It wasn't so long ago that rear-wheel-drive sedans were dramatic evidence of backward thinking. Sure, certain primo sedans from Europe never deviated from the rear-wheel ethos; but Europe is nothing if not "Old World" after all. Amongst North America's "Big Three," propelling a car forward by pushing it from behind has been distinctly passé for years. As recently as a decade ago, "leading from the front" in the form of front-wheel-drive powertrains was considered the cutting edge of contemporary automotive engineering in the U.S., even for luxury sport sedans.
It's hard to establish precisely why, but one might suppose that rear-wheel-drive aficionados were never fully converted to the "front-driver" aesthetic. (Of course, abysmal front-drive handling might have something to do with it.) So the RWD crowd simply opted for trucks and SUVs. But lately, as trucks and SUVs have begun to haul more opprobrium than people and cargo, it's these same folks who are diving for PC cover behind the wheels of sedans. And since rear-drive, U.S.-made sedans have been thin on the ground for the last 10 years, there hasn't been much to choose from. If this is what opportunity sounds like, Chrysler and Cadillac have clearly been listening. With the return of the rear-wheel-drive sport-sedan, the ancien régime is new again.
Even standing still, Chrysler's 300C full-size sedan is not for the faint-of-heart. Bulbous, unsubtle styling is as assertive as a naked fist against the nose. But the longer one ponders this four-door behemoth, the more of a Shrek-like gentle giant it appears to be. And when you're finally coaxed to open the door and take a seat, it's remarkable how expansive and luxurious and welcoming the interior actually is.
Ah, but I bet you didn't notice that discreet "SRT8" badge, did you? So you start up the car and 6.1 liters of pushrod-V8 power barks to life like a chorus of Orcs. Only two cylinders shy of a Dodge Viper, this particular hi-po version of the 300C sedan punches out 425 horsepower and 420 foot-pounds of pavement-shredding torque. If ever there were a car that might run for public office, Chrysler's 300C SRT8 would be the one: It positively revels in drawing attention to itself.
But as every genuine hot-rodder knows, the essential question is this: "How do it go?" Well, in a straight line, the SRT8 goes like scat. It's got enough muscle-car moxie to turn the clock back 35 years for today's middle-aged boomers (although it can't re-thatch a balding dome). Under acceleration, the Viperish V8 growls and snarls and bellows and blares. For every repressed howl swallowed into silence within a Dilbert-issue cubicle, the SRT8 makes an offsetting primal scream available for settling the score out on the highway.
It hardly needs saying that so big and burly a sedan is no bantam on the backroads. Chrysler has done an admirable job of tuning the suspension to complement the car's 20-inch standard wheels and its sharpened steering response. For open-road cruising at brisk speed, the 300C SRT8 rides like a magic-carpet with a stomach growl. Its leathery interior is roomy and supportive, and the climate control and audio system mimic the comforts of home.
What is clearly, and inevitably, unpalatable about the SRT8 is its appetite. Stomach growl indeed: Not only must one bear the ignominy of a 14 mpg/city, 20 mpg/highway fuel rating-and with premium fuel at that-but the sticker price also incorporates a $2,100 "gas-guzzler tax" right off the top. Chrysler's 300C SRT8 is an enjoyable performance sedan that evokes a gloried past, but it's clearly not the rear-drive sedan that points the way to the future.
For that, one must turn to the latest crop of CTS sedans from Cadillac. Edgy where Chrysler is rounded, crisp where the 300C is brittle, the rear-wheel-drive CTS shows that Cadillac is serious about restoring its reputation as an innovative, forward-thinking automaker.
Ideally, one might argue that the subset of CTS models designated with a "Flying V" logo represents the better performance-oriented counterpart to Chrysler's SRT program. What's telling about the mainstream CTS sedan equipped with Cadillac's new "Direct-Injection" V6, however, is how much performance and refinement the carmaker manages to wring from a standard-model sedan.
To begin with, DI technology, combined with variable-valve-timing, allows Cadillac's 3.6-liter V6 to deliver 304 horsepower and 227 foot-pounds of torque even while achieving 17 mpg/city and 26 mpg/highway. That's hardly comparable to an econobox subcompact, of course; then again, no econobox makes available such a captivating array of luxury appointments and performance accomplishments as this CTS.
Borrowing wisely from the braintrust represented by General Motors' European divisions, Cadillac has endowed the CTS with a precision handling chassis that encourages aggressive cornering. The ride is noticeably stiffer than that typically associated with an American auto, but it's nowhere near as unforgiving as, say, a BMW. If not exactly nimble, the CTS is enjoyably lively; above all, it is stable and predictable at the limits.
The interior of the CTS represents a real departure for Cadillac-in the right direction. Germanic styling of console and instrumentation combines with high-tech electronics like a pop-up GPS navigation screen and an optional 40-gigabyte hard-drive for storing jukebox-loads of digital tunes. Seating for five is ample, although "dibs" will still be called for the front-passenger seat.
Also impressive is the base price of $34,545 for the base-model CTS DI. But beware: the "Premium luxury collection" that includes GPS and digital jukebox, along with panoramic sunroof and hot/cold seating-just for starters-costs $8,105. After a few more options like 18-inch wheels and performance anti-lock disk brakes, that "affordable" sticker has lofted to $48,585.
With its new-for-2008 CTS, however, Cadillac is back as a serious contender among rear-drive sport sedans; and the automaker's timing, for once, seems impeccable.
Touring-sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 6.1-liter OHV V8; RWD, 5-sp. shiftable auto; 425 hp/420 ft.-lbs.; 14 mpg/city, 20 mpg/hwy w/ premium; trunk: 15.6 cu. ft.; base price: $40,545; as-tested, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD/Sirius audio, dual-zone climate control, 20-in. wheels, front/optional head airbags: $44,495
Sport-sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 3.6-liter DOHC "Direct-Injection" V6 w/ vvt; RWD, 6-sp. shiftable auto; 304 hp/273 ft.-lbs.; 17 mpg/city, 26 mpg/hwy w/ regular; trunk: 13.6 cu. ft.; base price: $34,545; as-tested, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD/XM audio, OnStar, dual-zone climate control, 18-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $48,585