Cadillac BLS 1.9 TiD SE review
by David Finlay (3 April 2006)
The increasing presence of Cadillac in the European market is part of the effort being made by General Motors to rescue itself from financial meltdown. This isn't perhaps the way that GM people would like you to see it, but there's a hint of the big issue behind the introduction of the BLS in the way the car is being promoted. The advertising slogan says that this is "more than a car - it's a Cadillac". Journalists at the UK press launch were told that the new range is designed for customers who "dare to be different". For a luxury brand, it's all slightly forced, slightly lacking in confidence.
Perhaps slightly unnecessary, too, because there are two other points which seem more likely to help the sales figures. One is that the BLS, though aimed quite explicitly at BMW 3-Series customers, is available for Mondeo money. The other is that Cadillac is an American brand, and American cars are still, thanks to their rarity, something of an exotic option for UK buyers.
If people are indeed tempted by the US connection, it will be more than somewhat ironic, because the BLS has almost no American relevance. It was developed specifically for Europe, and there are no plans to sell it back home in the States because there isn't a place for it in that market.
Furthermore, it's made largely of European bits. It would be stretching things only a little too far to say that this Cadillac is the result of Saab putting a Fiat engine into a Vauxhall. More accurately, the BLS is built at Saab's factory in Trollhattan, it uses the GM Epsilon platform shared by the 9-3 and the Vectra, and the engine in the car tested here - the first turbo diesel ever fitted to a Cadillac - is the 1.9-litre TiD unit co-developed by GM and Fiat.
This mixing and matching from the GM parts bin is fair enough. The 1.9 TiD engine, for example, has already impressed in the great number of Alfa Romeos, Fiats, Saabs and Vauxhalls to which it has been fitted in the past. Cadillac uses it only in 150bhp form (the 120bhp version would seem feeble in a car of this size) and it gives the BLS a good combination of mid-range performance, fuel economy and refinement.
The diesel will almost certainly be the top-seller, especially when mated to the six-speed manual gearbox (there's a six-speed automatic too) and the SE trim level. This is as basic as the BLS gets. SE models have the thinnest tyres on the smallest wheels, the upholstery is cloth rather than leather, and delights such as the Kenwood DVD navigation system and Bose audio are not available even as options. If you want more you have to spend at least the £3600 required to upgrade to Luxury specification.
You would probably need the extras if you wanted to maintain a decent resale value a couple of years down the line, but as a new car the BLS feels fine in SE form. It's comfortable, spacious in the front (though much less so in the back) and while the interior design doesn't really justify the "Art and Science" tag - another example of Cadillac trying too hard with the marketing, to my mind - it's attractive enough.
There are occasional letdowns, though. On each side of the centre console there's a flimsy piece of plastic very obviously held in place by a large, cheap star-head bolt. My 1993 Vauxhall Cavalier has those, and that's not really the sort of car I want to be reminded of when I'm behind the wheel of a Cadillac.
The driving experience is okay, but not exceptional, and certainly nowhere near that of the 3-Series. Some critics will say that it couldn't possibly be, since the BMW drives through the rear wheels and the BLS drives through the front ones, but as a supporter of both layouts I'm sure the BLS could still be better than it is with a bit of suspension tinkering.
The Cadillac also loses out to the 3-Series - and in particular the 320d, the closest model in that range to the BLS 1.9 TiD - in terms of performance, fuel economy, luggage space (425 litres against 460) and, I think I can confidently say, resale values. The GM people say they made sure that the BLS undercut the 3-Series list price as if this were a clever piece of product strategy, but frankly I don't think they had much option.
Still, there's one thing that is very definitely in the BLS's favour. Let's say you've chosen your mid-sized saloon car, and someone asks you what it is. If the answer is a Mondeo or a Vectra, you won't be considered a particularly adventurous sort of fellow. Saying you've bought an Audi A4 or a BMW 3-Series puts you in a different category, though not a very exclusive one.
But instead you reply, "Well, as it happens, I've just bought a Cadillac." The look of interest on your listeners' faces may make your decision worthwhile all on its own.