2020 Cadillac CT4 Premium Luxury First Drive | What’s new, 2.7-liter turbo, driving impressions

Following an existential crisis of fits, starts, headquarters moves and executive shakeups, Cadillac has itself a new luxury sedan, the CT4. It’s a convincing driver’s car, less convincing as a luxury car, and seems a long shot to lure BMW, Audi or Mercedes owners into the Cadillac fold. For all the changes at Cadillac, that sure sounds familiar.

The 2020 Cadillac CT4 is a redesigned ATS by another, equally unmemorable name. That includes an updated rear-drive chassis with eager, enthusiast-friendly tuning and 50/50 weight distribution – always among the ATS’ top selling points. Styling is another winner, with crisp sheetmetal and Cadillac’s distinctive lighting signatures helping to differentiate this Yank from the international crowd.

Cadillac is stretching so hard to cherry-pick the CT4’s competitors, it’s possible they might slip a disc. We all remember the ATS as an able, rear-driven rival to the compact BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class et al. But to paint the CT4 in a more competitive light – even as this sedan grows nearly 5 inches in length versus the ATS – Cadillac suddenly claims that its entry-level model, regardless of what it’s now called, competes against subcompact, front-drive-based models like the BMW 2 Series Gran Coupe, Mercedes CLA-Class and Audi A3. Unfurling a tape measure reveals the truth: At a bit over 187 inches, the CT4 is actually longer than a 3 Series, C-Class, Audi A4 and every other major compact player. It’s a foot longer than an Audi A3.

So, it’s not a subcompact sedan, but there is one area where the CT4 does align with them – just not in a good way. The back seat is scrawny and hard-to-access, the result of its rear-wheel-drive platform and the sort of inefficient packaging that plagued the ATS. As such, it’s better to think of the CT4, like the Genesis G70, as an affordable alternative to the roomier 3 Series, and other German compacts. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It starts at $33,990, undercutting the Germans by many thousands, and still boasts Cadillac’s greatest competitive strength: Smartly engineered ride-and-handling that matches up against the Euros with no excuses required.

I drove the evident smart play in the CT4 lineup, the Premium Luxury 2.7 model, priced from $40,990, or $42,990 for the all-wheel-drive version I tested. (A Premium Luxury with the 237-horsepower 2.0T starts from $38,490, or $41,690 with AWD). Like the top-shelf CT4-V, it’s powered by an engine that made its debut in the Chevy Silverado and that’s getting its first tryout in a GM car: A turbocharged, 2.7-liter four-cylinder producing 310 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. That’s a considerably greater output than the pricier (though lighter) Mercedes CLA 35 and BMW M235i Gran Coupe. It’s also not far off the 325 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of the CT4-V, whose $45,490 base price is $4,500 higher than the rear-drive Premium Luxury (and also more in keeping with those Germans as well as the 365-hp Genesis G70 3.3T).

The value was highlighted when I jumped on the gas at Manhattan stoplights: Caddy cites a snappy 5.0-second burst from 0-60 mph, trailing the CT4-V by just 0.2 seconds. (The Premium Luxury AWD reaches 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, versus a claimed 4.9 for the CT4-V AWD).

For the 2.7, great gobs of torque are available from as little as 1,500 rpm. The 2.7-liter isn’t a revver, with a mere 6,000-rpm redline, and torque falls off noticeably around 5,500 rpm. But GM’s 10-speed Hydra-Matic transmission does an excellent job keeping the engine in its tightly packed sweet spot, with reasonably fast shifts either in “Drive” or via paddle shifters.

The engine is mildly gruff and droning compared with the 2.0-liter fours that proliferate in this class – a BMW TwinPower this ain’t – but big balance shafts, standard active noise cancellation and digitized engine sound through the audio system keep things in check. The 2.7’s clever, three-step sliding camshaft allows half the cylinders to shut down to save fuel.

To that end, the 2.7-liter’s EPA fuel economy sits at 20 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined (drops to 20/28/23 with AWD). That falls well short of a BMW 330i (30 mpg combined), but is comparable to the CLA 35 and better than the less powerful Genesis G70 2.0T. The CT4’s standard 2.0-liter, meanwhile, is the thriftier choice, with ratings of 23/34/27 (RWD) that are comparable to the various subcompact sedan offerings.

Despite doing without the CT4-V’s magnetic ride control, or optional limited-slip differential, the Premium Luxury made a solid impression on the rollicking two-laners north of Manhattan. Credit the Caddy’s ultra-rigid chassis, premium bushings, and old-fashioned tuning expertise for the CT4’s satisfying cocktail of ride compliance and sporty control. The cabin is isolated from the rudest shocks and sounds, yet the drive is never isolating. In fact, it’s involving. Turn the steering wheel, and the CT4 responds in kind, with a naturalness and confidence you can’t fake. Brake feel is flat-out fantastic, with a firm pedal, progressive stroke and strong initial bite.

So what’s the problem? The same-old issue that has dogged Cadillac for years: An uninspired interior that’s the stylistic equivalent of Jim Harbaugh’s Walmart khakis. Comfortable perhaps, but comfortable doesn’t cut it when other luxury cars come dressed in couture, and the latest accessories. This Premium Luxury model cost $48,865 when all was said and done, including a $1,700 combo of navigation and premium Bose Audio, and an $800 Driver Awareness package with adaptive headlamps, lane-keeping assist and other driver assistance functions. Yet, to me, almost nothing about the CT4 interior suggests you’re in a roughly $40,000-to-$50,000 sedan – and let’s be honest, most luxury buyers care more about the way a car looks, and makes them feel, than they do about driving dynamics.

If Cadillac prefers to keep company with the pint-sized players, fine: This 2.7 Premium Luxury cost as much as a Mercedes-AMG CLA 35, or a well-optioned Audi S3. They may line up decently in terms of engine specs, but even a base-model CLA 250 or Audi A3 whips this Caddy in terms of materials, distinctive aesthetics and appealing tech. The Genesis G70‘s cabin is another that reads as decisively richer than the CT4’s. If you told me this Cadillac interior came from a Buick, I’d believe it, between its budget leather and plastics, wan electronic shift wand, and dated 8-inch central screen. The updated interface within that screen is at least easy to use, with a mix of touchscreen, steering wheel/voice controls, and a redundant rotary console knob. Let’s also credit Cadillac for bringing welcome coherence to the overall design. Taking a page from BMW – including the two-tone, cream-and-black treatment of my test model – Cadillac here tones down its penchant for too many inharmonious shapes, colors and textures.

The unavailability of Cadillac’s excellent, semi-autonomous SuperCruise system – a genuine tech talking point versus the competition – continues to be inexplicable for a brand that’s treading water in the marketplace. It’s another in an endless line of GM products to launch without the latest-and-best technology. “It’s coming,” we’re told by Cadillac executives, like students who forgot their homework.

It’s not Cadillac’s fault that the CT4 is launching into the teeth of a pandemic. But it doesn’t bode well. A dwindling core of luxury-sedan buyers barely gets excited about an all-new BMW 3 Series, let alone another underdog from a Detroit brand that struggled for attention in the best of times. Sales of Cadillac’s last three sedans, the ATS, CTS and CT6, have ranged from lukewarm to disastrous.

Considering COVID’s chilling effects, I suspect the CT4 may quickly need a leg-up from incentives – rebates, interest deals, sweetheart leases – to move the metal. For buyers who have Cadillac on their radar, and are drawn to CT4’s sharp style and professional road manners, that’s not a bad thing. Considering the CT4’s overall price-to-luxury ratio, a market correction seems in order regardless.

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