First Drive: 2016 Cadillac CT6

Until recently, the dilapidated buildings and seedy side streets of downtown Los Angeles were avoided by locals and ignored by tourists. Now the area is experiencing something of a renaissance. Neglected buildings are under renovation, trendy restaurants and boutiques are proliferating, there's a car-free farmer's market and construction sites dominate almost every block. The popular Last Bookstore is a big attraction, the Broad Art Museum and Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall are eye-popping centres of culture and design. It's been a long time coming, but downtown LA's getting some serious traction.

The CT6 is nothing short of the best the company can do.

Maybe that's why Cadillac decided to base its 2016 Cadillac CT6 launch in the heart of it. Cadillac's gaining traction, too, or at least it's making a convincing case for respect. A venerable marque, once the “Standard of the World,” Cadillac is battling to reinvent itself. The latest weapons are quality, authenticity, design and craftsmanship, and while the critically acclaimed ATS and CTS sedans were convincing shots across the bow, the new CT6 is now the big gun.

A true flagship or “halo” car, the CT6 – starting at $61,295 for the base CT6 2.0 Turbo and topping out at $99,280 for the CT6 Twin-Turbo 3.0L V6 Platinum – targets a small but critical market both domestically and internationally. It's a big sedan, an “executive” sedan, for big spenders and key influencers. Its competitors are the Mercedes-Benz E- and S-Class, BMW's 5 and 7 Series, and the Audi A6 and A8. In proportion, the CT6 uniquely resides between each of these formidable pairs, leaning toward the larger model. A result of General Motors' multi-billion dollar investment in Cadillac, the CT6 is nothing short of the best the company can do. If luxury buyers don't respond positively to this, Cadillac may as well pack up and go home.

Addressing Canadian and a large contingent of Chinese journalists in Downtown Los Angeles at the swank Level hotel, a blue-jeaned Rich Brekus, Cadillac Global Director of Product Strategy, explained that the CT6 will match or exceed the spaciousness and elegance of the old-style luxury cars, but that it is, “not trying to duplicate anything that already exists. It's fun to drive,” he said, “agile, not staid, not bulky, not pretentious.”

This is Cadillac's “Dare Greatly” mantra. It refers, I think, to not being constrained by the past. “The CT6,” says Brekus, “is 100 percent forward looking.”

Okay, then. What does it have going for it?

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A couple of Australians, for a start. Executive Chief Engineer Travis Hester arrived from General Motors' Holden division and is responsible for the CT6's new “Omega” architecture. The car rides on a new body and platform featuring a steel occupant cell with all surrounding panels and castings fabricated from aluminum. The entry-level model is over 450 kg lighter than an S-Class and is also lighter than a 5 Series or A6, lighter even than the Cadillac CTS.

The aluminum body is assembled using only 13 castings, dramatically reducing the number of component parts each section formerly required. The front body hinge pillar, for example (the section between the front wheel and the dashboard) is a single casting replacing 35 separate components that were previously used. The approach is designed to maximize rigidity, agility and quietness on the road and features several new, patented bonding technologies (aluminum spot welding, for instance) used throughout the car.

Also contributing to the car's nimble handling objective is Active Rear Steering that will turn the rear wheels up to 3.5 percent at slow speeds. This is especially useful when making U-turns or turning in small areas. At highway speeds, the rear wheels will turn “out of phase” (by up to 2.75 degrees) with the front wheels, designed to make the CT6 particularly responsive on twisting roads.

Three drive modes – Sport, Touring and Snow/Ice – modulate suspension, throttle and transmission response to further optimize vehicle dynamics. “The objective,” states Mr. Hester, “was a big car that doesn't feel big on the road.”

Three wheel sizes are available: 18, 19 and 20 inches. When equipped with the 20-inch wheels, all-wheel drive, active rear steering, and magnetic ride, a true “active chassis” is possible. Every wheel variably powers, steers and damps.

Motive power is delivered via a choice of three drivetrains. The rear-driven 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder makes 265 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. The all-new 3.6L V6 delivers 335 hp and 285 lb-ft torque and a new 3.0L twin-turbo V6 makes 404 hp and 400 lb-ft torque. Both V6 models are all-wheel drive and all models are fitted with an all-new eight-speed transmission.

Another Australian, Executive Director of Design Andrew Smith, also arrives from GM Holden. Mr. Smith, who has a hand in vehicle appearance, materials, proportions, colours and even naming, is a person well pleased with what he and Cadillac have wrought. He points straight away to the “big dash-to-axle” ratio (the distance between the dashboard and the front axle). “All designers go nuts for this,” he beams. “It's long; it elongates the car, you can stretch the lines.” It's emphasized by pushing the front wheels forward, creating a very short front overhang and a very long wheelbase (3,109 mm to be exact).

This dash-to-axle ratio is perhaps the key feature of the CT6 design. Visually, it affects all other areas of the car, enabling the CT6 to better imply power, speed, balance and refinement. The lines are simple and clean; the car is long and low; there are no extraneous bumps and bulges. Due to the long wheelbase, the doors – both front and rear – are also large, enabling ease of entry and exit for driver and passengers, and creating visual symmetry in profile.

The CT6 is particularly striking in front and rear three-quarter views, from the front and from the side. The rear is perhaps less interesting and distinctive (I mistook a CTS for a CT6, such is the similarity).

One thing the CT6 is not is excessive. Chrome, for instance, is barely evident. Some minor accents on the wheels give a little flash, but overall, this may finally be Cadillac's post-chrome era. The interior of the CT6, for example, happily seems to have none. There it's all genuine wood, brushed aluminum, hand-stitched leather, Alcantara, and carbon fibre. Even the plastic and rubber looks precision made and expensive.

In fact, the entire interior is a model of taste and refinement. And comfort, especially for rear-seat passengers who can experience vast legroom and Extended Comfort heated and cooled massaging seats that recline and cocoon as required. There's also an infotainment system with high-definition displays that reside in the rear seatbacks when not in use (all wi-fi and HDMI enabled, of course). Climate control is quad-zone, with a secondary HVAC system and ionizing air purification.

Oh, and the 34-speaker Bose “Panaray” audio system (okay, maybe that is excessive) is ready to deliver aural excellence when required. The CT6 is not short of occupant indulgences.

The driver gets the latest version of CUE (Cadillac User Experience), Cadillac's much criticized electronic interface, now featuring a 10.2-inch display and a haptic touchpad on the centre console. There's also a rear camera mirror, whereby the digital image in the 'mirror' generated from the rear camera covers a much wider field of view than a conventional mirror (you can also record the image from the front, rear and side cameras). The electronic multi-display panel for the driver is fully configurable and there's an available head-up display as well.

Advanced Night Vision is also available, along with Advanced Park Assist that integrates automatic braking into the parking process. Pedestrian Collision Mitigation will brake the car if you don't.

But it's on the road where the Cadillac CT6 really exceeds expectations. Initially, we were chauffeured around Los Angeles, visiting some of the new downtown “hot spots” from the perspective of a rear-seat passenger. It gives you time to examine, touch, operate and experience some of the CT6's many occupant amenities.

Even with the front seat set for a taller driver, the generous rear seat legroom is immediately evident. Those looking for rear passenger comfort will not be disappointed, but the car is also wide. Very wide. Three adults can easily be accommodated, but two will be pampered. One negative experience, however, was trying to fasten the seatbelt. For some reason the rear seatbelt receptacle is buried deep in the seat, making it almost impossible to easily buckle up. This was my experience in all the CT6s in which I was a rear-seat passenger (I had no difficulty in a CTS).

One item I kept returning to was the rear sunshade system. It's manually operated to the side windows; power operated for the rear window. These are small things, not really important compared with other components like the seats or the steering wheel or the engine. But they are so finely crafted – the way they fit so precisely into the door and operate so smoothly – that for me they became exemplars for the level of quality throughout the vehicle. I guess my thinking was that if Cadillac is going to spend so much time on this humble component, doesn't that imply the same commitment to quality throughout?

Examining other features of the CT6 from my rear seat vantage point, I thought that maybe it did.

Check out the fit and finish of the front door pillars, the stitching on the seats, the construction of the armrests, the finish of the map pockets, the fit of the carpet, the precision of the assembly. Every component seems to have been benchmarked for excellence. Nothing looks or feels cheap or substandard. Outside, examine the door handles, the LED lighting, the wheels, the shut lines. Same thing.

Driving the CT6 does not disappoint. The car is wonderful to drive, the suspension absorbing road irregularities but still conveying connection to the surface, the steering light and responsive. We were on twisting mountain (well, 4,000 feet mountains) roads in San Diego county, and honestly, it was mostly left, right, left, right, climb, descend for five hours. But the CT6 is capable and entertaining to drive, both engines that I experienced offering prodigious power (the twin-turbo really shines when passing) but the eight-speed transmission is perhaps the unsung hero in this powertrain. It just works right with you, shifting up through the gears with precision, purpose and bite; downshifting as if it wrote the book on heeling and toeing. Sweet.

We ran in Touring and Sport modes. They're different and you can feel it. Sport is immediate across the range of driving dynamics. It's engaged; it's all about maximizing response (within big sedan parameters, of course). However, we mostly used Touring. Handling is still sharp, the engine still delivers, the transmission happily responds as designed, but the ride is more agreeable on this sometimes irregular surface. Note that this is not a car that leans, floats or labours in any mode.

At the more mundane level, I was not a fan of the electronic rear-view mirror. Maybe it takes time to get used to, but I found I couldn't process the image quickly enough. I'd glance at the mirror, then find myself having to take a couple of seconds to understand what I was seeing. Using the conventional mirror, a quick glance (as usual) was all it took (in the attached picture, however, the image seems fine).

CUE has improved. Frankly, I'm happy to report this as I know people who would not buy a Cadillac because of this interface. It's now easier to operate, easier to navigate. But like many such systems, you'll want to get better acquainted with your steering wheel if you'd like more familiar (and precise) buttons, knobs and switches. As far as voice activation is concerned, it's available, but I have it candidly from Mr. Brekus that it's still, “a work in progress.” That doesn't surprise me.

And what about all those Chinese journalists? Cadillac is doing well in China, and expects big sales gains there. In China, we're told, most CT6s will feature a chauffeur behind the wheel (hence the attention to rear-seat roominess and amenities). While US Cadillac sales reached approximately 170,000 in 2015 (down from a high of 235,000 in 2005), Chinese sales grew strongly to 80,000 and are expected to account for half the projected sales of 500,000 Cadillacs by 2020. If you can pry people out of their BMWs, that is...

But as far as the CT6 is concerned, the quality's there. Now it's all about brand.

The 2016 Cadillac CT6 will be available in March, 2016. It's built in Detroit-Hamtramck, Michigan.

Canadian pricing for the CT6 is as follows:
CT6 2.0L Turbo – Starting at $61,245
CT6 3.6L V6 with AWD – Starting at $63,570
CT6 3.0L Twin Turbo V6 with AWD – Starting at $73,103
CT6 Platinum – Starting at $94,620
CT6 3.0L Twin Turbo V6 with AWD Platinum – Starting at $99,280
Destination freight charge is $1,950.

The fuel consumption ratings currently available are:
2.0L RWD – 11.0/7.6/9.5 (city/hwy/comb)
3.0L Twin Turbo AWD – 13.0/9.0/11.2 (city/hwy/comb)

Until recently, the dilapidated buildings and seedy side streets of downtown Los Angeles were avoided by locals and ignored by tourists. 1/28/2016 7:15:56 AM