't do that well for me. I only got 18 mpg in mixed highway and city driving. And I averaged less than 23 mpg on the Interstate, even when I was trying to maximize fuel efficiency by watching a cool feature on the trip computer that gives you a moment-by-moment report on your mpg. Expensive premium gas is recommended, though not mandatory.

One caution: As a 207.6-inch-long four-door, the DTS is supposed to comfortably seat five. My passengers found, however, that the middle person in the back seat was cramped and had limited leg room. The car really only seats four comfortably, at least on long drives.

Still, the DTS is a nice complement to Cadillac's sportier new models. If you get it with the optional XM satellite radio, you're likely to keep it tuned to Frank's Place, the 24-hour Sinatra tribute channel. It's that kind of car.

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