- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

It’s as true with cars as it is with people — the flashiest ones create the biggest buzz.

So when an automobile manufacturer brings out a new model, the top-of-the-line vehicles with the most powerful engines and the longest list of special features are the ones we hear about the most.

But something often happens on the way from the sizzle to the steak. Buyers put the vehicle into perspective with the rest of their lives (and bank accounts) and start separating the “must-haves” from the “it-would-be-nice-but” features. This is especially true of the premium brands, where the financial climb from a base V-6-powered car to the fanciest V-8 models can be quite steep.

According to edmunds.com, owners of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedans opt for the V-6-powered cars over the more muscular V-8s by a 3-to-1 margin. The same is true — and by similar margins — for those who choose Mercedes competitors — Audi A6, BMW 5 series and Jaguar S-Type.

Here in the United States, Cadillac, striving mightily to return from standard to Standard of the World, has recently introduced a midsize sedan to compete with the world-class, midsize sedans from Europe.

The rear-wheel-drive STS, which replaces the front-wheel-drive Seville, is also powered by either a V-6 and V-8 engine. Not surprisingly, V-8 models were the biggest sellers in the early going by a 3-to-1 margin.

But that has already changed. Gina Proia, General Motors assistant regional public relations manager, reports that sales of V-6-powered STS sedans have risen to about 55 percent of the total and GM expects that number to increase to 70 percent.

Unless they need optional all-wheel drive, available now on V-8 cars but not on the V-6 models until the 2006 model year, buyers who stick to the lower rungs of Cadillac’s pricing ladder should not be disappointed.

The V-6 STS is as attractive and boldly distinctive as its V-8 counterpart, has plenty of pep, and handles a bit more crisply because of a better (52/48) front-to-rear weight ratio. Overall, its driving characteristics are pretty much the equal of the Europeans.

The gem under the hood is Cadillac’s new V-6 engine, which generates 255 horsepower and 252 foot-pounds of torque. It is smooth and quiet unless urged into the upper reaches of its power curve.

It’s also reasonably economical, with an EPA rating of 17 miles per gallon city and 24 mpg highway using regular gas. Over several hundred miles of varied conditions I actually averaged between 18 and 25 mpg.

Mated to a five-speed automatic transmission — the only one available — it will catapult the STS from a stop to 60 mph in about seven seconds.

That doesn’t match the 5.9-second time possible with the 320-horsepower V-8 engine, but how meaningful is the difference in normal driving conditions?

The smooth-shifting automatic transmission has a manual override, a feature that enthusiasts will enjoy because it gives them more control of the car when exploiting its excellent handling abilities.

But what will make the driving dynamics particularly appealing to U.S. motorists is the balance between sharp handling and a comfortable ride.

A reasonably compliant suspension is important to anyone who travels regularly over U.S. roads pockmarked by heavy trucks and winter weather.

The basic ingredient in the chassis dynamics recipe for all STS variants is the rigid Sigma platform, adapted for STS use after earning praise as the foundation for the smaller Cadillac CTS, the CTS-V performance sedan and the SRX luxury sport-utility vehicle.

Combine Sigma with all-independent suspension, precise rack-and-pinion steering, powerful four-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch wheels and traction and stability control and Cadillac has come up with a car offering more than a touch of world-class drivability.

Inside, the fit and finish provide the opulence required of true luxury cars, although some will find the overall ambiance is a tad below European standards.

Oddly — and the only serious complaint of note — the STS is bigger than its European counterparts, but its rear-seat room is tight for passengers taller than 6 feet.

Nobody will find the STS lacking in standard convenience features. Two in particular stand out.

The first is keyless access, which is starting to become more common in premium vehicles. It allows the driver to lock and unlock doors and trunk and start and stop the engine without removing the key fob from pocket or purse. It is even possible to leave the key in a special compartment and perform all functions needed to operate, open and lock it.

The other is remote start, which allows the driver to start the engine from as far away as 200 feet by pressing a button on the key fob.

The car will run for 10 minutes unless the process is initiated again. It’s a great feature for people living in exceptionally cold or hot climates. Anyone concerned about hit men will no doubt like it, too.

Other standard amenities include leather upholstery, eucalyptus wood trim, eight-way power front seats, dual-zone climate control, eight-speaker sound system, cruise control, auto on-off headlights, fog lights, outside mirror defroster and automatic dimming inside mirror.

Base price of the STS V-6 sedan is $40,300. The luxury package, which upgrades the sound system and adds even more convenience features, costs an extra $2,390. Add $1,200 for a sunroof and $695 for shipping and the total comes to $44,585.

Yes, you can add a navigation system and other features that will bump the price up to $50,000 or more. But that still is less than comparably equipped competitors, and a far cry from a fully loaded, all-wheel-drive V-8 sedan that can run more than $69,000.

The STS, V-6 or V-8, is proof that Cadillac is dead serious about returning its name to the roster of world leaders.

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