2004 Cadillac CTS-V First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
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2004 Cadillac CTS-V Sedan

(5.7L V8 6-speed Manual)

Euro Beater

What's gotten into Cadillac, I don't know. After years of spineless denial, corporate vacillation and engineering apathy, the once (and possibly future?) standard of the world is again a force to be reckoned with.

What caused Cadillac's reawakening, I have no idea. When you can count Cimarron, Allante and the Catera amongst your numerous flops, pinpointing the day that GM's luxury brand finally said "enough is enough" and decided to get back in the business of building world-class cars is difficult.

But indeed, it has done just that. The CTS, for all the press about its avant-garde styling, has sold well. The recently released top-of-the-line XLR convertible is indeed in the same league as the best from Mercedes and Jaguar. And the company's new SRX luxury sport-ute may prove to be a grand-slam home run in a segment already replete with big hitters.

If you need further proof that Cadillac is serious about competing head-to-head with the Europeans, then you're going to be amazed at its latest audacity. Targeting quite possibly the luxury segment's strongest franchise, BMW's incomparable M3, the CTS-V is what five short years ago would have been unthinkable — a luxury performance sedan from the company that invented the tail fin.

The CTS-V comes by its new performance status honestly, Cadillac having liberated the latest-generation 5.7-liter V8 from Corvette's mondo-rapid Z06. In CTS-V guise, the LS-6 small block generates a full 400 horsepower, a number that towers over the M3 and is virtually identical to BMW's top-of-the-line M GmbH product, the M5.

Cadillac claims a 4.6-second 0-to-60-mph time which is entirely believable considering the way that the LS-6's 395 lb-ft of torque is transmitted through the Tremec six-speed manual transmission, also sourced from the Z6. Even the top gears fail to blunt its thrust and on Road America's long back straight, the CTS-V hit the same top speed as this editor attained on the same track just two months ago on a two-wheeled superbike. Cadillac boasts that the CTS-V tops out at an autobahn-devouring 163 miles per hour, again superior to the BMW numbers, but in this case because the German company chooses to electronically limit its cars to 156. In any case, hopefully the message is clear. This isn't just another GM marketing maven's sports car, dressed up in faux ground effects and some racing stripes. The CTS-V is a ground-pounding, asphalt-melting sport sedan with performance equal to the best in this land or any other.

Stomach-wrenching acceleration is to be expected when you combine 400 hp and the CTS-V's relatively-light-for-a-big-sedan 3,847 pounds, just 338 (of which the bigger motor accounts for 62 pounds and the more robust transmission a further 60) more than the base 3.2 V6. What was far less expected was the big V8's sophistication relative to its application in the Corvette. Prior to my hot laps around Wisconsin's Road America, I expected the CTS-V's turn of speed to be accompanied by the Z06's NVH — loud intake roar, valve clatter and a general rumbling not befitting a luxury sedan. In fact, I fully expected to be disappointed that the company hadn't chosen a hot-rodded version of its more modern Northstar double overhead cam V8 instead of the Corvette's antiquated pushrod lump (Cadillac claims that the LS-6 was chosen because the Northstar was too big to fit in the CTS' engine bay, originally designed for a V6).

In fact, there was nothing to be disappointed about. Indeed, Cadillac has exorcised almost all of cacophony, thanks to a stiffer engine cradle, optimal engine mounting and low-impedance gusseting. Even if I don't quite understand how such small changes make such a large difference, I can certainly appreciate its effect as the overhead valve LS-6, in this guise at least, feels as sophisticated as some of the competition's double overhead cam designs.

Surprisingly, the CTS' rear-wheel-drive chassis didn't need much reinforcement to handle all the extra power. Other than a bolt-in shock tower brace to allow more linear steering input as the big 245/45ZR18 Goodyear Eagle run-flats bite the tarmac, little chassis-stiffening is needed to cope with the CTS-V's new turn of speed.

Of course, the tuning of the various chassis bits has radically changed. Spring rates are up 27 percent all round and the stabilizer bars are 3.6mm (front) and 3.0mm (rear) thicker than on the standard item, with firmer damping at all four corners and Nivomat self-leveling rear shocks at the rear. And the addition of the bigger engine and sturdier transmission has only transferred about two percentage points of the car's weight balance forward (it now stands at about 54/46 front to rear).

All of which adds up to a car that handles like no Cadillac before it. More softly suspended than the M3 (and you really notice its more comfortable ride on the street), the CTS-V was nonetheless fully capable on the ultrahigh-speed corners of Road America, with body control easily the equal of, and most probably superior to, Audi's S4 and Mercedes' C32 AMG. Steering response is very linear, body roll well contained (especially at the front) and grip prodigious.

In fact, Cadillac is so proud of its accomplishments in this last regard that the CTS-V is the first car with a built-in "g" meter to measure lateral acceleration (one wag redlined it a 1.0 at Road America, an incredible number if it's accurate). Another piece of electronic trickery, this again liberated from the Corvette Z06, is the CTS-V's advanced vehicle stability control system with GM's unique Competition Mode. Press the steering-wheel-mounted traction control button twice within five seconds and the CTS-V's advanced chassis computer will let you hang the rear end out under power until it determines you are well and truly out of control. Hold the same button for more than five seconds and it won't interfere at all.

Harnessing all the engine's newfound power is the biggest brakes on any GM sedan with massive 355mm front discs gripped by Brembo four-piston calipers. The rears are even larger at 365mm, and, surprisingly, they too have four-piston calipers. Despite Road America's extended straightaways being punctuated by tight hairpins, there was virtually no fade, though admittedly the brake pad dust did soil the gleam of the CTS-V's 18-inch alloys.

In fact, there's absolutely nothing to fault about the CTS-V's comportment. You have to look inside the cabin for that. Based on a fully loaded CTS, the V adds sport seats with more side bolstering, a tacked-on scuff plate and some new, and much needed, gauges. Unfortunately, the same questionable plastic surfaces remain and stand out more now that the V's MSRP stretches to $49,995 (just over $51,000 if you add the sunroof, the only available option). The dash's material looks like that in the latest Accord, but the more expensive Cadillac can't match the Honda for the soft, tactile feel of its interior materials.

Ditto for the center stack which still needs upgrading if Cadillac wants to take on the Euros (especially Audi) on an even footing. It might look good enough for a Malibu, but it's not upscale enough for a car that wants to talk trash to the best the world has to offer. None of which changes the fact that the CTS-V is, and by some margin, the best car I've tested wearing any GM logo. It's also more than capable of competing with the established Euro sedans. On an even footing, no excuses needed.

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