The 2012 Cadillac CTS sedan offers shoppers an attractive blend of design, luxury and performance.
Now in its fifth model year, the CTS is the luxury sedan that began Cadillac's design-led transformation when the car debuted as a 2003 model, and the second-generation car that launched for 2008 furthered the brand's push into the sport-sedan market.
The CTS sedan starts at $36,810 (all prices include an $895 destination charge), but our test car was a high-end Premium model with a starting price of $49,185. With options, the as-tested price was $52,345.
The first-generation CTS set Cadillac on its current styling direction with its creased, angular shape, but the design philosophy really hit its stride with this second-generation car. Sharp edges create a look that's uniquely Cadillac, but the design isn't forced like it was in some places on the first-gen car.
You also can get the CTS in coupe and wagon body styles, but the design looks best to my eye on the sedan. Its rear styling is the most cohesive with the front end, which doesn't differ much among body styles.
Ride and handling
Our test CTS had the optional performance suspension, and the car felt as firm as one of the high-performance V-Series versions that Cadillac sells, with harsh, jarring responses over bumps. It's not far removed from the suspension tuning on Mercedes' AMG models, like the C63 AMG, which is a firm-riding sport sedan.
The payback, however, is minimal body roll, which is welcome when the road bends. The performance suspension includes thicker front and rear stabilizer bars -- as well as a limited-slip differential if you opt for summer tires -- but the steering prevents the car from being as engaging as it might otherwise be; steering effort is light and steering feedback expectations remain unmet.
Tires play a significant part in the ride and handling equation, which is why it was unfortunate that our rear-wheel-drive CTS arrived with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires on its 19-inch wheels. With temperatures in the 50s, spring was well under way when we drove the car. The summer tires that are normally part of the optional Performance Package would have been a better match for the conditions.
Engine and transmission
The CTS comes standard with a 3.0-liter V-6 engine, but our test car's optional 3.6-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic transmission are a special pair among drivetrains. The transmission's shifts are unobtrusive, and it's always in the right gear for the driving situation. The automatic is also incredibly responsive; press down on the gas pedal and it downshifts immediately. A lot of automatics make you wait before kicking down, which makes it refreshing to drive one that's so attentive to the driver's wishes.
The 3.6-liter V-6 has power in reserve for accelerating around other cars on the highway, and the transmission responsiveness remains. The sedan moves out well, and the V-6's mechanical growl sounds good in the process. This V-6 makes more power for 2012 -- 318 horsepower, an increase of 14 hp -- and is also 20 pounds lighter than its predecessor. The engine received a number of changes, including new cylinder heads with integrated exhaust manifolds, a composite intake manifold and lighter, stronger connecting rods.
With the automatic transmission, the 3.6-liter V-6 is rated at an EPA-estimated 18/27 mpg city/highway. That's slightly better than the 2012 Infiniti M37's estimate of 18/26 mpg, but it trails the ratings for the 2012 BMW 535i (21/31 mpg) and the 2012 Mercedes-Benz E350 (20/30 mpg). However, unlike those three models, the CTS can run on regular gas as opposed to more expensive premium fuel. Only the supercharged CTS-V requires premium.
The CTS' cabin quality has held up well since this generation first hit the road as a 2008 model, and it's still competitive against newer entrants like the 535i and M37. Among the highlights are consistently applied premium materials including stitching on the dashboard and door trim, and smartly integrated features like an available navigation touch-screen that can rise from the dash or, when lowered, display a list of radio presets. The location of the air-conditioning controls at knee-level seemed a little curious, but it didn't take long to understand the logic of the setup; your hand falls right to the controls, so you barely need to move it to adjust the temperature.
While the cabin is high on premium materials and luxury features, what it doesn't have in abundance is space. The front of the cabin is comfortable but snug, and the optional Recaro-brand sport seats -- similar to those available in the CTS-V -- contribute to the sensation with adjustable side bolsters that keep you locked down in corners.
The Recaro bucket seats have adjustable lumbar support, but even with it backed off completely, you can still feel the curve of the backrest pushing against your lower back. It wasn't painful, but if you're sensitive to this kind of thing, it definitely warrants extra attention if you take the CTS for a test drive.
The CTS sedan's bigger problem is backseat space. Despite being significantly larger on the outside than the redesigned BMW 3 Series sedan, the CTS' backseat feels smaller. I'm 6 feet 1 inch tall and didn't have enough legroom or headroom. It's not nearly as comfortable as a midsize four-door needs to be.
CTS in the market
It's hard to overstate what the CTS has meant to Cadillac from a design and performance perspective. It's been the cornerstone of the brand's reinvention over the past decade and has come to represent the modern Cadillac image.
The CTS checks most of the boxes it needs to in the luxury sport sedan segment with its distinctive design, upscale interior and refined 3.6-liter V-6 drivetrain. That said, discerning handling enthusiasts will get more enjoyment from the more expensive BMW 5 Series.