Lifestyle

America's Last Luxury Marque Flexes Its Muscles


A Cadillac CTS or BMW 5 Series, which one is the better car? It's a close race, but in value for money it's no contest

Based on recent events, it seems painfully clear there is precisely one American carmaker with a shot at long-term viability. Care to guess which?

Ford (F) Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally is cutting dealers, labor, and production at a rate that makes great sense on one level, because there's bloat in each of those arenas. What you don't see are the cars, the actual product that can save Ford's future.

Only recently has Ford awoken to the fact that small cars are selling well in this country when just about nothing else is. Meanwhile, Ford's Focus is a dog compared to the version sold in Europe, and planners at the blue oval are still dithering about whether to bring hatchback versions of the Fiesta to this country (BusinessWeek.com, 3/13/08)—when the Fiesta finally gets here. News flash: Leave Dearborn, Mich., once in a while and see what's selling on the coasts (the hatchback Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, and Toyota Yaris). Better yet, do it when gas hits $4 a gallon (or $5) and see what buyers want.

And Chrysler? Please. The very name is like the punch line to a mean joke.

That leaves General Motors (GM). And wow, has GM been at last responding to the pressures put on it by Toyota (TM), Honda (HMC), Nissan (NSANY), and German brands including Volkswagen (VOWG) and BMW (BMWG).

GM Factor

The new Chevy Malibu is a tremendous car. Recently I drove the new Honda Accord and the Malibu in quick succession, and while the Honda engine is slightly more free-spirited, the handling, steering, taut body control, and accommodations of the Chevy were all on par with what the Honda had to offer. Cross-shopped against a Camry or the wan Ford Taurus, or the Accord, the Malibu should take back a nice chunk of Chevy market share.

And Saturn may be GM's best division, going from a capital-L "Loser" to a serious big-time winner in record time. I'll just reel off the Saturn lineup quickly: The latest Vue has become one of the better crossovers on the market after its first iteration was at best mediocre, while both the Aura and Astra (donated from GM's German-produced Opel division) are fun, smart, and frugal.

Cadillac Credit

And Cadillac has the only complete line of American luxury cars left. (Lincoln sells antediluvian livery vehicles, rebadged SUVs and trucks, and with the exception of the very nice MKX, a good redo of the Ford Edge, there's nary a ghost of that marque's once-proud swagger.)

Cadillac deserves buckets of credit. In the face of skeptics like me, the second-generation CTS is a great car, hands down. Here I'll compare the $36,445 CTS DI with all-wheel drive (AWD) to the $51,600 BMW 535xi, likewise with AWD. Wait, isn't that a mismatch? Isn't the CTS priced to sell against the cheaper 3 Series? It may well be, but the interior space, engine displacement, and amenities are all stacked rather nicely against the 5 Series. Call it the silver lining to the weak-kneed U.S. dollar.

The Dizzying BMW 535xi

There's little doubt about it; the twin-turbocharged in-line six-cylinder engine in the 5 Series is one of the best motors we've seen from BMW, and that's saying a hell of a lot. Acceleration isn't only brisk, but linear. And while we'd rather have the 5 with a manual, it's hard to argue with how creamily smooth BMW's six-speed autobox delivers gear changes, whether up slowly or down all at once for passing power. Handling, even at twice the speed limit, is precise, controlled, sharp. All-wheel drive is seamless, save that there's no wheelspin on takeoff, even on rain-slick roads.

But there are niggles. BMW's automatic is operated by way of a strange, center-mounted stalk. Forget PRND; it would take high-level trigonometry to describe the shift pattern. To engage drive from park, you illogically move the stalk backwards, while also holding down a button on the side of the shifter. To put the car in reverse, you move the shifter forward—again, counterintuitively. In manual mode, downshifts are created by moving the stalk forward, not back. Dizzy yet?

BMW's iDrive in-car control system soldiers on, too. It's not as terrible as some columnists have bemoaned, and some knobs have crept back into the mix so you can, for instance, toggle through audio functions without using the mouse and screen of iDrive (thereby concentrating on the ultimate driving of the "Ultimate Driving Machine"). However, if you want to change the temperature of the air blowing on you from the central vent you don't use the vent control knob, but iDrive. I don't know why.

Perhaps most challenging for any would-be 5 Series buyer is that backseat room is merely tied with that of the much cheaper CTS. It's more than adequate for most adults, but hardly capacious—and if you step up to a comparably priced Cadillac DTS or slightly more expensive Lexus LS you get bigger cockpits.

The Pleasant Cadillac CTS DI (AWD)

One of the first things I noticed while driving the Cadillac was the cockpit. The first-generation CTS had cheap plastic switches and controls donated from lesser lights in GM's pantheon; who wants their Caddy cabin to resemble a Cobalt's? Luckily the midlevel bean counter who made that decision is shackled and gagged in a dungeon somewhere in East Lansing, Mich. What you get with the new CTS is not only buttoned-tight quarters and logically arranged dashboard controls, but the material grade of the plastics and even the feel of the switches under finger pressure is refined. Someone at Cadillac has done his homework, and it shows.

Next on the list of pleasantries has to be the performance of the CTS. The engine isn't as flexible as that of the BMW's, where peak torque arrives nice and low, but this V6 is still good for 304 hp, on par with the BMW, and in most circumstances, just as athletic and flexible, either under hard acceleration or quick, downshift deceleration. If there's a hiccup in the system it's that BMW's autobox will allow manual downshifts within 500 rpms of redline, whereas the GM transmission would balk if the rev range was too high. How often do you find yourself at the racetrack with your CTS, though?

Both of these cars have standout steering and braking. On-center control is precise, and keeping either car on course on a challenging road is a joy, not a chore. The brake-pedal feel of the BMW is just a hair more precise, but the actual bite of the CTS stoppers is plenty potent. (Hint: If you're in the market for the CTS, spring the extra $250 for the performance rotors—they're worth every cent.)

Cornering in the CTS is taut, as is body control, yet what wins my vote most is that Cadillac achieved this and still offers a very flexible ride that doesn't bruise your kidneys over potholes.

The Verdict

As you can see, for the dough you really can't vote against the Cadillac. The BMW is an excellent driver's car, but is it worth that much more?

By the way, fuel economy is nearly dead even for these two vehicles, with the BMW at 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway and the Caddy at 17/26. Bonus: The CTS drinks blue-collar regular while the BMW wants blue-blood premium.

Last thought: GM is finally flexing its muscle with cars like the CTS, but what has yet to be determined is if gains in J.D. Power surveys on quality are lasting and, tougher, if a generation of twenty- to fortysomethings whose parents swore off GM products will take another look. This reporter thinks they should.

Business Exchange related topics:

U.S. Automakers

Ford Motor Company

Chrysler LLC

General Motors


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