Test Driver for a Day

Last Sunday my cousin Torm and I were invited to a Car & Driver / Road & Track "Editor for a Day" event at the Homestead Speedway. After a wild ride from Boca Raton to Homestead in record time, we had the chance to drive some interesting cars for comparison purposes; some of our comments might even be published in the magazines! Two courses had been laid out with cones on a large parking lot there—they wouldn't let us go out on the NASCAR oval for some hot laps no matter how much we begged.

First up, two mid-class Euro-style sport sedans: the latest iteration of the BMW 5-series (the car that really invented this segment and owns it to this day) vs. the new Cadillac STS, now redesigned in order to compete with the 530i even more closely. On paper, everything about these cars is the same, except for the Caddy's additional 500 pounds. The BMW is everything you already expect it to be, so I won't have much to say about it, except that it was so competent under the given test conditions that it was almost boring to drive. Cadillac has come a long way in recent years and made huge strides in this super-competitive field. I would almost consider the STS above the 530i but for those 500 pounds and for one glaring flaw—vastly overboosted steering.

What a disappointment! In a car like this, a sport sedan, an obviously intended competitor to the hallowed 5-series, a steering wheel that feels like a incorporeal being disconnected from the drivetrain and indeed, from the very world of the living, like a mere ghost of a real car, is simply unacceptable. It's not that there's no place for the kind of plush ride and effortless driving experience large American cars have aimed at in the past, only that a sport model is not that place. If GM wanted to make a Crown Vic, fine, they do that all over their model range already. But if they wanted to make a 5-series, as they very plainly did, than this kind of compromise simply won't do. It is almost as though Cadillac was unwilling to take the last step towards true competitiveness in the euro-sedan market, as though they felt the need to throw one last bone to their traditional, and now increasingly elderly, clientele. There's no surprise here, I guess—half measures have been the curse of the American car industry for decades, and it's always hard to wean a company off of the easy profits to be had in an undemanding, uncritical, uncompetitive market.

But I digress. To sum up, the BMW is extremely good, the class of the world, but somehow lacks a feeling of “specialness”—probably due to the weirdo design and lackluster interior. The Cadillac is competent and handles surprisingly well, but is crippled by dead, weightless steering.

Although I've never been a SUV fan, the next pair of trucks was surprisingly fun to test, almost more so than the sport sedans, mostly because the SUV course was laid out to include some high speed lane-change and slalom sections, and a hard emergency stop at the end of the lap. Also, it's a lot easier to get into stupid, funny trouble with a SUV! The two vehicles: the Cadillac (a sponsor of this event) SRX, their smaller SUV, and the venerable Lexus 330.

A surprise: the Cadillac owned this comparison. It handled better although larger, due to rear wheel drive and stiffer suspension—body roll in the Lexus was like riding in a canoe! Around a long sweeping turn the rear end of the Cadillac could be made to lose grip a bit, but in a controllable way, not all at once, and it beat the Lexus in the slalom handily. And finally, the coolest thing about the Cadillac: an enormous full-length sunroof. Of course, the Lexus is a much older model; aside from cosmetic updates I don't believe the 300 SUV has EVER been redesigned since it was introduced, and that was more than a few years ago.

Huge thanks to Road & Track and Car & Driver for putting this event on. So go out and buy yourself a subscription or three as well—after all, that's how we got the invitation.

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