The nature of luxury
Marc Stengel, Fri, 16 Jun 2006 08:00:00 PDT
Perhaps the most successful concept in the annals of marketing-relevant even to those benighted times before marketing was deemed a measurable science-is the concept of luxury. It's the claim that trumps all others: Behold, monsieur, the luxurious wares. Feel, madame, this quality de luxe. Get your Deluxe Edition today!But it doesn't take long to realize that the nature of luxury is a slippery one. If an earthen floor is the norm, a carpet spread thereon is by comparison a luxury. Yet where a mansion is the norm, luxury will decamp to the palace.
What, then, to make of a car-the new 2006 Cadillac DTS-that bears the very surname "Luxury"? And not just Luxury but also one of three distinct designations of Luxury, ranked I, II and III. This is the heir to the car that for 50 years has championed the distinctly American interpretation of automotive luxury, the Cadillac DeVille. Having taken the inscrutable decision to replace actual model names with "alpha" labels like DTS, Cadillac manages simultaneously to mistrust its own naming strategem and its potential customers' intellects. It is not just a DTS we are discussing today, you see; it is a DTS - Luxury II.
On the infinitely graduated "compared-to-what" scale, the new DTS can be perceived as sumptuous in many respects and modest in others. It is one of the quirks of the automotive experience, in other words, that one trades up gleefully from a Chevy Impala to a Caddie DTS, whereas giving up the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan for the same Cadillac usually means life has taken a turn for the worse.
This is not to fault the car, only the fragility of our perceptions. For the DTS is a fine car indeed, and if auto selections could be made in a vacuum-that is, bereft of the external pressure of one's peers and internal pressure of one's self-esteem-this Cadillac would reveal itself as a supremely comfortable, powerful and capable large sedan.
For 2006, the DTS (ne DeVille) is the most solid, tight-handling, quiet version in this car's long history. It remains a giant beast (17-and-a-half feet long overall, atop a 115.6-inch wheelbase) and a heavy one (curb weight of 4,009 pounds). But Cadillac's new pressed-pleat exterior styling visually slims the silhouette while electronics like Magnasteer rack-and-pinion steering, a self-leveling suspension and StabiliTrak stability control help achieve an unprecedented degree of nimbleness.
The DTS retains a front-wheel-drive powertrain, for long its Achilles' Heel among auto snobs. But once again, refined electronics combine with a sophisticated twin-cam V8 "Northstar" V8 making 275 horsepower to deliver spirited, torquey acceleration without telltale front wheelspin. Computerized traction control, in other words, is both unnoticeable and effective; and only a slightly greater tendency towards front-biased understeer during hard cornering reminds the aware driver that the rear wheels are but idling along.
According to the Cadillac Calculus, luxury is best defined quantitatively rather than qualitatively. For the Luxury II version of the new DTS, this means a raft of gadgety creature comforts to regale driver and up to four passengers alike. Take three-zone automatic (i.e., thermostatic) climate control that allows three different cabin temperatures for driver, front passenger and the rear gallery. Front seats can be heated and cooled; rear outboard seats can be heated, too; and the steering wheel can be rendered as toasty hot as one can tolerate. The DTS can even be started remotely (say, from inside the house) with the key fob in order to preheat or pre-cool the interior.
XM Satellite radio comes free for three months, and basic OnStar satellite-communication emergency service is free for life. New front airbags are the world's first to deploy at one of two "zone," or force, levels according to the severity of a crash and the positions of driver and front passenger. The spacious cabin of this new DTS is, literally and metaphorically, wired, tuned-in and turned-on. But there's no confusing its flat, overstuffed leather seats and its swatches of faux wood accents and shimmering chrome for the European approach to automotive luxury. In the DTS, the New World aesthetic remains parvenu by Old World standards; and it remains, moreover, a self-inflicted wound.
But certainly, monsieur, one must not ignore the price of this superbe voiture when making its evaluation, n'est-ce pas? At $47,757 as-tested, the Cadillac DTS - Luxury II suddenly becomes supremely affordable among its European betters costing sometimes twice as much. Which introduces the second most successful concept in marketing's storied annals: Behold not the price, mesdames et messieurs, but the value. Ah, yes, the all-important value. But of course.
5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 4.6-liter DOHC "Northstar" V8, 4-sp. auto; 275 hp/292 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; trunk: 18.8 cu. ft.; as-tested, incl. 4-wheel self-leveling suspension & ABS disc brakes, 17-in. wheels, 3-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD/XM Satellite, leather, heated f/r seats & steering wheel, dual-zone front airbags w/ front-side and front-rear head curtain airbags: $47,575