It appears that Cadillac with its design studio have finally found an effective remedy to U.S. automakers’ inferiority complex.
For decades, the neurosis has afflicted the studios of Detroit, causing them to turn out bland, awkward or copycat designs, while their German and Japanese counterparts created strong visual identities unique to their brands.
But all these have changed with the new 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe. Whether you love it or hate it, there is no denying that it is bold, brash and uniquely American.
The new CTS coupe is a brazen slap to the face of genteel luxury coupes. From its glittering grille to the boomerang taillamps on a tail the size and shape of Paul Bunyan’s ax, the 2011 Cadillac CTS coupe is a literal wedge issue in terms of styling.
The coupe resides in an segment that includes the BMW 335i Coupe, the Infiniti G37 Coupe, the Audi A5 and the Mercedes-Benz E350 Coupe.
The new 2011 Cadillac CTS Coupe is also the latest branch on the ever-expanding tree that started with Cadillac’s entry-level luxury offering, the CTS Sedan, and now includes the CTS Sport Wagon, and a 556-horsepower supercharged variant of each called the CTS-V.
This coupe is slightly wider, lower and shorter than the CTS sedan. The wheelbase remains the same, though Cadillac says it widened the rear track (space between the rear wheels) for greater stability.
The windshield has a steeper rake (or angle) and there are some minor differences in the front fascia. But it is beyond the doors where the profound differences occur.
To drink in the back of the CTS Coupe is to feel a healthy dose of national pride. Look closely at the body panels, the exhaust system, the taillights, and you can almost make out 13 stripes, 50 stars, 27 amendments.
It is a confluence of sharp angles and corners that is the purest distillation yet of Cadillac’s current design philosophy, called Art and Science. Soft, curving lines are as rare as a shy Kardashian.
This is the work of a design studio at the top of its game. It’s not a copy, an interpretation or an homage. It’s an original, designed in a vacuum from outside influences.
If the CTS Coupe looks like a concept car, that’s because it basically is. Cadillac changed very little since it debuted the design concept for the coupe at the 2008 Detroit Auto Show.
Pragmatism on production models tends to trump minor design flourishes on concept cars, but that isn’t the case on this Cadillac. The doors are electronically operated via hidden “touch pads” on the door frame, and the CTS Coupe’s exhaust remains center-mounted and integrated into the look of the car’s rear.
Moving the coupe is a powertrain largely unchanged from the sedan. Only one engine is offered, and it’s a 3.6-liter V-6. This mill is good for 304 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque, and it turns the wheels via a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic.
Rear-wheel drive is standard, while all-wheel drive is a $1,900 option. The car starts at $38,990 for a well-equipped model and tops out around $52,000 for a loaded, all-wheel-drive version.
This setup applies the car’s power in a very smooth, linear fashion. The note of the V-6 is more tenor than bass, but it’s strong and confident and toes the performance/refinement line nicely.
The automatic in the car I tested changed gears without any fuss, though there was a bit of lag in downshifts when using the manual-shift buttons on the back of the steering wheel.
Knock the transmission into ‘Sport’ mode, and the mood becomes surprisingly aggressive. This setting loves to keep the car close to its 7,000-rpm red line and will upshift or downshift accordingly, though this can become arduous when you’re on the freeway simply trying to shave some time off your commute.
Despite some changes to the tuning of the chassis, this Cadillac drives very much like its sedan brethren. While the design is uniquely American, so too is the car’s weight. The CTS Coupe weighs 300 to 400 pounds more than anything else in its class, and this weight becomes its biggest foe when throwing it around twisty roads.
“Competent” describes the CTS Coupe’s performance in these situations. Nothing more. Much as it may curdle the blood of the engineers at General Motors to hear it, this Cadillac never felt as composed or precise throughout tight turns as its foreign competitors.
The interior also accommodates long trips nicely. It too remains largely unchanged from the sedan’s. Ordinarily this would be a liability, as interiors have evolved in the three years since the sedan was introduced. Fortunately, the execution of the CTS interior set a high-water mark for Cadillac that survived the coupe’s gestation.
The pop-up navigation screen is still effective and intuitive, and the layout separating driver and passenger climate control is still one of the most cleverly conceived designs we’ve seen recently.
Unique to the coupe’s interior is the lack of door handles (they’re electronic on the inside too). Instead, one must push a button on the door.
The biggest downside to the interior are casualties of the war between form and function. Because the roof is lower on the coupe than the sedan, headroom is the first victim.
Those who are 6 feet or taller will wince at approaching bumps knowing they’re going to hit their head. The back seat accommodates only two people thanks to a fixed center console, and they’d better be short and patient.
Also compromised is visibility, thanks to the large C-pillar support columns behind rear passengers’ shoulders, though drivers may find them less obtrusive than they might expect given their prominence on the exterior.
American automakers have long needed to demonstrate to consumers that the era of ambiguous identities is over. The CTS Coupe offers proof. It is by no means perfect, but it is some very sweet medicine.
“Among the Audi A5 and S5, Mercedes E-Class and BMW 3 Series especially, you could argue all day over which one is prettiest. But those Euro models are also notable for their elegance, a nearly feminine grace,” Lawrence Ulrich writes at the NY Times.