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Star for the North: The All Wheel Drive 2005 Cadillac STS-4

Seems as if every other article in the Auto pages is proclaiming the passing of one or another of the old Big Three. And it’s true; 2004 was not a good year for American auto manufacturers. General Motors and Ford have been hit particularly hard, as for years executives have been forced to watch sales and profits drop while costs escalate, in part due to expensive unionized labor and pension obligations. The one bright spot–those profitable and popular full-size trucks and SUVs–are suddenly out of favor, as fuel prices skyrocket. Good news in the domestic ranks is rare these days.

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Not every General Manager is crying into his or her drink, however. Cadillac has lately proven itself the bright spot in the GM portfolio. Since 2003, the brand’s resurgence has been well-documented. The entry-level CTS, SRX midsize SUV, and XLR roadster have all received critical acclaim and sparked a modest sales rebound, while the new high-performance V-Series line casts a halo effect across the board. Even the preproduction DTS we recently previewed seemed poised to snag new sales. On the heels of such success, the STS midsize sedan is newly redesigned to compete with the best in the upscale market. After a few days working on the west coast, we wanted to hit the road in this newest offering from America’s gold standard brand.’ We asked GM to meet us in San Francisco with an STS for a few days, and as another event wrapped up, we sped away from downtown in Cadillac’s best auto ever.

Since the paradigm-shifting 1975 model, Sevilles have been not just Cadillac’s best, but world-class, automobiles. Angular and aggressive, strong and sexy, the STS speaks Cadillac’s new ‘Art & Science’ design language perhaps more coherently than any model that preceded it. The trademark ‘blade taillights’ reappear, with stacked, rectangular headlamps flanking a gaping chrome grille. As creased and formal as a newly dry-cleaned tuxedo, our tester was incongruously swathed in subtly brash metallic paint, the color reminiscent of fresh blood. It was an effective combination–part dignified bearing and part sporty flair.

We took the STS down the Pacific Coast highway to Carmel, a high-toned town where Clint Eastwood once wore the Mayor’s sash, neon signs and fast-food outlets are outlawed, and ‘rich’ is a relative term. Needless to say, the STS fit right in. Passerby reactions were uniformly admiring, even from the owner of such a heady machine as a new CLS500–this particular woman blanched when she learned how little our Caddy costs; perhaps she’d overpaid? Not surprising, but for those who enjoy getting a good deal, such acclaim is certainly agreeable.

What was surprising, however, was the drive. One of our favorite locales for testing cars, the coastal roads in California wind through some phenomenal countryside–and the powerful and composed STS turned out to be a blast in the twisties. Two-lane blacktops twisting through mountains and alongside cliffs would seem unsuited to a Cadillac sedan–the brand’s reputation is of boulevard cruisers and lazy freeway masters–but, due surely in part to the optional Sport package on our tester, the Nurburgring-tuned STS made short work of the decreasing-radius turns and tight corners we encountered. With optional MagneRide shock absorbers that vary their response rate and stiffness up to one thousand times per second, the STS refused to be upset by any road surface. 18″ rims and wide rubber lent prodigious amounts of grip, helping the high-speed Caddy hang on in turns that might’ve thrown a Porsche a decade ago. Strong brakes made high-speed stops a no-brainer.

Also aiding the Caddy’s roadholding was the all-wheel-drive system our STS-4 tester came equipped with, which gives a surefooted feel even in the rain. One niggle, though–the awd system and the standard Electronic Stability Control didn’t get along so well. The calibrations were perhaps not quite fully sorted-out; the ESC sometimes cut power in basic, low-speed U-turns, as the awd system bound up or spun a wheel slightly.

Our STS’ acceleration was similarly superior. Although this isn’t the top-dog STS–the 440hp supercharged STS-V holds that honor–the optional V8 in our tester was fully up to the task of keeping up with manic traffic on California freeways. With 320 hp on tap, 60 mph comes up in six seconds. Skinflints will prefer the V6-equipped STS, with 255 horses.

Cadillac may have made their greatest progress, however, inside. The requisite leather and wood are present, in a stark, modern layout that’s miles beyond anything GM has previously offered. Plastics no longer seem sourced from Rubbermaid; everything, down to the simplest of switchgear, seems expensive and solid. Moreover, the STS is a technological wonder, boasting gadgets both useful and gimmicky. We especially liked the Head-Up Display that broadcasts road speed, engine revs, radio stations or CD tracks and navigational directions onto the windshield directly in the driver’s line of sight. We were particularly surprised to find that the STS’s touch-screen navigation system is GM’s best yet, even if it does still send you out of your way occasionally. Plus, it’ll play DVDs if the car’s in Park–and the virtual buttons for controlling the audio system on the screen proved a simpler solution to the ‘too many gadgets’ problem than BMW’s iDrive or similar mouse-driven methods. Bluetooth, voice control, park assist, remote starting and hot/cold seats round out the gadgetry.

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It’s interesting to note that this car is not sized in line with its competition. Like most luxury marques, the Cadillac fold includes three distinct sizes of four-doors, but the brand’s all-American “supersize it” philosophy means each–smaller, mid-size, and large–is actually bigger than the corresponding entry from the competition. So while Caddy’s smallest CTS is closer in price to BMW’s 3-Series and Mercedes’ baby C-Class, it’s actually nearer to a 5-series or E-class in price, size and appointments. Likewise, the new STS competes on paper with the German mid-sizers, but in actuality is more akin to the 7-series or S-Class uber-sedans. Viewed in that light, Cadillacs become quite an excellent value.

Fuel economy may be this car’s Achilles Heel. We averaged 14.7 mpg in mixed driving. As usual, our real-world figure proved significantly less than the EPA’s 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway estimates–but even smooth drivers achieving the official numbers will be spending a pretty penny at the pump. Without all-wheel-drive, the STS V8 gets 17/24 in the EPA’s book; the V6 actually does worse at 17/24.

Carrying a $67,575 pricetag loaded (us automotive journalists get the best of everything), the STS-4 V8 isn’t for everyone. The base model with a V8 is $20,000 less, and the V6 starts around $40,000, though. And still, any STS is thousands cheaper than German–or even Japanese–full-size luxury sedans. The Caddy can hold its own in most performance tests, and the ride is as comfy as a Cadillac’s should be. You feel like a king in this car–and with the STS’s sensual new styling, you look like royalty as well. All told, the STS is a winner–for once, buying American and buying a world-class sedan are not mutually-exclusive propositions.

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