If you want refined good looks and sporty driving, check out the new Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon before buying a crossover
There are times when a person can only conclude that good looks, refinement, and sensible design don't count for much in the American car market. Witness General Motors' 2010 Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon, a new European-style station-wagon version of Cadillac's CTS sedan. So far, the Sport Wagon has barely made a ripple in the market while sales of the far more brutish-looking new Cadillac SRX crossover tripled in November, to 3,004.
Come on, folks. The Europeans have a point on this one. In the Old World, the station-wagon version of a given model often sells nearly as well as the sedan. In the U.S., by contrast, the CTS wagon is considered a "boutique" product, a General Motors spokesman says, with a much smaller customer base than crossovers. Wagon-buyers tend to be "better educated," "more affluent," and more "sophisticated," he says. In other words, sport wagons appeal mainly to the cognoscenti who value driving dynamics over the steroidal, quasi-SUV profile of a crossover vehicle—i.e., people who admit they're probably never going to drive off-road.
I'm not denying that crossovers have their appeal. They tend to be cheaper than comparable wagons, for one thing. But the new CTS Sport Wagon deserves more respect than it's getting. So do the sport-wagon versions of such German models as the Audi A4 and A6, Volkswagen (VOWG) Jetta and Passat, BMW (BMWG) 3 and 5 Series, and the Mercedes E-Class. With a diesel engine, the German models will get 50 miles per gallon or more, and all sport wagons have excellent cargo capacity while retaining much of the quickness and cat-like handling of a sport sedan.
The CTS Sport Wagon is a case in point. Remarkably, it has nearly perfect 51/49 front/rear weight distribution (52/48 with the optional all-wheel drive). Those are numbers that Porsche strives to achieve. It also has a low profile that gives it road-hugging capabilities similar to those of the CTS sedan. Cargo capacity, meanwhile, is nearly double that of the sedan, with 25 cu. ft. of space behind the rear seats and 53.4 cu. ft. with the rear seats down.
To my eye, the Sport Wagon also is Cadillac's best-looking model. Its narrow windows, sloping roofline, and odd-shaped rear side windows make its profile particularly attractive. Up front there's the big, distinctive egg-crate grille and oversize Cadillac Crest logo. And I love the taillights, which must be three feet tall and run up each rear corner of the body, coming to a point at the roofline.
There's a choice of two engines, both providing adequate if not breathtaking oomph. The base powerplant is a 3.0-liter, 270-horsepower V6, with the alternative being a 3.6-liter, 304-horsepower V6. The only transmission is a six-speed automatic. All-wheel drive is available on all trim levels.
Happily, there's almost no mileage penalty for going with the larger engine. The standard engine is rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway; mileage only drops to 18/26 with the 3.6-liter engine. Another plus: The CTS runs on inexpensive regular gasoline. Unfortunately, no diesel-powered version of the Sport Wagon is planned anytime soon, GM says.
Base prices start at $40,655 for a rear-wheel-drive model with the smaller engine, rising to $54,445 for a Premium trim line with the big engine and all-wheel drive. That's around $2,000 more than the CTS sedan, but $2,000 to $6,000 more than the new Cadillac SRX, which starts at $34,155 with rear-wheel drive and a 3.0-liter V6 engine, rising to $52,185 with all-wheel drive and a turbocharged 2.8-liter V6.
On the plus side, Cadillac is offering cash rebates of as much as $2,500 on the Sport Wagon through Jan. 4, and current Cadillac lessees may be eligible for an extra $1,000.
It's too early to tell how strong sales of the Sport Wagon will be, but it's clearly a niche product. In its first few months it has only accounted for about 10% of total CTS sales, the GM spokesman says. The CTS is Cadillac's best-selling model, but sales fell 36.3%, to 34,637, in the first 11 months of the year compared with 2008.
Behind the Wheel
From the rear seats forward, the Sport Wagon is almost identical to the CTS sedan, with a cockpit-style front seating area, a nifty video screen that pops up out of the center of the dash, and expensive-looking stitched leather and wood highlights. The quality of the materials and fit and finish are comparable to a German sport sedan's. The rear cargo compartment also is a strong point. The seats fold down absolutely flat and there's a handy cargo-tie-down system.
Like other sport wagons, the CTS handles better than most crossover vehicles. It has the same 113.4-in. wheelbase as the CTS sedan, and has similarly tight steering, hard-biting brakes, and lack of body roll in the curves. It also has a short, 36-ft. turning radius that makes it easy to maneuver in tight spots.
The big difference is that the CTS wagon is several hundred pounds heavier than the sedan. As a result, even with the big engine, the CTS Sport Wagon accelerates from zero to 60 in a relatively slow 7 seconds, about a second slower than the sedan. Comparable German competitors are quicker, too. For instance, the all-wheel-drive BMW 335i Sport Wagon jumps from zero to 60 in just 5.8 seconds.
If you're into driving, the lack of a stick shift (available on the CTS sedan) is a negative. But the CTS wagon has the manual shifting mode and optional steering-wheel-mounted shifters (buttons rather than paddles) that are obligatory on any sporty model these days. I got a kick out of simply putting the automatic transmission into "sport" mode, which is kind of like turning the shifting over to a teenage boy.
Much as I like the CTS wagon, it has some downsides. The rear seating area is relatively spare, for one thing. Space is too tight for three passengers to be comfortable and there are no bottle holders or storage built into the rear doors (there is netting on the backs of the front seats). Leg, head, and shoulder space is typical of other sport wagons (which is to say adequate for four average-size adults). If you put the front seats all the way back, however, there's virtually no leg space in the rear seats.
The Sport Wagon's stylish design also compromises visibility. The narrow windows are hard to see out of, there's a bad blind spot over the driver's right shoulder, and the big outside rearview mirror makes it hard to see when you turn left. I'd definitely opt for the backup camera in this model because you can't see much out the rear windows when you're trying to park.
Finally, towing capacity is only 1,000 lb., compared with around 3,500 for most crossovers and small SUVs.
Buy It or Bag It?
Rebates have lowered the 2010 CTS Sport Wagon's average selling price to $49,609, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That's about the same as Ford's (F) new Lincoln MKT ($49,896) but cheaper than the Audi A6 Avant ($55,000) and the BMW 5 Series ($59,803) wagons.
Among less expensive alternatives, the one I really like is the somewhat smaller Audi A4 Avant wagon, which sells for an average of just $39,584, according to PIN. If you still prefer crossover SUVs, nice ones include the new SRX ($40,932) and the Lexus RX 350 ($43,020). Keep in mind that crossovers have lower average prices partly because buyers tend to load them up less than sport wagons. But if you're into refined good looks and sporty driving, test out the new Caddie CTS wagon before buying a crossover.
Click here to see more of the all-new 2010 Cadillac CTS Sport Wagon.