CARMEL, CA – Just minutes into the sharp curves and switchbacks characteristic of the drive southeast on Carmel Valley Road to the sleepy central California town of Greenfield, the ’08 Cadillac CTS’ easily excited, direct-injection gasoline V-6 and improved ride and handling are fully exposed.

The underpinnings and powertrain of the previous-generation CTS, while sufficient for Cadillac’s initial foray into the luxury sport sedan sector in 2002, put the car at a distinct disadvantage versus perennial market leaders such as the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Infiniti G35.

So General Motors Corp. engineers went back to the drawing board, rebuilding the car’s Sigma platform from the bottom up and adding options such as all-wheel drive, the 304-hp DIG V-6 and a 6-speed automatic transmission.

Although the upgrades probably won’t send CTS sales barreling past those of its rivals, they place the car on firmer footing against the best from Germany and Japan.

The ’08 CTS arrives with two powertrains. Base models feature a carryover 3.6L V-6 optimized by variable valve timing. Optional is the DIG 3.6L, a first for the CTS and the most powerful GM V-6 ever. It lays out 304 hp and 277 lb. ft. (370 Nm) of torque to move the car’s power numbers closer to the BMW 3-Series and ahead of other ’07 models in its class.

Both mills can be had with either a 6-speed manual or the new automatic with driver shift control. Buyers also can choose rear- or all-wheel drive with either powertrain.

Although the ’08 CTS starts at a thrifty $32,990, luxury and performance options can push up the sticker quickly. One vehicle included on the California drive priced out at $43,325 – without the optional DIG 3.6L that costs another $1,000.

To imagine the ’08 CTS without its top-of-the-range mill, however, would border on heresy. The DIG V-6 responds enthusiastically, whether stomping the accelerator at one of the valley’s lonely intersections or laying on the power through one of the many graded turns that snake the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges here. During heavy acceleration, a perfectly tuned exhaust tone triumphs over some faint ticking from the injectors, a bugaboo of DIGs GM engineers have all but erased thanks to a litany of sound-dampening items.

The 6-speed automatic replaces the more raucous 5-speed gearbox on the ’07 model and provides wonderfully smooth acceleration. And unlike the old 5-speed, this transmission doesn’t always favor the higher gear. Instead, software has been tweaked so that when in “Sport” mode the transmission senses aggressive driving and adjusts accordingly.

The difference is almost imperceptible during spirited driving on Highway 101 outside San Jose. But once at the historic Laguna Seca raceway, the transmission performs with aplomb, quickly finding the perfect gear on an 11-turn road course certainly not designed with production luxury cars in mind.

GM also says it shaved the shift lag on the clutchless stick down to 400 milliseconds, but at Laguna it is infinitely more gratifying to let the software do the work and concentrate more closely on negotiating the track’s wickedly famous corkscrew.

The ’08 CTS’ AWD further enhances control and driver confidence, especially on the frightfully narrow Carmel Valley Road, where the shoulder disappears almost immediately into scrub oaks and dense chaparral.

The system, which GM mates to an active transfer case that works with the car’s electronic stability control to dole out power in infinitely variable amounts to the front and rear wheels, adds nominal weight that only the most expert of drivers will discern. However, unlike its Audi and Acura competitors, the CTS offers no torque-vectoring capability that allows torque to be distributed from side to side.

While the $1,900 option likely will get many takers, for our money nothing beats the nimble, quick-footed feel of the ’08 CTS in rear-drive dress.

However, the biggest story behind the ’08 CTS might be the modifications made to the 5-year-old Sigma platform. The new chassis – it carries only the floor pan over from its previous iteration –widens the track by 2 ins. (5.1 cm) to plant the car more firmly and give it a more aggressive, intimidating countenance.

It also features three suspension settings, ranging from a refined FE1 setup to an FE3 option that might favor connectivity to the road a bit too much. Most buyers likely will gravitate to FE2, which hits the sweet spot between luxury and performance.

The chassis boasts a double-wishbone suspension up front and multi-link in the rear. Most notably, GM engineers stiffened the rear cradle and updated its jounce bumper, helping to smooth out smaller bumps and enhance feel during more zealous driving. Michelin provides exclusively designed tires to fit the CTS’ standard 17-in. or optional 18-in. wheels, and grip on each of the H-, V-, and Y-rated tires ranks as outstanding.

’08 Cadillac CTS
Vehicle type Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive/all-wheel drive 4-door sedan
Engine 3.6L DIG (217 cu. in.) DOHC V-6 aluminum block/aluminum head
Power (SAE net) 304 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 273 lb.-ft. (370 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Compression ratio 11.3:1
Bore x stroke (inches) 3.7 x 3.37
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 113.4 ins. (2,880 mm)
Overall length 191.6 ins. (4,866 mm)
Overall width 72.5 ins. (1,842 cm)
Overall height 58 ins. (1,472 cm)
Curb weight 3,845 lbs. (1,744 kg) to 4,118 (1,868 kg)
Base price $32,995
U.S. fuel economy city/hwy (mpg) 18/26 (13/9 L/100 km)
Market competition BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS 350, Infinti G35

Exterior styling softens the more dramatic angles that characterized the previous model, but designers took full advantage of the car’s wheels-to-the-corners platform to muscle up the CTS via sculpted fenders. Side air extractors recall Cadillacs of a bygone era, and the chrome pieces are a tailor’s fit into the sheet metal.

Black backing helps conceal gaps in some trickier spots – such as where the hood and front panel meet the front lamp casing – but overall fit-and-finish stands on par with others in the segment.

Inside, nary a floor mat is carried over from the previous model. Thoroughly modern, high-tech and luxurious, the interior surpasses what most will expect from a car of this ilk.

Among complaints, the front seats have been downsized, increasing legroom and sightlines for rear passengers but sacrificing sufficient performance car-type thigh bolsters. Rear seats feature a common armrest that conveniently flips down but retains the awkwardly positioned cupholders of the ’07 model.

Infotainment and heating/air conditioning controls are less intuitive on this model, but with several redundant buttons and a dial that centralizes several functions, operation becomes second nature quickly enough.

The ’08 CTS isn’t merely an improvement on the previous generation. The redesign marks a giant leap that takes the car out from among the also-rans in a crowded segment and puts it right alongside those at the head of the class.

jamend@wardsauto.com