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Cadillac’s growling 2014 CTS VSport could move it from underdog to top dog

Highs

  • Tron light cycle-like LED running lights
  • Sporty handling
  • Excellent Vsport engine

Lows

  • Eight gears may be too many here
  • CUE has a learning CUrvE
  • Does CTS carry the same weight as 5 Series?
Cadillac has found itself back in the game, and not just as an underdog.

If there’s an American company that’s going to really give the Germans a run for their money, it’s Cadillac. They rolled out the compact ATS last year, and to our surprise, it’s more fun to drive than the BMW 3 Series, and more comfortable on long commutes than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Who’da thunk?

The real stunner in the group is the CTS Vsport

Up until the launch of the ATS, the CTS was the entry-level Caddy, and it has lived in a weird halfway house – too big to be considered compact, but too small to be truly mid-sized. That changes for 2014.

With a true compact sports sedan positioned below it, the CTS has grown in size, equipment, and price to better compete with the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. We flew out to sunny Santa Barbara to take an early spin behind the wheel before the car goes on sale later this year.

Features and design

Upon approach, there’s no question that the new CTS is a Cadillac, and it wears the hard-angled design language perhaps better than any other car in the lineup.

Most noticeable are its standard LED running lights, which have a floor-to-ceiling effect that reminds us of the light cycles from Tron. They’re intensely white, and to our knowledge, it’s the only set in the business that runs vertically, rather than horizontally.

Big, aggressive air dams and an oversized grille lend a little more sport to the front end of the CTS, making this car look downright menacing from square on or from the three-quarters angle. However, it’s a different story as you walk around the rest of the car.

The CTS’s profile is the most obvious indicator of the car’s increase in size. It’s grown 4.2 inches longer from end to end, giving it a little more legroom, a little more stability, and a little more stature in the midsize segment. The angles here are less dramatic, but the doors are creased handsomely at the top of the beltline, and again near the foot wells. Those creases allow the profile to look as if it’s leaning downward and forward–sporty and wedge-like.

The rear of the car is the most conservative aspect of the design, where Cadillac’s signature tall taillights give the CTS some added maturity, for better or worse. If you look at the front and the rear of the car at the same time, there may be some confusion. If the front looks predatory, the rear looks almost feeble–as if there were bits of your grandfather’s Cadillac still left in the design.

Comfort

Inside, the materials are better than they’ve ever been, and the dash is simplified in a way that finally looks elegant, rather than riddled with buttons. The base CTS is trimmed with leatherette, as is the norm with many of the European automakers. It doesn’t take many optional extras, however, before you’ve spec’d a car with real, very soft leather, real wood, a panoramic sunroof, and oodles of technology.

If the front looks predatory, the rear looks almost feeble–as if there were bits of your grandfather’s Cadillac still left in the design.

Hell, there’s even a powered retractable cup holder shield for those who felt like covering their cup holders was unnecessarily difficult before.

The front seats are comfortable and supportive, especially for long drives, and they’re bolstered enough to keep you planted on spirited runs through the mountains, too. The rear seats work well for tall passengers – something that has never been a strength for the CTS in the past. I’m 6’2”, and I was able to sit comfortably in the driver’s seat, and then move to the rear seat and sit behind myself without knocking knees with the seatback. Not bad.

The CTS’ dash is dominated by the eight-inch Cadillac User Experience ‘CUE’ system display, and while it’s attractive, CUE remains a disappointment.

2014 Cadillac CTS Vsport Sedan

The system can connect to your phone, navigate you across the country, and adjust the interior climate and tunes. But getting it to do those things is confusing on a good day, and frustrating if you’re not parked. On the flip side, the gauges on the dash are analog on base cars, but you can option them up to a full 12.3-inch LCD screen that can be configured in any number of ways. It’s both functional and easy to see, and the ability to customize the display with what you want to see makes it a real standout in the segment.

Performance

Driving is where the CTS really makes its mark in the competitive landscape, though. Where the 5 Series, E-Class, and A6 are tuned softly, Cadillac took this car in a different direction – it’s an absolute blast to drive.

There are three engines available. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder produces 272 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. This base engine is only available with a six-speed automatic. You can, however spec the base unit in rear- or all-wheel-drive. Truthfully, this entry-level engine is more than adequate – and a real delight to drive. It’s torquey and quick, and it returns up to 30 mpg on the highway.

It wears the hard-angled design language perhaps better than any other car in the lineup.

The middle engine is GM’s 3.6-liter V6 – pushing out 321 hp – and it carries a six-speed auto with all-wheel-drive models, but an eight-speed automatic for rear-drive models.

Those who are familiar with previous generations of the CTS (and liked them) will be most accustomed to this engine’s power delivery and smoothness. In our opinion, it’s the least interesting way to go about getting a CTS, but if you absolutely must have a V6 and all-wheel-drive, it’ll fit your needs.

The real stunner in the group is the CTS Vsport, which receives a twin-turbocharged version of the 3.6-liter V6, boosted to 420 hp. This model is intended to bridge the gap between standard CTS cars and the upcoming CTS-V; and it’s a legitimate performer. It’s only available in rear-drive with the eight-speed automatic, and it’s one very fast car, indeed.

2014 Cadillac CTS Vsport Sedan

If you’re looking for a true competitor to, say, a BMW 550i, the CTS Vsport is worth a look. It’s every bit as fast, seemingly more nimble, and with options, significantly more affordable. This car really highlights the qualities of the CTS’s chassis tuning, which now feels sportier than just about any other car in the segment.

The only downside we experienced here is that the eight-speed automatic seemed a little unsure of itself – like it was constantly hunting for gears – when we drove it aggressively. Even so, the twin-turbo 3.6 V6 was able to deliver torque in virtually every situation we presented, making the Vsport model the clear favorite in our books.

Conclusion

We’re going to need a minute to jump behind the wheels of the current BMW, Audi and Mercedes competitors to restack the CTS in its newly appropriate position in the Pecking Order.

However, what we do know is this: for the first time in a very, very long time, Cadillac has found itself back in the game – and not just as an underdog. If the new CTS and ATS models are any indication of what’s to come, the brand may be able to reclaim its title of Standard of the World.

Highs

  • Tron light cycle-like LED running lights
  • Sporty handling
  • Excellent Vsport engine

Lows

  • Eight gears may be too many here
  • CUE has a learning CUrvE
  • Does CTS carry the same weight as 5 Series?

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