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First drive: 2016 Cadillac CT6

Sexy, spirited, and surprisingly evolved, the CT6 is Caddy’s new crown jewel

It won’t topple Europe’s best, but Cadillac’s tech-studded CT6 is a proper flagship that demands respect.

In naval terms, the word “flagship” designates the vessel with the most weaponry, the highest speed, and the most distinguished crew in the fleet. It takes on a slightly different tone in an automotive context, but the meaning remains the same. A flagship symbolizes a company at its best. And with the CT6, Cadillac gets a new standard-bearer.

The CT6 isn’t just important because of its champion status. The sedan represents a new approach for Cadillac, which has historically taken Europe head-on in terms of performance, dimensions, sticker price, and even engine displacement figures. While the car does have the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class in its sights, its starting price of $53,495 makes it much more accessible. It’s also lighter, shorter, but nearly as roomy inside as its rivals, which makes the CT6 a hard vehicle to pigeonhole.

Related: Cadillac’s eco-friendly CT6 plug-in hybrid will wear a ‘made in China’ label

So instead of being a direct challenger to those across the pond, the CT6’s mission is simple: brush off categorization and be the best Cadillac it can be. Elevate the brand as a whole, and worry about the rest later.

Looking the part

I reviewed the 2016 CTS late last year, and when I first opened the door, I was greeted by one of the best Cadillac interiors I’d ever seen. The CT6’s is even better.

All of the wood, metal, leather, and carbon fiber accents you see are authentic, and although the overall design doesn’t have the wow factor of a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it’s a significant improvement over Cadillac’s previous attempts. The seats are similarly plush and supportive, with available reclining units in the rear and five different massage programs to choose from. During the vehicle’s First Drive event in Los Angeles, a colleague described it as “an American interpretation of German style,” which I think fits perfectly.

From the outside, the CT6 looks handsome and dignified, with the brand’s vertical LED light signature and classically sharp lines highlighting the front and rear. It’s a real head-turner from most angles, and the long hood, dramatically short front overhang, and wide stance give the CT6 a commanding presence even while sitting still.

Cutting the fat

There’s one word that Cadillac wants you to remember about the CT6, and it starts with “dy-” and ends with “-namic.” The term was used eight times in the sedan’s initial press release (and a few more during our onsite presentation) but after driving the car, it began to make sense.

The luxury cruiser rides on an aluminum-intensive platform called Omega, which leans heavily on structural adhesives and high-pressure castings to save weight. Despite being just 2.5 inches shorter than an S-Class, the entry-level CT6 weighs only 3,657 pounds, around 1,000 lbs less than its big German counterpart. No, that’s not a typo.

The CT6 is lighter, shorter, but nearly as roomy inside as its rivals.

To be clear, if you start packing on the features the Cadillac becomes just as hefty as the Merc, but its small car footprint becomes clear when pushed. The base 2.0-liter CT6 is nimble and responsive despite sending just 265 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque to the rear wheels, and its considerable size only becomes apparent in slow, tight bends. The mid-range 3.6-liter V6 was actually my least favorite engine of the lot (the torquey 2.0-liter is much more fun to ring out), which means the 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6 gets a blue ribbon from me. 404 hp and 400 pound-feet is plenty of juice to get the angular four-door moving, but better yet, top trim models benefit from added electronic assistance.

Related: Bose makes car audio for every budget now, and we tried them all

The active-on-demand all-wheel drive — available on V6 models only — uses a continuously variable clutch that can send a massive 959 lb-ft jolt of power to the front wheels when needed, allowing you to pull out of bends with poise and remain stable if things get tricky. Furthermore, the vehicle offers Active Rear Steer and Magnetic Ride Control with selectable drive modes, which means you can tailor the eight-speed transmission’s shift modes, steering feel, and throttle progression to your liking.

Maybe they were on the nose with all this “dynamic” talk.

Four-wheeled toy chest

Outside of extending the top of Cadillac’s range, the CT6 also serves as a launching pad for several industry-first technologies. You may have heard of GM’s Rear Camera Mirror by now, which uses one of the vehicle’s many cameras to stream video directly onto the mirror housing. This is a neat feature that’s also in the Caddy’s all-electric cousin, the Chevrolet Bolt. It’s a strange experience at first as you can’t see your reflection unless the feed is switched off (it works like a regular mirror when you do), but the increased field of view, reduced glare, a lack of obstructions from passengers and luggage make it one of the best simple gadgets I’ve seen in a car in a long time. The CT6 also boasts 360-degree Triggered Video Recording that automatically activates in the event of a crash or a break-in, and the range-topping 3.0-liter engine is the first twin-turbo powerplant of its kind to offer cylinder deactivation.

If we’re talking in-car tech though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Bose Panaray stereo. It is amazing. The most advanced automotive sound system ever from Bose, Panaray uses 34 different speakers and a specifically designed amplifier platform to present some of the clearest, most enveloping sound I’ve ever heard in a vehicle, an experience enhanced by the CT6’s whisper quiet cabin.

Related: Are car mirrors going the way of the dinosaur?

To make choosing your tunes easier, the CT6 offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. The benefits of these systems are numerous, but they stand out even more when compared to Cadillac’s infamous CUE infotainment system. For all its advancements, the platform just isn’t intuitive, it’s still too slow, and its lack of real buttons will likely frustrate anyone born before the turn of the millennium. However, the standard 10.2-inch screen can now be controlled with a touchpad located on the center console, and although it’s not as responsive as something you’ll find on a laptop, it’s a nice addition nonetheless.

The Rear Camera Mirror is one of the best gadgets I’ve seen in a car in a long time.

The last and final flaw I’ll mention comes in the back. Cadillac mentioned the 7 Series and S-Class as competitive targets for top end CT6s, but if we compare rear seat experiences between the three, the Cadillac — even the $83,465 Platinum model — falls quite short. The dual 10-inch screens allow Google Chromecast streaming and mobile device connectivity through various ports, but outside of a few massage functions, the retractable units mainly work as displays. Need a mobile office? Better bring your computer.

Conclusion

Despite these drawbacks, the Cadillac CT6 is without question an engaging, evolved, well-designed, and well-built machine. However, as is the case with many First Drives, I only got a taste of the luxury car’s potential. A plug-in hybrid variant is on the way but won’t arrive until next year, and General Motors’ Super Cruise system — an autopilot-like feature that allows drivers to ride hands-free on the highway — won’t be available until 2017 as well. The sedan will also add a twin-turbo V8 option eventually. So while I didn’t get to tinker with everything the CT6 has to offer, the 2016 model still offers a tech-packed experience with style and entertainment to boot, both as a passenger and as a driver.

Cadillac says another flagship positioned above the CT6 will arrive around 2020 to extend the brand’s reach even further upward. Until then, though, we have one hell of an appetizer.

Highs

  • Aggressive starting price
  • Long, gorgeously sculpted body
  • “Bank vault-quiet” cabin almost lives up to its name
  • 34-speaker Panaray stereo is sublime
  • Feels much smaller than it is

Lows

  • Rear seat experience falls short of top-tier competition
  • CUE infotainment system still feels slow