Thursday, January 20, 2011

The End of an Era? 2011 Cadillac DTS Goes Home for a Day

Photo courtesy General Motors Company

This week, I rented a car to drive to Detroit for the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). When I found out that my Hertz rental car reservation was going to be fulfilled with a 2011 Cadillac DTS, I wasn't really sure what to think.

Sure, I had thoughts of retirement homes, golf courses, and drug dealers... but I realized that I hadn't really ever taken the time to consider Cadillac's top-selling, once flagship model for the vehicle that it is. Why?  Because nobody seems to know exactly what type of car the DTS is, or which competitive class it fits into.

Take, for example, a 2001 Car and Driver article entitled "Cadillac DTS vs. Jaguar S-type 4.0, M-B E430, Infiniti Q45, Lexus GS430, Audi A6 4.2 Quattro, BMW 540i." I stumbled upon this article during my intial research of the DTS, and started scratching my head as soon as I finished reading the title.  The outcome of C/D's test is inevitable: the DTS places dead last, and the 540i takes #1.

Now, I don't disagree with C/D's assessment at all; anyone who spends more than five minutes on this blog will realize that I'm a huge fan of BMW. If you told me to buy one of those seven vehicles, I'd buy the 540i without a moment's hesitation. But there's much more to consider here, so read on.

Photo courtesy General Motors Company

If General Motors could apply the same noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) standards from the DTS to their other models, they would never have gone bankrupt. One of my biggest concerns about the DTS was its build quality. Frankly,  I've driven a slew of GM vehicles recently that feel like they were assembled by a pissed-off, drunk employee in a factory with no lighting. This may sound like journalistic drama, but the cars basically felt like they were built pridelessly. 

Apparently, the factory workers at GM's Hamtramck plant (just outside Detroit) were feeling prideful... at least, they did on the day that my DTS was built. The interior materials feel as good as those in Mercedes, BMW, and maybe even Lexus products. (gasp!) My example had only 5,500 miles on it, so time will tell if the quality will hold up, but there were no rattles or squeaks to speak of. As a Ford shareholder, I searched high and low for that trademark GM "cheap plastic." 

I couldn't find any.

Once, I heard a tiny whisper of wind noise as I cruised down the highway at 90mph. I thought I found a manufacturing defect, but it was just a plastic clip from shipping that hadn't yet been removed.

The climate control, historically a Cadillac strong point, works flawlessly. The controls for the heated and cooled seats are easy to use. The seats themselves are plush, yet supportive- unlike Cadillacs of the past, where you felt like you were sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner rolling down the road. And the heated steering wheel is pretty damn cool.

There seems to be a trend on this blog: I'm only photographed from behind.

The DTS, in case you haven't yet noticed, is a colossal vehicle. About 208 inches long, it's nearly five inches longer than an Escalade, three inches longer than a BMW 740Li, and four inches longer than a Mercedes S-Class. It tips the scales at 4009 pounds, which is undeniably heavy but not overly so for its class.

The look is distinctly Cadillac, with lots of chrome bits- even the wheels are chrome on all but the base model. While Cadillac have modified their styling lines to have an arguably more Teutonic look, the DTS definitely isn't something that a car enthusiast would mistake for a 7-series or an S-class. Either you love the way it looks, or you just think it's okay. But it's not a design that is capable of grossly offending many people.

Apparently, GM didn't feel the need to modify raw sheet metal much before calling it a trunk lid.

What's more important is what is under the hood. Low on cash, GM continues to put a transmission in this car that is better suited to a motoring museum in Detroit: the 4T80 "Hydramatic" automatic transmission, with four gears. Yeah, four gears. This is basically the same transmission that GM put in your grandpa's 1980 DeVille. I could go on like other reviewers, whining and moaning about how four gears is absolutely unacceptable for a modern car. We know. It is certainly light years past its expiration date. But if I said I was unimpressed with the transmission's performance, I'd be lying.

Call me crazy, but not until you consider this. The modern cars that are being sold with six, seven, even eight-speed transmissions have much smaller engines than the DTS. Most are four or six cylinder engines, which inevitably have a narrower power band than a torquey V-8 like the Northstar. To utilize the power in this narrower band, they need more gears. Big V-8s have a wider power band and quite simply don't need all these gears- to add them would add unnecessary shifts, and more importantly, extra cost.

Of all the mechanical shortfalls on paper, the one that I feel is worth mentioning in real life is that the DTS is front wheel drive. That's pretty lame- for me, it's a dealbreaker. But after driving it, I'm not so sure I'd care. Somehow, GM has nearly eliminated all signs of torque steer, and while the car is definitely nose-heavy, this isn't a car I'd race through canyons anyway. That's what an STS - or a BMW- is for. If anything, FWD is a smart decision for the target market of this vehicle- it's infinitely better in snowy weather.

Pulling away from the rental lot, I knew immediately that I'd be good friends with the 4.6 V8. Cadillac pulled the plug on Northstar production in June or July of 2010, which I now realize was a very sad day. The numbers on the Northstar aren't wickedly impressive- 275 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. But the smoothness, availability of torque, and the sound all make up for the relative shortcomings. Fuel economy is shockingly good- I achieved nearly 20mpg despite many, many foot-to-the-floor "tests" and I hit the speed limiter more than once. (Why does GM choke Cadillacs at 108mph?)

Ignore the voice of my GPS directing me through the backroads of Northwest Ohio, and ignore the 0-60 time- that road was icy and wet. What's important here is the sound.

I understand the reasons why GM killed this engine, but I still am not sure if those reasons are adequate justification. Sure, a modern V6 can equal the Northstar's power and exceed the MPG, but how many years will it take for GM to develop and perfect this new V6 to what they have achieved with the Northstar? Only time can tell.

Driving down the highway, the Cadillac feels at home. For lack of a better descriptor, it feels like a Cadillac. The ride is luxurious and plush, isolating passengers from imperfections in the road. It's not a sport sedan, but it also won't make you seasick, even at speeds well above posted limits. I have an Escort Passport and I'm not afraid to use it. In a car this smooth, it's a necessary accessory; the only way I could tell I was doing 95mph on the broken, battered freeways of Michigan was the speed at which the scenery whisked by in the thick window glass.

Just because it's an excellent highway cruiser doesn't mean it's a tour bus on the back roads. On the way back from Detroit, I reprogrammed the GPS to exclude major motorways and instead route me through the 2-lane backroads. Being Ohio, they remained relatively straight and flat, but there were some curves here and there. The plush suspension still allows the driver to "feel" the car. I never felt isolated from controlling the vehicle at any time, and I took a few curves at speeds that weren't even remotely legal. Still, the best moments were those straight, flat, smooth roads where I could just let the Northstar sound fill the cabin and thrust the 2-ton land yacht across the Ohio cornfields at speeds you wouldn't want to try in any 1980s Cadillac.

It was fun.

It wasn't fun in the same way I'd have with a BMW or a Mercedes. But the Cadillac isn't a BMW or a Mercedes. It shouldn't try to be, either.

It's a Cadillac. And within that context- that of a big, excessive, quintessentially American luxury car- it wins.

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