There was a time when referring to Cadillac as the “Standard of the World” wasn’t a punch line. There was also a time when two-tone paint jobs and tailfins were considered “classy.”

It was the same time, and it was long ago.

After getting by for years selling large cars with cavernous trunks to people named Tony who needed room for golf clubs and their "associates," Cadillac decided it wanted its title back, and started selling a car called the CTS in 2003.

With a cameo appearance in the film "The Matrix: Reloaded" to bolster its new image, the company tried to shake off its gynecologists and goodfellas reputation and attract younger buyers accustomed to spending their money on cars from Germany and Japan.

It worked. The car was a success and did set the standard, but only for America.

The 2008 CTS meets a higher one.

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It’s still not the best car you can buy, but to say the midsize CTS is among the best is no longer a stretch. From the way it looks to the way it drives, it has "world class" written all over it, and that’s no joke.

Everything about it has been changed for the better. From the bold exterior design to the cutting edge V-6 engine and upgraded suspension, there are few things about the CTS that come up short, but its style is what really stands apart.

The moment you lay eyes on it, you know it isn’t your average American car. But you know for sure that it is American.

With a huge chrome grille stretching from the hood to the road, the CTS announces its arrival with confidence. The chiseled good looks and broad shoulders turned heads everywhere I went in it, like a golden-age Hollywood star cruising down the red carpet.

There’s even a hint of a fin in the shape of the slim vertical tail lights, but it works. Combined with the chevron cut of the center high-mounted brake light, it lends a jewel-like effect to the design. The looks of respect mixed with envy coming from drivers of the old CTS passing by speak volumes about the success of the new sheet metal.

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The look carries over to the inside where Cadillac went all out with lots of silver trim, exotic sapele wood and sewn leather covering a twin cockpit-style layout that’s a far cry from the plush and plastic interiors of old.

It’s sharp and modern -- and maybe a little over the top -- but a fresh alternative to the business-like interiors of the imports. Unfortunately, it’s not quite screwed together as well as the competition.

This was most noticeable where the sweeping lines of wood and leather make the transition from dashboard to door. On my test vehicle they just didn’t meet up quite right. It wasn’t terrible, but it would drive an obsessive person mad after a few hours behind the wheel. Trust me on that.

The car also had a squeaky seat and, worst of all, the headrest rattled on its rails. That would be enough for me pass at the dealership, but I’ll reserve judgment until I drive another one.

Much of this is relative, though, and if I hadn’t gone from the CTS straight into a rock-solid Mercedes E-Class, where everything matched up perfectly, I might have been able to overlook most of it. For $15,000 less than the E-Class, you probably can too, and that’s the car’s greatest asset -- value.

Priced like a compact luxury sedan, it’s actually midsize, and, starting at $33,490, costs anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 less than the European competition.

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Of course looks aren’t everything, and certainly not enough to make the CTS a contender. Cadillac has built a lot of fine-looking cars over the years, but once you started them up, you wished you hadn’t. Not so in the CTS.

Where the old car was good on the road, the new one is great. Two V-6 engines are available, but the one you want is the one with direct injection. Simply put, direct injection is a more efficient way of delivering fuel into the cylinders, which means more power and better mileage.

For only about two grand more than the base V-6, you get 304 horsepower and 26 mpg on the highway from an engine that does a good impression of a V-8. With a deep rumble and plenty of go the moment you step on the accelerator, it makes a strong argument for the V-6 future Cadillac is pinning its fortunes on in the face of stiffer fuel-efficiency standards in the coming years.

Just as impressive is the way the car handles. With available all-wheel drive and wheels pushed out wide to the sides, the CTS makes no excuses in the twisty stuff. If anything, the ride is a little too stiff.

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The example I was driving had the softest suspension available, and at times on bumpy roads, I found myself wishing there was a button I could push to make it a little softer, more like, well, a Cadillac. Then I drove that E-Class with its much cushier ride and there was no comparison. On handling, the CTS wins, hands down. Given the choice, I’d pick the firmer ride.

A manual transmission is available for performance-minded drivers, but most people will be happy with the 6-speed automatic. It’s not brilliant; I found it changed gears too often in the middle of turns when I didn’t want it to. But there is also a manual mode that lets you shift for yourself. When you do, it stays in the chosen gear all the way to redline, unlike a lot of transmissions that take over and shift when they think they’re smarter than you.

One thing that is smarter than you, and just about every other car on the planet, is the CTS’s stereo/navigation system. With a touch screen, voice recognition and iPod compatibility, it puts the German offerings to shame with their confusing control dials, multifunctional buttons, and screens that have no interest being touched by the likes of you.

The CTS has buttons and dials too, but they’re easy to use and do things you actually want to do with buttons and dials, like change the radio station or adjust the volume. What really stands apart, though, is the available 40 GB hard drive, with a feature called Timeshift. It works like a TiVo, recording up to an hour of broadcast or satellite radio programming, even with the car turned off.

Granted, if you really can’t live without missing a single moment of FOX News Channel on XM Satellite Radio, you’ll probably find yourself using the Timeshift during your hour-long visits to the psychologist.

But, it’s cool, and the next time the deejay says “Coming up next, Frank Sinatra with ‘My Way,'" you won’t have to sit in the car and wait.

Then again, you may want to take it for another spin around the block anyway.

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2008 CTS V-6 DI

Base Price: $34,545

As Tested: $48,585

Type: Front-engine, rear-drive, five-passenger, four-door sedan

Engine: 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 304 horsepower, 273 pound-foot torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 17 city/26 hwy

What do you think of the Cadillac CTS?

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