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Cadillac DeVille conquers the uncharted

By Marc Stengel

JANUARY 24, 2000:  There is a delicious irony in the appearance of Cadillac's redesigned DeVille sedan for model-year 2000. Equipped with its uncanny Night Vision option, the new DeVille can literally see deep into the heart of darkness to guide driver and occupants safely to their destination. In other ways, too, the DeVille brims with a newfound self-confidence, both in terms of a simplified, elegant exterior and in terms of a profoundly complex but invisible network of electronics and computers. Nevertheless, while the DeVille swaggers down the road with all the bravado of a royal progress, GM's Cadillac division is groping--some say blindly--to find its way back into the hearts and minds of luxury car buyers.

The remarkable, light-footed agility of the new DeVille is the first of many pleasant surprises. The literature, of course, is peppered with enough techno-argot to obscure the main point altogether. It's not the availability of Magnasteer, or WOLF (Wide-Open List of Functions), or CVRSS (Continuously Variable Road-Sensing Suspension), or Northstar, or OnStar, or Stabilitrak, or Night Vision that makes the new DeVille so appealing. It's the way DeVille subsumes all of these Jetson-esque gee-whizzies into a seamless tissue of delightful automotive experience.

It is worth keeping in mind that at its most fundamental, the enhanced DTS (DeVille Touring Sedan) is very much a hot rod in the traditional sense: Among the three different DeVille models, the DTS' exclusive 300-horsepower Northstar V8 is a 4.6-liter, twin-cam screamer whose yowls of ecstatic acceleration risk offending all those civilized charms that Cadillac would prefer to emphasize. It's fun to give the DTS the spur and feel it pull, pull, pull with no end in sight of its throbbing 295 ft.-lbs. of peak torque. Such hedonist fun is further whetted by a breakthrough transformation of DeVille's road manners. At a rate of 10,400 cogitations per second, CVRSS 2.0 micro-manages the real-time performances of engine, 4-speed transaxle, steering, braking, and shock damping. The upshot is razor-sharp handling, agility, and poise that are simply impossible to describe but ever so impressive to experience.

For all those with a healthy mistrust of the cyber-revolution, the DeVille makes a convincing argument on behalf of mind over matter. Here is, in essence, a rolling super-computer whose on-board sysop, code-named WOLF, is charged with piloting this car through space in safe, fleet comfort. Stabilitrak 2.0 is DeVille's scheme for maintaining vehicle control--and proper direction--when ice, snow, or rain would have it otherwise. Even under normal cruising conditions at, say, 65 mph, Stabilitrak is tirelessly adjusting suspension damping by "softening" or "firming" the shock absorbers every six or seven inches traveled. Magnasteer provides infinitely variable steering assist by means of a system of electromagnetic fields manipulated by the microsecond to accommodate both vehicle speed and road conditions. Optional OnStar is presently dedicated to the relatively basic tasks of emergency rescue and satellite navigation; but as wireless communication matures, OnStar will certainly become the portal through which vehicles like DeVille will navigate yet-uncharted networks even as driver and occupants barrel down the turnpike.

And with the $1,995 option known as Night Vision, DeVille quite literally charges headlong into uncharted realms. Distinguished by their blacked-out grilles, Night Vision DeVilles appear to harbor a cannon muzzle where a Cadillac medallion ought to be. Behind a sinister black lens lurks a high-tech infrared camera whose images appear before the driver jet-fighter style, via heads-up display. Initially distracting in traffic, Night Vision eventually burrows into the subconscious until that moment, totally unexpected, when warm-hearted ghosts materialize upon the windshield. My own Night Vision epiphany occurred when two jet-black Labrador retrievers charged into my path--but out of reach of both headlamps and street lights. Their vivid, glowing silhouettes pranced excitedly on the display, even though no amount of blinking or squinting might succeed in "proving" their existence to my unaided eyes.

For all of its technical breakthroughs, the DeVille remains wisely unaltered in one important aspect: Its interior roominess is palatial. Although it is a pleasure to have such driver's seat conveniences as 12-way power adjustment, full-auto climate control, CD/sound-system controllers on the steering wheel, and a dynamic seating system that actually monitors and adjusts seat ergonomics as you drive, I almost wish I could have driven from the back. The three-passenger rear bench is magnificent--leggy, hippy, broad-shouldered. Here also are seat heaters, as well as a better-than-usual override for rear climate control.

There are off-key grace notes, however, such as the 10-cent plastic wood-grain knob atop the shift lever (despite luxuriant zebrano wood accents throughout the cockpit). The equally cheap-looking rubber mat under the radio looks like a Rubbermaid refugee in such a setting, while the lack of auxiliary power ports up front virtually guarantees a wrestling match between plug-in adapters and the fold-out cigarette lighter.

DeVille's sleek, spare exterior lines win my approval for their simplicity. No curlicues means, for me, no nonsense. But it was amazing how so many friends and bystanders saw other cars in place of the DeVille they were looking at: The front reminded one of the previous-model S-class Mercedes; the rear looked like a Lexus LS to another, like an Infiniti Q45 to a third. Eventually the curious consensus formed that this new DeVille not only didn't look like the old one, it didn't even look much like a Cadillac. I couldn't avoid a heartfelt tinge of unease when it occurred to me that, despite DeVille's radical transformation, this Cadillac of big-dog sedans may have become just another pup in the pack for a generation seduced by so many import pedigrees.

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