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Cadillac Deville DTS

Just a few years ago, a giant, complacent General Motors would wait for Chrysler to develop new technologies and for Ford to open new markets. Now, General Motors, led by Cadillac, has started to become a leader again.

Our test car, a Cadillac Deville DTS, is probably one of the most electronically advanced vehicles in the world. The DTS itself, complete with a 300 hp V-8 engine and active suspension, lists for neary $46,000. Ours had an on-board navigation system, ultrasonic backup warning system, night vision, adaptive seats, rear seat airbags, and enough other options to raise the price to over $56,000. It is one expensive but advanced car.

Like very Cadillac, the Deville has a smooth, quiet ride. Two powerful Northstar V-8 engines are available, one with 275 hp, the other (standard on the DTS) with 300 hp. These are Cadillac-only engines, and they have been refined to take regular gas without loss of power. Both engines are very quiet in operation, with hardly any noise other than a hum of power entering the cabin. While they propel the car very quickly, they are also smooth enough to make rapid acceleration seem routine. Gas mileage on the 300 hp engine is rated at 17 city, 28 highway, but we tended to average about 20 mpg overall.

Normally, an engine like this can overwhelm a car's suspension, causing torque steer and other problems. Fortunately, the Deville DTS comes with Stabilitrak, a rather clever system which uses all the car's normal control mechanisms (including its load levelling suspension) to make it seem as nimble as a sports coupe. Indeed, for a car this large and heavy to take the turns it can take is quite an achievement. The Deville usually feels as confident as a Chrysler 300M. It can handle sudden acceleration and sharp turns with aplomb.

The steering system is speed-sensing, and has a tighter turning radius and more power assist at low speeds, for better parking with good highway control.

The automatic transmission is tuned for luxury. Even two-gear downshifts are handled smoothly and without fuss. However, there were times when a performance shift setting would have been nice. To be fair, on the highway, the shifter's gate allows for rapid manual downshifts to third gear without fear of overshooting into first or second.

The interior is large and spacious, with an enormous trunk. The seats are comfortable and supportive. Both front and rear seats have center consoles, with decent cup holders. Coins can be tossed into a padded area or put into the removable coin holder. The front console has an upper and lower level; the lower level has two removable compartments. The CD changer in our vehicle was in the glove compartment, with the navigation system's CD in the trunk. The glove compartment also features a place for tissues, and a small compartment for, well, whatever you care to put in it. The owner's manual comes complete with a pen and pad.

Being a General Motors product, the ergonomics are interesting. While the cruise control is happily on the steering wheel rather than a stalk, it is at the bottom of the wheel, while the stereo controls take precedence up top. Though the climate control is close at hand and easy to use, there are fan and temperature controls for it on the steering wheel as well. A single stalk contains windshield wipers and washers, the headlight dimmer, and the turn signals.

The headlight controls allow you to easily defeat or adjust the automatic headlights. Two sets of buttons on either side of the instrument panel control the displays. Some aspects of the car's operations can be personalized, e.g. whether the doors lock automatically. The trip computer display is integrated into the instrument panel, so the driver does not have to look away. A clever English/metric button suddenly converts the speedometer and odometer to kilometers and back to miles.

The instrument panel display is simple and easy on the eyes, with a large tachometer and speedometer, and a medium-sized fuel and temperature gauge. Warning lights and trip computer readouts provide other information when needed. A digital speedometer readout is in the top and center; it is handier than we thought it would be for very quickly getting a speed reading. Either the analog or digital display can be shut off if desired.

The instrument panel is interesting, becaue it has a 3-D effect very similar to the Lincoln heads-up display. Indeed, we thought it was a heads-up display at first. The effect is striking and clean-looking. It is brightly lit during the day, so it is never washed out.

The horn is appropriately loud, and easy to press.

Most of the controls and displays are in sensible places. The climate control system is straightforward and easy to use. However, on our test car, which had the optional navigation system, the radio controls were somewhat inane. Touch pads are simply not appropriate for controlling car stereos. Too many touches are required for things like changing from radio to CD, or adjusting the tone and balance. The volume steps were also rather high. The stereo did have very good sound, but it seemed to be designed for those who set tone, balance, and stations once and leave them there.

The navigation system itself is well designed and very helpful. The car comes with a nine-CD subscription, so that as roads change, the car's information is updated. It figures out where you are through a satellite-based global positioning system which can guess where you are to a fairly close distance; the unit's intelligence figures out the rest. Usually, it knew exactly where we were, though it sometimes slipped up a little. We also found ourselves driving through what it thought was uncharted forest and swamp.

Though knowing where you are on the map (and being able to easily zoom in and out) is helpful, what we often really need are good directions from a very patient person. The navigation system fortunately also features turn-by-turn guidance, with a female voice calmly telling us where to turn (with plenty of notice), usually with great accuracy. There are options to avoid tolls or take the fastest route. The system reacted well when we did not take its advice, quietly finding a new route and giving us updated instructions. It also lists practically every business you can want, from gas stations to museums to restaurants. This is a very useful, clever system, and we just wish there was room for a real stereo next to it.

With such a good navigation system, it would almost seem like a shame to have to make hotel reservations from home. That's where OnStar comes in. It is basically a cellphone, in this case actuated from a button on the mirror (why not the mirror?), which connects you to a host of friendly concierges. They can tell you where the nearest gas or police station is, but so can the navigation system. They can also book rooms for you in a motel in the town you'll be in after you drive for another three hours, which the navigation system, good as it is, cannot do. (You can also get OnStar without the navigation system). In brief, this is a terribly clever and useful system. One year of OnStar's premium concierge service comes with the DTS.

OnStar is also useful in case of emergencies, as one would expect. The system automatically tells OnStar staffers when an airbag inflates, so that if a driver is hurt in an accident, help can be immediately dispatched. An emergency button is next to the standard OnStar call button.

The night driving system is another interesting innovation. A small video camera takes the place of the Cadillac logo on the grille, and at night, if the headlights are on, a black and white infrared picture is reflected off the windshield (if desired). It clearly shows any pedestrians or animals in the road. However, you still need to use your plain old-fashioned windshield, and because it is a telephoto lens it will not detect deer or people in the bushes. This system is very useful on dark straight roads, but in the city or on crowded highways, it should probably be left off.

Another aid to navigation is a backup helper. Several sensors in the bumper are activated when the car is put into reverse, and they turn on three lights, one at a time, as the driver backs up to warn of the amount of space left. A tone also sounds as the driver backs up, but it probably is not needed, since the lights are placed so they are clearly visible through the rear view mirror.

One convenience feature which is probably overkill is the automatic parking brake release. Unfortunately, the parking brake is still the kind where you push down once to set, once to release, which sometimes makes setting it a nuisance.

The vent system has three ones, one for the driver, one for the passenger, and one for the rear seats. Rear seat occupants can adjust temperature, fan speed, and whether air is directed through floor-level or higher vents. Passengers have their own heated-seat options (including rear passengers), and can choose to heat only the back of their seat. Each passenger also gets their own focused interior light. Our test car, though, was always dark at night because of the black interior.

The overall effect of the Deville's interior was of both old-fashioned class and newfangled technology, an odd but successful mix - not unlike the Deville itself. The fifth-generation Cadillac Deville has the traditional quiet interior and well-damped ride, but the DTS' firmer suspension and Stabilitrak combine to make handling far better than expected. The engine is powerful, but cushioned by a comfort-tuned transmission. The variety of safety and help systems is dazzling, making this a car of choice for travelling salesmen and CEOs.

The Deville is clearly a Cadillac. Just as clearly, Cadillac aims on regaining its title as the preeminent American luxury car. The Deville shows that Lincoln has good reason to start worrying.

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