Lexus vs. Cadillac showdown

Will the latest from Cadillac and Lexus lure this entrepreneur away from his beloved BMWs?

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Fiertz appraises Cadillac's latest sports sedan offering, the CTS.

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Carey Fiertz of Export Risk Management owns two BMWs and says he couldn't see himself in a Cadillac dealership "in a million years." But as Cadillac tries to hoist itself up to the level of BMW, Daimler (DAI)'s Mercedes-Benz, and Toyota' (TM)s Lexus, this successful entrepreneur represents the very demographic that it yearns to seduce.

I recently brought Fiertz the new Cadillac CTS sports sedan for a test drive. To give him a benchmark for his evaluation, I also arranged to borrow one of the CTS's top competitors, the Lexus IS 350. The big question: Would either tempt him to give up his BMW 325i convertible?

The edgily designed CTS was a sensation when it arrived in 2003. After years of essentially the same look, the 2008 version marks a big leap forward. Even more extroverted, its two additional inches of width enhance both appearance and comfort. The base engine has been upgraded to the 3.6-liter V-6, which cranks out 304 horsepower, and a new air duct has been added below the bumper to give the front end a more aggressive style.

On the inside, the rich woodgrain and warm brushed-aluminum finish of the controls feel more luxurious and are easier on the eyes - addressing a common complaint about the previous model. As a longtime GM (GM, Fortune 500) watcher, I'm encouraged that the General is paying more attention to its customers.

The Lexus IS 350 is the CTS's Japanese counterpart. The 2008 version features the same design as the 2007, except for some small upgrades, such as backlit outside mirrors and illuminated scuff plates. In any case, compared with the Cadillac, it's subtle and understated, with a smaller, less prominent grille and a minimum of chrome. It measures nearly a foot shorter, two inches narrower, and weighs several hundred pounds less.

Its interior is slightly cramped, but it makes up for that with exceptional agility and reflexes. The 306-horsepower engine propels the Lexus to 60 miles an hour in 5.6 seconds, a smidge faster than the Cadillac's 5.9 seconds. The immediate response of the accelerator makes it feel faster too. Unlike past Lexus models I've driven, which insulate the driver from the road, the IS responded well to the steering and planted to the pavement.

Our test car, with its keyless ignition and moon roof, carried a sticker price of $43,857. (Because a 2008 model wasn't available, we tested the mechanically identical 2007 version. A 400-horsepower version, the IS-F, arrived at dealerships last month.)

While driving each car over the twisty, hilly two-lane back roads of northwestern Connecticut, Fiertz brought me up to date on his business. A Dartmouth graduate, he worked in the insurance industry for more than a decade before founding his company in 1993. From his base in Salisbury, Conn., he provides financial training and insurance for companies doing business overseas. Clients range from small businesses to corporations, including financial institutions.

Fiertz, 50, learned to drive in Switzerland and still gets a kick out of navigating winding mountain roads. But he found the Caddy challenged even by the hills of the lower Berkshires. He complained that the thick windshield pillars blocked his vision, and added, "I need to feel the road more, and I want to maneuver quickly if necessary."

He found the highway performance equally unsatisfying, saying, "I'm not sure I would like the CTS on lengthy forays." Both his BMWs, a convertible and a sport-activity vehicle, excel at long distances.

I was more willing to trade the Cadillac's somewhat imprecise handling for its more cushioned ride. Also, the sticker price of $37,840 made it a relative bargain. But I'm not sure how comfortable I'd be with the CTS's look-at-me styling.

After test-driving the Lexus, we were both gushing.

"I really like it," said Fiertz. "It is built for the kind of driving I have to do. It has great handling, power when I need it, and responsive brakes."

As a certified ski instructor, he also liked the trunk pass-through for his skis. The only drawback: He worried about the absence of a nearby dealer (the closest is an hour and a half away).

I liked the feeling of confidence I got driving a car that exudes competence. Every switch, dial, and pedal provided appropriate feedback when I engaged it, and the car performed accordingly. My only complaint is that it lacks personality. There is nothing in the look, feel, or sound that engages your emotions. The Lexus never offends but never warms your heart either. The Cadillac sometimes tries too hard to be liked.

By the time we'd finished our day of driving, Fiertz said he'd definitely consider the Lexus as a replacement for his BMW 325i. "I immediately felt at home in that car even before I pressed the ignition button. It felt just right." To top of page

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