Cadillac DTS embraces big-car formula as DeVille replacement

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2006 Cadillac DTS is a modern technology-laden version of the big American luxury liner, a boat by any other name, DeVille.

With a hint of Cadillac’s current edgy styling, including a vertical headlamp theme and some sharply creased sheetmetal, the big Cadillac sedan is still the DeVille that a majority of Cadillac buyers have known and loved for more than half a century. Gone is the storied DeVille name, but the essence of the DeVille is there in the DTS from its softer ride to its spacious interior.

We like the direction Cadillac has taken over the past few years toward a more European look — an edgy design theme that was a big risk a few years ago, but has turned into a winner for the General Motors luxury brand. And we like the sports-sedan performance and handling engineered into the new stable of rear-wheel drive offerings.

It’s a 180 degree turn from the ’80s and ’90s when the once-proud “standard of the world” was loaded with nothing but soft-suspension front-wheel drive cars, and was overtaken in sales by an upstart Japanese brand.

The smallish CTS is among the best luxury mid-size sedans for the money, in our opinion. The bigger STS, introduced last year, is an excellent rendition of a family sport sedan. And the XLR hardtop convertible proves that General Motors can build exotic and exciting rear drive cars even if it started life as a Corvette.

If other General Motors divisions had been able to upset the corporate apple cart in the same way the Cadillac team did a half dozen years ago, the world’s biggest auto company might not be in so much difficulty today.

But, you may be asking, why did Cadillac “sell out” on its bread and butter sedan when it came time for a new version? Why does it continue with a front-wheel drive layout and why does it still proffer a ride more of the last century and less like the cutting-edge Mercedes, BMW and Cadillac sedans of the 21st Century? Why hasn’t the big DeVille been transformed into a Lexus LS430 or a Mercedes S-Class?

The answer, really, is simple. Even as Cadillac has pushed forward with innovative products, its core customers have voted with their pocketbook, and the vote tally shows that more than half of them still favor the DeVille for whatever reason.

Let’s look at the vote totals: Cadillac sold 80,911 DeVilles in 2003 and 74,710 in 2004, more than half of the division’s total car sales both years. For 2005, the DeVille and the DTS together are selling at a 62,000-unit pace for the year, not a bad figure considering the changeover.

So Cadillac has decided not to compete head-to-head with Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes and Jaguar in the large luxury sedan segment. It has decided to give its older buyers what they want, a modern version of a traditional big American luxury car.

The criticism that the new Caddy is not what is considered the blueprint of the modern luxury sedan is valid. Cadillac did not use that blueprint. But that doesn’t make the new DTS any less valuable and necessary.

Cadillac’s older customers may be dwindling, but they are still there in significant numbers to justify the new DTS. There’s enough diversity in the Cadillac lineup — including several hot sport utility vehicles — to give the elders what they want. In addition to its fresh exterior look, the interior fit and finish of the DTS has been elevated with tighter build tolerances, and sections that fit together in a seamless fashion. The Cadillac leather, which provides the basis for the best smelling interiors in the business, is still there, as is some well-done burl walnut trim pieces.

The DTS is the recipient of some of GM’s most advanced structural technology highlighted by an all-new front cradle design, with the engine mounted to the cradle, and the cradle mounted to the body rails. This bit of workmanship plus laminated side glass and triple door seals provides the DTS with an exceptionally quiet interior, certainly quiet enough to rival more expensive products from Lexus and Audi.

We believe the typical DTS buyer will be pleased with the changes, and the numbers prove that out. But then they may shake their heads when they discover that the engine and transmission choices are the same ones that have been found in the DeVille for years, according to some pundits. But we don’t believe it. That particular buyer wants what they want.

Even if it seems General Motors is cutting corners by keeping the same drivetrain — the Northstar V-8 is still an excellent engine — it is not exactly shortchanging buyers of the 2006 car, but the competition puts new and refined engine and transmission technology in their up-level vehicles with every design change and that’s what have some of our colleagues questioning the decision. We’ll say it again, check the price; check the buyer.

The same four-speed electronically controlled automatic that has propelled the previous iteration lives on. It shifts seamlessly and few owners will probably care how many shift points are involved. Or know the difference and not caring that virtually all luxury cars are outfitted with five, six and even seven gears these days.

We like the new technology since the extra gears provide brisker acceleration while yielding a small measure of improved gas mileage. Even DTS buyers deserve that much.

The engine choice is the 4.6-liter Northstar V-8 generating 275 horsepower. The horsepower is boosted to 291 in the performance edition. Those are the same numbers found in the previous edition DeVille.

Both engines provide satisfying if not stellar performance. Figure 0 to 60 in about 8 seconds in the standard version and about 7.1 seconds with the performance package. Just how much more does the buyer of this car really want or need?

The DTS comes loaded with amenities in four trim levels — I, II, III and Performance — with starting prices of $41,195, $43,695, $47,695 and $49,695. And GM’s new Value Pricing has probably brought those sticker prices down. Even so the prices are right in comparison to the Lexus LS, or any of the Euro’s at the same level.

Standard stuff on all models includes six airbags including side curtains, GM’s advanced stability and traction control system called StabiliTrak, tri-zone automatic climate control, leather upholstery, OnStar emergency system, Bi-Xenon headlamps and a full range of power features.

Some of the options Cadillac buyers may find interesting are heated and cooled front seats and a heated rear seat, rain-sensing wipers, an outstanding Bose audio system, DVD navigation, automatic dimming headlights, adaptive cruise control and Magnetic Ride Control suspension. All managed well without a complex, multi-functional control knob.

Our Performance edition test car was loaded with most of the good stuff Cadillac offers for $53,885. Extras included the navigation system and 18-inch chrome wheels.

For those people who still value V-8 power, a well-maintained ride, luxuriously cozy leather chairs, scads of stretch-out room and a library-quiet cabin, then the DTS may be the ticket. And being able to drive off the lot for well under 50 grand is an added incentive to visit a Cadillac store. Pundits be darned.