It only seems as if Cadillac has been struggling in the luxury compact segment since Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded the city of Detroit in 1701. It hasn’t been quite that long, of course, but it has been nearly 40 years since General Motors’s luxury brand introduced the Cimarron to take on BMW’s and Audi’s compacts. The gussied-up Chevrolet Cavalier was such a flop that it’ll forever be on the list of legendary automotive embarrassments along with Ford’s Edsel, Pontiac’s Aztek, and the Aston Martin Cygnet.
Bringing up the C-word in a review of the 2020 Cadillac CT4 may seem unfair. The Cimarron was such a debacle that Caddy licked its wounds for nearly 30 years, surrendering the small-luxury-car segment to BMW, Mercedes, and Audi. In 2013 it finally jumped back in with the rear-wheel-drive ATS, and that’s really where the story of the CT4 begins. Cadillac says its latest, smallest, and least expensive sedan is all new, but that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s more like a heavily refreshed ATS.
New Mission, Same Old Chassis
While the ATS attempted to go head to head with the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class compacts, Cadillac says it is ceding that role of the new and larger CT5, which replaces the CTS. The CT4 has been reassigned to take on the front-wheel-drive-based subcompacts from the premium brands such as the Audi A3, BMW 2-series Gran Coupe, and Mercedes A-class.
That makes the CT4 the only rear-drive sedan in the class. Its chassis is carried over from the ATS, along with the majority of its exterior dimensions, including an unchanged 109.3-inch wheelbase. Squint, and it still looks a lot like its predecessor, but Cadillac says all of its sheetmetal is new, and it has grown 4.4 inches in overall length. Its base powertrain is also familiar. Luxury, Premium Luxury, and Sport trims get the same 237-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter with eight-speed automatic transmission used in the base CT5.
Cadillac has shelved the 3.6-liter V-6 as the upgrade engine. In its place is a turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder paired with a 10-speed automatic, a combination also used in other GM models, including the Chevrolet Silverado. Rated at 310 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque, it’s a $2500 option on Premium Luxury models and standard in the CT4-V, where it’s bumped up to 325 horsepower and 380 pound-feet. Those are great numbers for this class. Cadillac expects about half of CT4 buyers to opt for all-wheel drive, which adds about 130 pounds to the car and is available across the range.
Equipped with the turbocharged 2.7-liter—which wears a 450T badge—and rear-wheel drive, our Premium Luxury test car had no shortage of power. Its considerable torque plateaus quickly at just 1800 rpm, so there’s no need to rev it toward its redline. The 10-speed automatic is happy to keep it in its torquey sweet spot. There are paddle shifters, but you’ll use them only for fun, not out of frustration. This is also the only car in this class that can do a John Force-style burnout through three gears. Cadillac says it can sprint to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds, just 0.2 seconds behind the CT4-V and a significant 1.2 seconds ahead of Cadillac’s claims for the base 2.0-liter. That’s quicker than the A3 and Mercedes A220 but in line with the BMW 228i Gran Coupe, which has only 228 horsepower.
Unfortunately, this large four-cylinder idles with the clatter of a diesel and is alarmingly boomy through the top half of the tachometer. And it sounds like John Deere—not John Force—tuned the exhaust system. Despite a noise-cancellation system and Cadillac “enhancing” the engine’s sounds through the audio speakers, it’s more noise than note. Sound enhancement is paired with the vehicle settings. Tour is the default, Sport is nearly unbearable, and then there’s Stealth. You want Stealth. Or earplugs.
Its stop-start function also isn’t as smooth as it should be, but its EPA ratings of 20 mpg city and 30 mpg highway are in line with the class. And we averaged 26 mpg in mixed driving in Los Angeles, beating its combined rating by 2 mpg.
According to Dave Schmidt, the CT4 lead development engineer, the structure is stiffer than before and cabin isolation is improved, but there’s still some work to do. It isn’t particularly quiet inside, and the CT4’s pedals vibrate on some road surfaces. Only the CT4-V gets the latest version of GM’s Magnetic Ride Control, and it’s missed on our Premium Luxury test car, which rides comfortably but is a touch floaty.
When pushed in the hills, however, a little float becomes underdamped and imprecise. Mid-corner bumps upset the chassis, and there’s more body roll than expected. It’s competent at an easy, swift pace, especially in fast, smooth sweepers, but it’s not much fun. We applaud Cadillac for mounting the battery in the trunk to improve the CT4’s weight distribution, but the all-season tires keep the limits low, and despite the rear-drive layout, it understeers reliably. For those looking for better handling, CT4 Sport models get firmer dampers, which may improve matters.
The new interior is a huge improvement over the ATS’s cabin. It’s not only more attractive, it’s also easier to live with and uses the space inside better. Cadillac’s experiment with touch-sensitive panels instead of buttons and knobs is over. The normal switchgear and controls in the CT4 work better and are more intuitive. The new seats are soft but proved comfortable during a 250-mile day. Rear-seat space is average for this class, but that’s not saying much. Legroom is still tight.
All CT4s come with an 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, and Cadillac says a larger screen is on the way. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and an onboard Wi-Fi hotspot are standard, and the CT4 is fitted with GM’s new digital vehicle platform architecture, which is faster and accepts over-the-air updates. A full complement of driver aids is available, but most are not offered on the base Luxury model and are optional extras on the Premium Luxury. Caddy’s self-driving SuperCruise is promised for later this year.
Prices start at $33,990 for a Luxury and $38,490 for the Premium Luxury, putting the CT4 right on top of its German rivals. With the optional powertrain and a long list of other packages that added everything from navigation and wireless phone charging to automatic emergency braking and a head-up display, our test car reached a shocking $48,065. And that price didn’t include a sunroof or a power-opening trunk. And the CT4’s hood is held up with a prop rod instead of struts, which just seems like penny pinching. There’s also the matter of badging. Cadillac says the numbers highlight its peak torque output measured in newton-meters. With the 2.7-liter engine, it’s branded a 450T, but the engine’s torque calculates to 475 Nm. That mistake could be solved with a heat gun, some dental floss, and 10 minutes of your time.
Forty years since the Cimarron dragged Cadillac’s reputation through a Chevy showroom, the brand is still struggling to achieve small-car excellence. The CT4 offers solid performance, and its interior design is a leap forward, but it’s sabotaged by refinement deficiencies and disappointing dynamics. It is a good small sedan, but in Premium Luxury guise, it falls short of its more refined and fun-to-drive German rivals.
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