The Cadillac revival is no longer breaking news, but there is still a sizable market that isn’t willing to trade its Tri-Stars and Roundels for that funky wreath and shield — or even consider doing so. They still see this brand as old fashioned, a prejudice that’s just dripping with irony given the decade that’s passed since GM banished water fowl from the Cadillac emblem to signify its reinvention of the brand. It’s for these bigots that Cadillac produces the CTS-V, a senseless and overly enthusiastic expression of everything GM’s luxury brand aims to stand for.
The CTS-V is the high-performance variant of Cadillac’s excellent midsize sedan. The “V” could stand for any number of things, from velocity to victory, but at GM it’s merely the designation of a series of special vehicles, in the fashion of BMW’s M line and Mercedes-Benz’s AMG models. Cadillac’s V program began with great promise in 2004 with the first generation of the CTS, but the treatment as later applied to other Caddy’s was modest and haphazard. With the second-generation CTS, however, Cadillac seems to have gotten everything right.
Coming to market a year after the much-lauded 2008 CTS, the V model is Cadillac’s image car, its fist-pumping, patriotic reply to the snobs. Easily identified by its deep front spoiler and mesh grille, it carries a $60,720 starting price. This is a whole lot more than the base, $35k CTS, but with over twice the horsepower in the V, it’s money well spent. Powered by a supercharged V8 that owes its existence to the Chevy Corvette, the new CTS-V is worthy of a whole host of alliterative adjectives: voracious, violent, virtuous, vacuous.
It’s the engine that defines the V, a variation on the supercharged V8 that powers the Corvette ZR1, the fastest, most powerful Corvette ever built. The version in the CTS-V is built with fewer trick parts, so it makes 82 less horsepower than that radical ‘Vette, but 556 horsepower and 551 lb-ft of torque is still an amazing amount for a series production car. Ten years ago the most powerful Cadillac was making 300 horsepower, but the past decade has seen the Germans waging a horsepower war to shame even late-’60s Detroit Mercedes sells no fewer than eight vehicles with over 500 horsepower today, most of them AMG-badged, while BMW’s M line now counts four.VIDEO: Click here for our CTS-V Test Drive.
Cadillac has nothing to be ashamed about with its sole entry in the field, however, as the CTS-V is wildly powerful. Supercharged engines make lots of torque low in the powerband, which means that the CTS-V accelerates rapidly from a standstill. (The supercharger is a belt-driven blower that pumps extra air into the engine, allowing it to burn extra fuel and thus, make more power.) In around-town driving the car is as quick as it is fast on the highway. Any errors in judgment while passing other vehicles can be immediately rectified by merely pressing harder on the accelerator, as no gap in traffic is too small or moving too quickly that the CTS-V can’t overcome the deficit. But one of the nicer things about the CTS-V is that you don’t have to drive it with reckless abandon to enjoy it.
Cadillac has wisely tamed the V just enough that you wouldn’t think twice about letting your mom get behind the wheel. At idle there’s a bit of rumble, but not so much to scare dogs and small children. Once underway, the car is not nearly as quiet as other, pure luxury choices, just as it should be. When you’re paying $25k for a monster motor, you want to be able to hear it.
The steering is heavy and direct, but lacks the responsiveness through the wheel that you might find in a real sports car, as opposed to a sports sedan. Transmission choices in the CTS-V include both a six-speed manual and a conventional automatic with the same number of gears. We drove the automatic, which includes shift-it-yourself buttons on the back of the steering wheel. They work well enough, but didn’t really cure us of wishing GM had delivered the manual, even if the automatic accelerates faster, according to Car And Driver. Either way, you’re going from 0-60 in four-second territory, which is significantly faster than most people have any business driving.
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Fortunately, the suspension and brakes in the CTS-V are as impressive, even more so, really, than the powerplant. There is a long tradition in Detroit of making cars that go ridiculously fast in a straight line, but without much ability to handle or stop. The CTS-V is not one of those cars. GM has specced the CTS-V with Magnetic Ride Control, a system that Cadillac debuted almost a decade ago, and has since developed into one of the best suspension systems extant, so good that it’s also used by Ferrari, Acura and Audi. This type of shock absorber is filled with a fluid that contains magnetic particles, such that the viscosity of the fluid can be changed almost instantaneously by applying a magnetic field. On the street it means that the CTS-V can be compliant over bumps and rough pavement, providing a firm yet comfortable ride without any jarring. But when you really start pushing the car, either while cornering or under heavy braking, the suspension stiffens up for race-car-like road holding and minimal body lean. The brakes have been upgraded over the standard CTS as well, with huge 15-inch rotors and six-piston calipers in the front and 14.7-inch rotors and four-piston calipers in the back. The result is that the car, despite its 4,300-pound curb weight, can come to a halt fast enough to slam you forward in your seat like you’ve just hit a brick wall.
Speaking of seats, the one key option available on the CTS-V is the $3,400 Recaro package. Whether Recaro deserves its reputation as the premier builder of sports seats is a question for another day, but the ones in the CTS-V fit the car perfectly. They resemble the standard seats — which are quite good in their own right, and might be preferable for the stouter driver — but the Recaros provide lots of side bolstering while still being comfortable. Cadillac also offers a synthetic suede steering wheel and gearshift knob, which is a nice touch, if a bit boy-racerish. The rest of the interior is standard CTS, the good and the bad. The best example of the former would be the pop-up navigation system, which can disappear with the touch of a button on the dash, hands-down the cleverest solution around to the inherent ugliness of having a giant LCD screen in the middle of the instrument panel.
While the CTS-V is the sort of car it’s easy to get giddy over, it’s not without flaws, and while they’re all little things, they do add up. The overhead lighting in both the front and rear seats is freakishly cheap looking, with a terrible feel to its plastic pushbuttons. It’s the sort of part that seems like it must be shared with an entry-level Chevy. Similarly unimpressive is the “obsidian black” interior trim, a kind of glossy black that other manufacturers of much less expensive cars have used in a vain effort to class up their cheap interiors. “Piano black” (or whatever other name the marketing department has given this unattractive and easily smudged plastic) is simply this decade’s fake wood grain, and should be banished from real luxury cars. If this sounds like a matter of taste, the final strike against the CTS-V is a completely objective measure: fuel economy. Its EPA rating is 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway, and no matter how low fuel economy stands on your list of priorities, those are not good numbers.
The new CTS-V lies fully within the realm of vehicles that offer such ridiculous performance thresholds that there’s no possible way an owner can ever exploit the car’s full potential, save for taking it to the race track. While GM is no stranger to this territory — the Corvette has stood proudly in this camp for years — this is a big deal for Cadillac, as it continues to fight for relevancy.
If this makes the CTS-V an unabashed success, it also raises a bigger issue, which is why these cars exist in the first place, and why they seem to be proliferating. Clearly these types of cars are amazing displays of engineering might, and that’s what makes them so troubling. To the sane and rational buyer, even one who’s interested in buying a high performance machine, most of the traditional means of evaluation — things like comparisons of speed and horsepower, handling and grip — well, they become moot.
I mean, what difference does it really make in any sort of normal, legal driving situation if your CTS-V is three-tenths of a second faster than a BMW M5 in a 0-60 sprint, when you’re both getting there well under five seconds? This sort of talk is anathema to the “car guy” crowd, but it’s hard to argue that these performance attributes are actually as important to the owner as the bragging rights that derive from them. Perhaps there’s a better way for engineers to prove their prowess, and drivers to celebrate it?