All you imported-car lovers will shoot me, but I rate the Cadillac STS (GM) almost even with a Lexus (TM).
True, the STS isn't quite as tightly built as the gold-standard Japanese luxury car. The trade-offs: The Cadillac, which starts at just under $42,000 (with a V-6 engine; with a V-8, about $48,000), costs less, while with a Lexus you have the assurance of Toyota quality, durability, and high resale value.
A BRIGHT SPOT.
But if you haven't driven a Cadillac lately, don't assume it'll be worth it to pay more for a Japanese or European car. Test a 2006 STS, and you'll probably end up surprised by how well the Caddy stands up against even far more expensive imports.
I'm not the only fan of the new Cadillac sedans, which include the flagship STS (known as the Seville until the 2005 model year), the edgier CTS, and the old-school DTS, known as the DeVille until this year's model (see BW Online, 11/30/05, "A Classy Caddy at a Nice Price ").
Cadillac stands out as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal year for GM. The company's passenger-car sales fell 5.9 %, to 1.6 million units, and its sales of SUVs and other light trucks fell 2.2%, to 2.4 million units, through November. But compared with the first 11 months of 2004, Cadillac sales increased 2.5%, to 212,056.
EQUIPPED FOR SNOW.
While Caddy unit sales plunged nearly 25% during a miserable one-month period (November, 2005), I suspect the drop resulted from GM's efforts to finally wean itself from the deep price-slashing it indulged in during most of this year. At the moment, the auto maker is offering only a $500 cash rebate on the autos, though dealers are undoubtedly bargaining like crazy.
My test car was a 2006 STS sport sedan with a V-8 engine, plus the $10,740 luxury-performance upgrade that includes such things as a sunroof, wood-trimmed leather interior, and GM's innovative magnetic ride-control system, which adjusts wheel and body motion via "magneto-rheological" fluid in the shock absorbers.
If I had tested the STS during the recent heavy snowstorms in the Northeast, I would have asked for one with all-wheel drive, too. That option, which costs an extra $1,900, gives the STS real appeal for Snowbelt drivers -- who might be considering all-wheel-drive imports such as the Audi A6.
On the other hand, if blinding speed is your thing, go for the new, limited-production STS-V, which comes with numerous performance enhancements, including a 469-horsepower supercharged V-8 engine. The STS-V goes from 0 to 60 in less than 5 seconds, and tops out around 160 mph. Of course, you'll pay for those extras: The STS-V starts at around $75,000.
For my money, the standard STS models are very nice cars, especially if you go with the V-8 engine. Indeed, Motor Trend faced off last year's STS against a BMW 545i and pretty much summed up my experience: "The STS...comes close to the harder-edged 545i in most areas of performance, while managing superior ride quality, stopping distances, and ease of use. Concluded one editor, 'Cadillac has updated and somewhat reinterpreted the American luxury/sport sedan from a soft, garish, poor-quality barge to a handsome, comfortable, fast, good-handling machine. It's not as edgy as the German offerings, yet more engaging to drive than many of those from Japan.'"
True, you don't get BMW-style road feel in the STS. You definitely know you're driving a luxury sedan. But as with a high-end Lexus, Infiniti (NISANY), or Acura (HMC), you'll find plenty of power under the hood when you need it.
The big 4.6-liter Northstar V8 engine has so much torque that I inadvertently squealed the tires several times during in-town driving. Punch the gas cruising at 70 mph, and the STS still has lots of residual oomph to leap forward. The car is rated to get 17 miles per gallon in the city and 26 on the highway.
The STS handles well, too. At a couple of points, I took turns too fast on country roads in the rain and was pleasantly relieved when the STS took the abuse without rolling or sliding. In one instance, I noticed a message on the instrument panel telling me the traction control had kicked in. It was one of several times when the car surprised me with its agility.
The ride feels so smooth I find it hard to believe the STS is a domestic vehicle. It isn't as quiet as a Mercedes S Class sedan, which gives the impression the engine is in another county. But it's quiet enough that, with the radio on, I tried several times to start the engine when it was already running.
WRAPPED IN LEATHER.
The car's interior has an understated, elegant look. The leather in my loaner came in subtle shades of cream and milk chocolate similar to the interior of the Lexus LS 430 I drove (see BW Online, 9/16/05 "Lexus: More Luxury for Less").
The steering wheel has a quarter turn of wood on the top, and the rest is leather-wrapped with a solid feel in the hands. The STS's center stack -- on the dash between rider and driver -- has a broad, tapered V-shape and is done up in a beautiful pale eucalyptus wood. The tall narrow vents on either side add to the elegance.
The controls are unbusy, and you can carry out most functions via a small video touch screen. I like the keyless entry system even more than the one on the Acura (see BW Online, 9/23/05"Acura's Introduction to Luxury").
The new Cadillacs allow you not only to start the car with the push of a button but also to do so remotely, from as far away as 200 feet, using the key fob. It's very cool to be in a restaurant with friends putting on coats after a meal, and smugly announce: "I just started the car so it will be nice and toasty by the time we get to it."
I also found it amusing to set the STS's navigation system to speak German, English with a British accent, Italian, and French. It makes a great way to build your foreign-language vocabulary and work on your English enunciation.
The negatives? The exterior fit and finish seem tighter to me than the DTS's, but the fit of the body parts and gaps around the doors and trunk, while very uniform, didn't seem as tight as that on a Lexus or Mercedes (DCX).
CACHET TO RETURN?
Also, the rear seats feel quite cramped for a luxury car. You can't get your feet very far under the front seats, and I wouldn't want to be the middle passenger if you tried to fit three people in back. The glove compartment is tiny and flimsier than the ones in German and Japanese luxury cars.
Still, GM feels confident that the STS has what it takes to sell well in the demanding European market. I rented a classic 1970 French gangster movie the other day and was reminded that, back in the 1960s, U.S. cars still had a lot of cachet on the Continent. If GM keeps churning out models like the STS, Pontiac Solstice, and the new Chevy Corvette, it may regain that allure.