Already boasting enthusiast-approved dynamics and award-winning safety, the 2017 Cadillac CTS is updated with new design elements and more technology. The list of changes includes addressing long-standing criticism of the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) infotainment system. The next-generation system is now faster, more intuitive, better designed, and offers individual profile settings. But will it be enough to entice consumers?
Global sales are up Cadillac, which recently announced a 15-month streak of continuous growth. This boon, however, sits largely on the shoulders of emerging markets like China where year-to-date sales have increased by nearly 66.5 percent. Cadillac’s home market offers a different story with total U.S. sales sliding 5.4 percent year-to-date. Specifically, the CTS model has dipped 33.8 percent during the same time frame.
Even with headquarters now based in trendsetting Manhattan, Cadillac continues to be stymied by ancient assumptions associating its product portfolio to everything but the current reality, which is to say modern, performance-oriented luxury.
But after spending a week with a CTS and commuting more than 1,000 miles between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, my extended family was given little choice but to experience a new Cadillac—some for the first time. Suffice to say, they now look at that familiar crest with a fresh set of impressed eyes.
Starting at $46,990 (including the $995 destination charge), trim levels are streamlined to match the rest of Cadillac lineup with the 2017 CTS offered in base, Luxury, Premium Luxury, V-Sport, V-Sport Premium Luxury, and the performance-tuned CTS-V.
My options-laden desert duster carried a hefty as-tested price of $58,195. A rear-wheel drive CTS Luxury model equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, this midsize sedan not only exceeded expectations but welcomingly soothed a temperamental 4-year-old.
At first blush, the CTS comes off as both distinctively Cadillac and unremarkably bland. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
For 2017, an all-new grille festoons the front fascia of CTS models (CTS V-Sport and CTS-V remain unchanged) while the rear end features an updated exhaust design. The rest of the body panels are the same as before but maintain the vehicle’s pronouncedly low and lean look.
Interestingly, the perceived length of the CTS is juxtaposed with vertically-positioned head and tail lamp housings. And yet the architectural mix-and-match works, evoking a sharp and driven attitude.
Also new are designs for the standard 17- and 18-inch wheels that befit CTS and CTS V-Sport models, respectively. A Carbon Black sport package is also available, and fresh exterior colors find their way onto the palette in the form of Bronze Dune and Silver Moonlight.
Of course, my CTS featured a fleet-ready Phantom Gray paint job and a Jet Black interior. Thankfully, its optional 18-inch ultra-bright machined wheels prevented the vehicle from looking like another Wall Street suit.
High-quality materials were laid throughout the interior, which was a rather barren but refined landscape. The CUE system’s 8-inch capacitive color touchscreen, however, was no doubt the main event in an otherwise minimalist-designed arena.
The interior layout receives no updates for 2017 but my test car was fashioned with extras such as an interior trim kit and black suede features. Although nice, I’d have preferred a bit more contrast than what the Black Olive Ash burl wood could provide to the interior’s heavy-on-black void.
On the other hand, the suede was a definite miss. While not so much an issue on the shifter, the steering wheel wrap was just…weird. In the dry summer heat of southern Nevada, the material only exasperated my already arid palms. Like an obsessive-compulsive twitch, I, in essence, constantly wiping my hands on the wheel. To each their own, of course, although one of my relatives alleged the texture was akin to stitched-together flesh.
Er, perhaps I should remove “Silence of the Lambs” from their library.
The Cadillac CTS offers 20-way adjustable performance front seats, with which my CTS Luxury 2.0T was not equipped. But the standard bucket seats proved to be plenty comfortable with power-adjustments to the seat back, cushion, and lumbar support.
The headrests manually adjust vertically and horizontally for even more comfort. I particularly appreciated this flexibility which kept me from tilting my noggin into a nodding position when driving on the non-winding road between SoCal and the Strip known as Interstate 15.
Spacious inside, the Caddy easily accommodated occupants ranging in height from three feet to more than double that. However, two adults sitting in the rear opposite a convertible car seat, which is generally bulky, might experience a dearth in shoulder and hip room. But, safety first.
Speaking of the back seats, I felt the climate vents were on the small side in comparison to the amount of airspace that needed to be cooled or heated. In the front, the openings were large and helped cool the vehicle quickly.
I can’t say the same for the ventilated front seats, though. Perhaps driving a non-tinted car with ambient temperatures north of 100 degrees proved too much of a challenge for the CTS. Even when placed on the coldest setting, I mostly forgot the ventilated seats were on.
But in the desert, the greatest gift was certainly the remote start feature, which allows the owner to cool the car before driving and which I used with such frequency during the day I’d be surprised if the CTS was ever truly turned off. Especially when traveling with my nephew, who recently took up the toddler-popular sport of tantrum throwing, this feature was critically important. A cooled car equals a calmed kid. Yessss.
I grew up during a forgotten time when roll-up windows and dash dials were relatively commonplace. So, upon first entering the CTS, I’ll confess to a quick but genuine tinge of distress when the last driver left the radio on and I hadn’t a clue how to change or mute the station because there are no knobs, no buttons, nothing remotely resembling a control nodule on the center console.
True, there hasn’t been any such relative of the button family within a Cadillac since model-year 2013, but utilizing a flat touchscreen—haptic or not—while operating a motor vehicle requires much more focus than, say, tapping away on buttons or twisting knobs.
The instrument panel is almost entirely a glossy black finish, with backlit icons appearing only once the vehicle is powered on. When off, and save for the appealing chrome-like ridges placed where buttons would (should) be, the center stack is yet another black abyss. The metallic trim does well for style but fails as finger-placement guides when accessing settings.
Not all is lost. The steering wheel-mounted controls do offer repetitive function controls and are, thankfully, still legitimate switches. But just as the nonexistent center stack buttons took some getting used to, the steering wheel has its own learning curve.
“Anything you can do I will attempt to do better” seems to be the motto as it offers quite a number of functions using so few controls. The left spoke manages voice commands, cruise control, steering wheel heat settings, and forward collision warning while the right side handles nearly everything else that appears within the digital gauge cluster.
For a midsize luxury sedan, a 13.7 cubic-foot trunk is on par for the segment and is large enough for a small family’s vacation luggage or a couple of golf bags for a day on the links. But more often than not, I utilized the cargo net and recessed bin for holding items to prevent them from being tousled around.
Interior utility is a different matter, however, with useable nooks and crannies at a premium. The door panels have no built-in water bottle-sized pockets. The center console features no open tray area unless the cup holders count. The front storage bin can hold a cube-shaped tissue box, a USB cable charger, and not much else.
The electronically-controlled glovebox also is both narrow and shallow, with room for perhaps two owner’s manuals. There is no sunglass holder either. Instead, that overhead real estate is reserved for sunroof controls as well as a mounted hub containing driver assistance technology sensors and radars.
Ah, now we’ve come to the part where we can get all judgy about the new CUE system. But there isn’t much to say other than it works pretty well. Tactile feedback aside, the new system was quick to process touch commands even if the network itself occasionally took some time to boot up. But the wait was hardly an annoyance, and only the most impatient would find fault.
In terms of operation, CUE was straightforward, requiring zero page turns of the owner’s manual. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi linking was a breeze. The latter is a 4G LTE connection and is available with a three-month, three-gigabyte trial. It was a bit of a lifesaver, too.
For a couple of days, I shamelessly resorted to keeping my smartphone on airplane mode to conserve my dwindling data. Connected only to Wi-Fi whenever I drove the CTS, not once did I lose signal strength nor did I go over my monthly limit (again). Thanks, OnStar.
Additionally, CUE’s graphics are clear and the navigation screen offered a crisp, easily readable image. Think Apple Maps but more refined. When hitting the search bar, you can enter an address, business name, or select from a number of categories like restaurants, fuel, and attractions. The touchscreen also offers pinch-and-zoom and swipe-scroll capability.
The navigation prompts were a bit of a wonder, I might add. En route to a lunch date, I was instructed to “Please turn right after the Rebel gas station onto Paradise Boulevard.” I don’t recall an in-vehicle navigation system or Google Maps (my go-to) providing me with such specific directions. I initially thought it was a fluke or maybe I misheard, but it happened again, using another gas station as a landmark.
In this case, I appreciate the extra bit of information since driving through an unfamiliar area is difficult enough without having to also search for frequently illegible street signs. Notification of easily identifiable waypoints helps to ease stress and most likely minimizes the chance that you’ll erroneously drive in circles.
But as improved as CUE is, the system is not without flaws, even if they are nitpicky at best. For example, although the onscreen icons are now larger, they still aren’t quite large enough. Because even with my child-size hands (I’m five-foot-two; I have puny phalanges), I still managed to tap the neighboring button instead of the intended one more often than preferred. Compound that with heavy traffic or an uneven road surface and I admit to giving up fussing with the touchscreen altogether.
Lastly, when transferring from a Bluetooth connection to a USB one, the audio volume increases. It’s a dramatic enough change that I made a concerted effort to turn it down before plugging in. Whether it’s due to switching to the Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration, I haven’t a clue.
The 2017 CTS receives a 5-star safety rating from NHTSA, having achieved a perfect score on all but the front passenger side crash test, in which the vehicle rated four out of five stars.
On the other hand, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety “Top Safety Pick” designation eludes the CTS. Although the sedan achieves mostly “Good” ratings in crashworthiness tests and earns a “Superior” mark for front crash prevention, its headlights are deemed “Poor” and it receives a “Marginal” rating in both the small front overlap test and LATCH system usability. And I can attest to the IIHS claim regarding the child seat anchors.
Having to move my nephew’s car seat in and out of the CTS several times, I found the anchors to be more deeply embedded than in other vehicles. And being the person who initially taught my sister and brother-in-law how to install a car seat, I was surprisingly flummoxed when installing one in the CTS. But, no, it wasn’t that my skills had waned; the CTS just likes being difficult.
In terms of safety technology, rear park assist sensors and a rearview camera are standard for all CTS models. My test car also had the Driver Awareness package, which is standard on Luxury, Premium Luxury, and V-Sport trims. This bundles a safety alert seat, blind spot monitoring, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, and rear cross traffic alert. Although it all translates to a series of flashing lights and warning images, you can adjust the nannies to your liking.
Premium Luxury models and above get a Driver Assist package, which adds adaptive cruise control, automatic seat belt tightening, and automatic braking. Automatic Parking Assist is an available option that enables the vehicle to semi-autonomously park itself.
The CTS also is the only vehicle in its segment to offer a Rear Camera Mirror, which does exactly as its name suggests. The rearview mirror is a wallflower no more. With a simple toggle flip, it transforms into a high-definition, wide-angle screen thanks to an additional lens placed on the trunk lid. Ironically, its 1280 x 240 display is vastly better than the rearview camera’s, which, although appearing on a wider screen sadly provides a duller and sometimes dimmer image.
I personally can’t look at the Rear Camera Mirror’s digital screen for any length of time but its extended field of view is helpful in numerous situations, like construction zones where traffic patterns constantly shift, or at dusk and dawn when not everyone has their headlights illuminated.
Available engines for the CTS include a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, a 3.6-liter V6, and a 3.6-liter twin-turbocharged V6. The former two are matched with an 8-speed automatic transmission and available with optional all-wheel drive. The latter receives a fortified version of the 8-speed transmission and is rear-drive only.
Featured in the CTS V-Sport, the largest of the V6 engines is rated at 420 horsepower and 430 pound-feet of torque while its naturally aspirated sibling offered in non-V-Sport models produces 335 hp and 285 lb.-ft. of torque.
Separately, there is the limited-production CTS-V, which offers a 6.2-liter supercharged V8 that induces giggling amongst gearheads. Its output is a whopping 640 hp and 630 lb.-ft. of torque, which propels it to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. This is, after all, the most powerful Cadillac ever built.
But that’s not what I drove.
Mine was powered by the turbocharged four. Yet its 268 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of torque provided enough boisterous boost to zip around town via highway or byway. But more on that later.
Like 3.6-liter V6-equipped models, the 4-cylinder features automatic stop-start, a sport suspension, and Brembo front brakes as standard equipment. My test CTS also was outfitted with a V-Sport package that added magnetic ride control, a performance suspension, front and rear performance brakes, V-Sport badging, 18-inch wheels, and run-flat summer tires.
EPA estimates are about middle of the segment for the CTS lineup, ranging from a low of 14 mpg in the city for the CTS-V to a high of 30 mpg on the highway for the CTS 4-cylinder and V6. My test car is rated to return 25 mpg in combined driving, and after 1,071 miles I had averaged 24.9. Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, especially when alternating between the offered driver selectable modes.
Drivers can choose between Tour, Sport, and Snow/Ice. Because the Las Vegas summer provides little opportunity for precipitation, I was left to test the Tour and Sport modes. Although no physical changes occur to the suspension in versions without Magnetic Ride Control, there is a difference in throttle response and steering weight. Stability and traction control systems are recalibrated accordingly.
Tour is the default mode and what I used most of the time when in Las Vegas. The city is a grid so roads and highways are relatively flat straightaways. And with an incessant amount of development projects, Tour mode provided the most comfortable ride when maneuvering the varied and usually unpaved street surfaces.
The Los Angeles topography presented a more interesting drive. Traversing from the Pasadena hills to the Northridge dales offered not only stop-and-go traffic but a fair amount of open highway as well—a perfect playground for Sport mode. The steering felt noticeably heavier and more precise, and lower gears were held longer and at higher rpms. This isn’t to say the CTS in Tour mode was a bore. Carving canyons in a sedan just happens to be more enjoyable when there’s actually asphalt on the road.
The vehicle reacted quickly to steering adjustments and accelerated with minimal lag, even on uphill climbs. The paddle shifters offered more engagement but will never replace the pureness of a genuine manual transmission.
A poised performer, the CTS acted more like an athletic coupe than a four-door commuter. At one point, even the 4-year-old exclaimed, “This car is fast!” Getting from zero to 60 mph in 6 seconds, the CTS 2.0T is nowhere close to the quickness of the CTS-V but does hold its own against sporty German rivals like the BMW 530i and Mercedes-Benz E300.
With sleek design, solid dynamics, and an emphasis on tech, the CTS is also a genuinely fun car to drive. Yet Cadillac remains unsuccessful at breaking away from its Baby Boomers-only vibe. And that’s unfortunate because my very non-Baby Boomer, 30-something friends who received rides in the comely sport sedan all admitted the CTS would be a vehicle they’d consider buying—if they were in the market for a car.
Let’s face it. Not only is Cadillac competing against the previous version of itself as well as its performance-oriented luxury competitors, but the company’s cars must also do battle with ever-favorable crossover SUVs. I hope Cadillac keeps on swinging. As China, Canada, and other markets continue to grow for Cadillac, perhaps perception will come full circle and America will realize it’s had something good here all along, too.
Total Vehicle Score: 158/200 points
Overall Vehicle Rating: 7.9