Cadillac STS

When you plant your flag at the top of the hill, there's nowhere to go but down. As the self-proclaimed "standard of the world," Cadillac spent the '80s and '90s in free fall, with problem-plagued products and lackluster, dated designs that discouraged longtime owners and alienated a new generation of luxury buyers. These days, Caddy lags behind the likes of Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz in terms of both prestige and sales.

That said, things are looking up. Its Escalade is the hip- hopper's SUV of choice, and though the shape is consciously controversial, the edgy CTS sedan shows Cadillac once again willing to push design boundaries. For 2005, the automaker unveils an all-new version of its flagship Seville, perhaps the most critical component yet in Caddy's comeback.

Actually, the name Seville is abandoned in favor of the Euro-sounding STS, a shift that suggests that the new sedan is again in the big leagues with imports like Mercedes' E-Class, BMW's 5 Series and the Lexus LS430. It also underscores some dramatic technical changes. STS stretches the highly regarded CTS platform, meaning a return to rear-wheel drive and an optional all-wheel-drive system, the first ever in a Caddy passenger car. It's a definite plus for performance-minded drivers, as well as those in the Snow Belt.

During a long day of driving though the hills and dales of central California, the '05 STS proved a solid match for its import rivals. Forget the soft, floaty ride that long defined American luxury. The STS suspension was tuned on the Nurburgring, the grueling German road course. The new sedan is firm, able to confidently negotiate tight turns, yet it's also a great long-distance cruiser, its magnetic ride control adapting to changing road and driving conditions 1,000 times a second.

The big Northstar V-8 was quick and responsive with a satisfying roar. But the smaller V-6 was no wimp, either, and may have been the biggest surprise of the day. For those who want top-line performance, a limited-edition STSv is in the works. Part of Cadillac's new V-series—as in velocity—it's expected it to top 400 horsepower.

STS continues the evolution of Cadillac's "Art & Science" design theme. There are plenty of sharp edges and the fin-like vertical head and taillights. But overall, there's more crown—designerspeak for curvature—making it appear more refined. STS is distinctive, but not ungainly. If there's a weak link, it's inside. Cadillac has significantly upgraded the interior with better materials and newer technology, but the cabin's not yet up to the "standard of the world."

On the whole, though, the sedan is a delightful surprise. It reveals that the "new" Cadillac is more than a one-hit wonder. Those who've written off domestic luxury cars, be advised: ignore the 2005 STS only at your own peril.


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