The word "performance" seems to be thrown around a lot in the automotive world these days. With increasing expansion and competition within the luxury sport sedan category, manufacturers are eager to drop statistics about horsepower, torque, zero-to-60 speeds, and other numbers to woo (and maybe even slightly intimidate) potential buyers. But specifications alone can't convey the true spirit of a car; as Aristotle said, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So it makes sense that the ideal road test subjects the car to a wide range of variables: twisty turns of varying camber, long straightaways, elevation changes, stop-and-go traffic, and many other factors.
But finding the opportunity for such a test can be tough, even for automotive journalists. While we always look for the chance to go fast, brake hard, and put a car through the ringer as much as we can, there is only so much testing we can safely and legally do on public roads. And that's why, during a recent press event for the all-new 2008 Cadillac CTS, I was pleased to find that not only did Cadillac provide the opportunity to drive a variety of terrain at length, but offered the chance to test a performance car the way it should truly be tested: on the race track. And not just any track, but Laguna Seca, arguably one of the best tracks in the country.
Our two-day road trip began in San Jose, Calif. The group, which consisted of several journalists and a handful of Cadillac execs and communications folks, paired off into a line of waiting Cadillac CTSs for the drive down to Carmel Valley. My car, which I shared with another freelance writer, had a 3.6 liter direct injection V6 engine, all-wheel drive, and the middle version of the CTS' three suspension options (known as FE2, although when asked, Cadillac reps couldn't remember what the FE stood for). Our route was carefully planned out for us ahead of time, but since I was the "local," I only half paid attention to the directions. The navigation system proved helpful; it loaded directions quickly, had a user-friendly interface, and was easy to read. And although we took a different path, we soon arrived at Laguna Seca with the rest of the group.
After a detailed discussion about various powertrain, suspension, and tire options, they turned us loose on the track. Two instructors from Laguna's Skip Barber racing school were on hand to conduct the session, one of whom graciously sat in the passenger seat to help me with my technique as I took my laps in the "track ready" CTS with rear-wheel drive, a six-speed automatic transmission, and the performance-oriented FE3 suspension. Although I was skeptical about an automatic transmission holding up on the track, I found that the gears changed surprisingly quickly, shifted at higher revs to provide ample power, and held on through the turns. The brakes also bit nicely before turn-in, and the tires were plenty sticky for a passenger car. Granted, this version of the car wasn't going to win any World Challenge races, but for a stock production car, it was full of pleasant surprises.
Later that night, we dined al fresco and traded stories about our experience at Laguna. Jim Taylor, general manager of Cadillac, explained that when his team was planning the CTS media drive, it wasn't easy to convince the powers that be to take the cars to Laguna Seca. But he got their attention when he spoke in terms they could understand: He told them that driving Laguna Seca was to a car enthusiast what playing Pebble Beach was to an avid golfer. Apparently that did the trick.
The next day, we spent nearly six hours and 180 miles on some of the most narrow, windy and deserted roads in central California. I had the pleasure of driving the first leg with Eric Clough, Cadillac interior designer. We discussed the interior design process in general, as well as some finer points, like why the sunroof cover was thin and translucent instead of rigid and opaque (answer: head room). We took blind corners and off-camber turns with ease, and were able brake quickly for chickens and families of quail who were crossing the road. (One of those chickens wasn't so lucky a few cars later, however.)
Later on, my driving partner was Kevin Smith, manager of Cadillac communications. We talked at length about Cadillac's presence in the Speed World Challenge series. Kevin explained that Cadillac deliberately chose to race production cars, as opposed to sponsoring, say, an open-wheel team, in order to translate what they do on the track as closely as possible into their customer cars.
Not only is the CTS deeply rooted in motorsport, but it's the first Cadillac model tested on the famed Nurburgring, considered by many to be the most technically demanding track in the world. European car manufacturers have long tested their vehicles on "the Ring," and now a new generation of American automakers is realizing the prestige and importance associated with this benchmark. John Zinser, vehicle line director for the rear-wheel platform at General Motors, says the extensive testing at the Nurburgring wasn't designed just to impress U.S. customers, it was to help convince potential buyers around the world that Cadillac is on par with other performance brands. In his words, the company's goal is to get the CTS on people's lists.
As our tour ended back in Silicon Valley, I'd developed a newfound respect for the latest version of the CTS. Cadillac seems to have hit the mark on a car that's luxurious to drive, yet can still stick the corkscrew up there with its European peers.
For more on the 2008 Cadillac CTS, see CNET's First Look.