Generations of Cadillacs have landed on these shores, their appeal lost in the translation. Can the STS get the core message across? Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
On paper, the Cadillac STS appears good value for money. Its powerful engines and generous equipment levels give it an imposing character that many of its rivals lack. But look beyond the smooth ride and stylish interior and you'll see the STS lacks the depth of engineering and commitment to quality to be called a real contender in the premium car market.
You'd love to be wrong about the Cadillac STS. I'm certain you'd be delighted to hear it was a credible rival to cars like the BMW 5 Series and the Audi A6. Instead, you're expecting a story about big power, interior quality that can only be described as lamentable and the sporting nature of Colin Montgomerie with one foot in an Indonesian bunker. If that's the case, the latest STS may well raise one or two eyebrows. The old Seville STS was never really a contender. Ranged against it were some of the tautest, sleekest cars £35,000 could buy, and faced with this barrage of excellence, this front-wheel drive transatlantic oddball smacked of Elvis Presley in his latter days - overweight, clumsy and trading on former glories. Is the launch of the latest STS akin to The King's triumphant '68 Comeback Special?
Fire up the 'Northstar' V8 of the STS and you get the classic torque shimmy of all properly powerful American cars, the engine straining at the leash. It sounds seriously potent too, idling a little reluctantly as if it's straining to get going. Even the 3.8-litre V6 has a decent engine note. The big test comes in the first few metres and the STS doesn't pass. It's often said that we Europeans fetishise steering feel, but as the key interface between man and machine, the feedback that comes through the wheel is vital in establishing trust with the car when the going gets tricky and establishing exactly what those four palm print sized patches of rubber are doing to the blacktop. The STS feels at the same time pointy but remote. Up the pace and it still feels rather numb and uninvolving. There's a lot about the STS to admire. Ignore the uncommunicative steering and the car rides and handles very well. One thing it has in common with the Jaguar XJ is the way in which it disguises its bulk so well. Drive it hard and it feels like a car the size of a Mondeo despite the fact that it tips the scales at 1826kg which is over 100kg more than a heavyweight like a Lexus GS460. The V8 certainly moves, zipping to 60mph in 6.2 seconds and the brakes are nothing short of brilliant, offering plenty of feel, excellent resistance to fade and producing stopping distances more suited to a lightweight roadster than a big saloon weighing over two tonnes with a couple of occupants and a tank of juice on board.
Design and Build
The STS' chassis has been tuned for European roads and hundreds of laps of Germany's Nurburgring race track have seen a far more focused ride and handling compromise than the bulky carriers Cadillac had previously been content to float our way. We tried both the 315PS V6 version and the 330PS V8 and came away with mixed feelings. While both engines, if anything, feel even stronger than their quoted power outputs, there's a nagging suspicion that the 'Europeanisation' of the STS isn't as comprehensive as would have been desirable or indeed necessary. American road tests are chiefly concerned with two key measures - how a car performs in lateral-g tests and how quickly it can demolish the quarter mile sprint. This has resulted in generations of cars with huge power outputs, enormous grip from jetliner-sized tyres and precious little in the way of feel and subtlety. The V8-powered STS model features Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) system.Here, the STS driver can select 'Performance' or 'Touring' mode for electronic control of the world's fastest-reacting real-time 'active' suspension system.A set of sensors continuously monitors and adjusts the stiffness of the dampers (up to 1000 times per second) to reduce roll when cornering and squatting during braking, while also providing what Cadillac call 'exceptionally responsive handling'. That's up for debate but I do agree that it delivers the smoothest of rides.
Market and Model
Inside, it feels very inviting. There's a single equipment/trim level called 'Sport Luxury' and 'premium' quality materials, fixtures and fittings are used throughout. African Sapele Pommele wood accents are featured on the steering wheel, gear selector, centre console, instrument panel and door trims.Dual-firmness foam, leather covered seats are specially tanned for a softer feel.Standard equipment includes full leather upholstery, plus eight-way power seat adjustments for the driver and front passenger (including a memory package). The heated and ventilated driver and front passenger seats also feature four-way power lumbar adjustment.The outer seating positions of the rear seats have heated cushions and there's a 15-speaker Bose Surround Sound system with an integrated six-disc CD/DVD changer. On paper, this would appear to make the STS very good value for money. These prices square up to BMW's 525i and 540i respectively and while the STS is more powerful and better equipped, it would be a tough task to convince most people that it represents the better value proposition.
Cost of Ownership
Depreciation is the main issue when dealing with STS running costs and compared to an equivalently priced BMW, well, it doesn't. You'll need to be realistic about the whole life running cost of the STS and realise there's a price to be paid for relative exclusivity. In other measures the STS also racks up some sizeable bills. Choose the 3.6-litre V6 and this 315bhp engine will return 25.9mpg and emit 258g/km of carbon dioxide while the equivalent figures for the Northstar V8-engined car are 21.4 and 314g/km respectively. A rather modest 64 litre fuel tank means you'll be no strangers at your local filling station. The fuel consumption figures aren't actually too bad when one pauses to consider the power on tap, but this is a big, heavy car and that costs.
As much as I would like to proclaim this Cadillac a genuine rival to the likes of Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar and Lexus, in all truthfulness it's a long way shy of that standard. It's pointless to pretend otherwise. It just lacks the sophistication, the depth of engineering and the commitment to quality that these manufacturers have invested in. An STS will, due to its depreciation, also prove more expensive to own over three years than any comparatively priced premium rivals. That might sound like a damning assessment and for a massive majority of the population, so it will prove. There remains a small percentage of the target market that may well have owned many or all of these premium vehicles, wants something of a completely different flavour and fancies the look of the Cadillac STS. It's a likeable, big-hearted car that has bags of character, a feature noticeably lacking in many premium cars. It will remain a niche player but a diverting one nonetheless.