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The Return of Cadillac

Some may recall that, years ago, three American titans had the luxury market wrapped up, at least in North America: General Motors led with the prestigious, powerful Cadillac; Ford pushed its Lincoln division; and Chrysler vacillated between having Imperial and various Chryslers as its flagship. There were other brands, notably Rolls-Royce and Bentley at the top end and Mercedes for the few who did not equate luxury with size, but the mainstay was Cadillac.

Over time, Cadillac and Chrysler made the same mistakes: putting their top of the line badge onto a standard economy car. The Cadillac name fell as the division failed to keep up with increasing quality standards. Chrysler ended the Imperial marque and then pushed Chrysler into Dodge and, later, Plymouth territory. Only Ford managed to keep its luxury marque untainted as Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, Acura, and others crowded into the luxury market.

Both Cadillac and Chrysler have been playing catch-up. Chrysler has been decidedly more modest, with the LHS and 300M. Neither is a serious challenger in the over-$40,000 market, and Lexus managers have probably not lost any sleep over them. But Cadillac has been more determined, and General Motors has decided to play the game more seriously.

The Cadillac return began with an attempt to increase service at its dealerships, combined with a Cadillac-only V-8 engine, the Northstar. Though its most touted feature, the ability to run without antifreeze in an emergency, is probably not really that important, the Northstar is a strong, quiet engine.

We were able to test a $56,000 Cadillac Deville DTS. That's a price class Chrysler will probably never be allowed to enter again, now that the company is owned by Mercedes, but about $10,000 of that price is options.

The Deville comes with some pretty amazing technologies, the kind of thing Bob Eaton probably sold the company to get. Night vision, a navigation system with a touch screen, and OnStar make the Deville unusual even in the luxury car world.

The Northstar out-smoothed the 300M's 3.5 liter V6, though both have similar acceleration. The Cadillac's automatic transmission is far smoother, but that's a debatable advantage, especially since it is reluctant to downshift. Both engines run on regular gas and get rather poor economy. The Cadillac certainly has better sound insulation, with a very quiet interior and an engine that never makes a fuss, even when making its full 300 horsepower.

The 300M has excellent handling. Cadillac worked hard to bring its Deville up to those standards with Stabilitrak, a complicated but clever set of controls that use the load leveling suspension, traction control, and other systems to keep the car on the road no matter what the driver does to it. With Stabilitrak, the heavy Caddy takes sharp turns under full acceleration with ease. The 300M feels more sporty, but the Cadillac's handling is not to be trifled with.

The Deville's interior is large and spacious, even more so than the 300M, with an enormous trunk (similar in size to the LHS). Both front and rear seats have center consoles, with cup holders. There are plenty of places for coins and things in both cars. The 300M is not as luxurious inside, but since the Intrepid as more luxury trappings, that is not surprising. The 300M has a more elegant instrument panel, but the Cadillac is more high-tech.

We prefer the Chrysler cruise control location, but some may prefer GM's inclusion of stereo and climate control switches on the steering wheel. The Cadillac also allows for more option customization, and has a pushbutton English/metric control that comes in handy when you travel to Canada or Mexico. The Cadillac also has a handy digital speedometer readout along with the analog display.

Our test Deville had a three-zone climate control system, which is straightforward and easy to use if a bit noisy at high fan speeds. Unfortunately, it also had a touch screen stereo - not a good idea by any stretch of the imagination, this system is downright dangerous if you want to change radio settings. When the Deville does not have a navigation system, though, a standard stereo is fitted.

The navigation system is extremely helpful and nicely designed, providing step-by-step vocal directions; looking up points of interest such as repair shops and restaurants; and showing maps, pinpointing your location by satellite.

OnStar, GM's clever concierge and emergency system, is also built in. The DTS comes with a full year of premium concierge service, which means there is a helpful person at the other end of a speakerphone waiting to make your motel reservations or to call an ambulance if your airbag fires.

Night driving is interesting, with an optional small infra-red (heat-detecting) video camera placed in the grille. The image is projected onto the windshield, not for you to drive by, but for you to check for pedestrians or animals in the road. It has a telephoto lens, so it may not spot deer in the brush.

We truly wish Chrysler would start using backup helpers. The Deville used sensors in the bumper to tell how much room was in back of the car, with both an audible and a visible display. That would be very handy in their minivans.

In brief, the Cadillac provides more room, comfort, gadgets, and insulation, with similar acceleration and handling to the 300M. The Chrysler is more fun to drive, but the Cadillac's conveniences can really come in handy.

It looks like Lincoln has formidable American competition again.