2009 Cadillac CTS-V: First Drive

September 1, 2008
2009 Cadillac CTS-V

2009 Cadillac CTS-V

Just one hot lap with Chris Berube, the lead development engineer of the CTS-V, and I was seeing Cadillac’s completely redesigned sport sedan in a new light. After taking a few laps of the road course at the brand-spanking new Monticello Motor Club, in Monticello, N.Y., and feeling like I’d started to become familiar with the relatively high-speed loop, I had Berube hop into the driver’s seat and show me how it’s really done. As I held on tight, he gracefully maintained much higher speeds than I had through each turn after turn, gently feathering the throttle to make the most of the stability control system’s Competitive Driving Mode, the tires emitting an almost constant, modest vocalization.

I wasn’t nearly as smooth, even after getting some tips, but the CTS-V made me look much better than I might have. Even when I was too eager on the throttle and the car started going sideways, with a slight adjustment of my right foot and the steering wheel the tail always tucked neatly into place. And despite my sometimes ill-timed braking coming out of the course’s 140+ mph straightaway, the powerful Brembo brakes (six-piston in front) hauled the CTS-V down to speed without hesitation or drama, while the suspension transferred the CTS-V’s 4300 pounds with such finesse, rewarding me with a feeling of poise even when my harried inputs were closer to those of a rally racer.

The way in which Berube, also a longtime weekend SCCA racer, flaunts the CTS-V’s not-so-ragged edges with confidence and ease highlights a level of pride and enthusiasm that has sometimes been lacking at the Big Three in the past—even in the teams that engineer high-performance variants. But the V-Series guys really seem to understand the market and the importance of hard-earned track credentials. In recent testing on Germany’s Nurburgring, race driver and GM executive John Heinricy brought a production-spec CTS-V to a lap time that’s claimed to be the fastest-ever for a production sedan.

That’s a claim that likely has Mercedes AMG and BMW M engineers scratching their heads in frustration. But what matters most to some buyers will be the bragging rights of performance numbers, and they’re impressive; company officials say that the official 0-60 time of just 3.9 seconds and the 12-second, 118-mph quarter-mile time are the same whether with the standard six-speed manual gearbox or available six-speed automatic. Top speed is 175 mph with the automatic and more than 191 mph with the manual.

Power is provided by a 6.2-liter superchaged V-8 engine—termed LSA to GM and enthusiasts—that is essentially the same one installed in the Corvette ZR1 but with a somewhat smaller, four-lobe supercharger and a few other changes that give it a more refined demeanor. Output, at 556 horsepower and 551 lb-ft of torque, is more than a lot of ‘poster cars.’ The manual transmission is a new Tremec TR6060, with a sweet, precise linkage that’s completely new and a twin-disc clutch that feels robust yet has a manageable, light pedal feel; automatic cars get a six-speed unit with a manual gate and tap-shifters just behind the steering wheel.

2009 Cadillac CTS-V

2009 Cadillac CTS-V

Only on the track did we have the nerve to fully exercise the CTS-V, because the torque available throughout the rev band is downright intimidating, especially in the lower gears. Besides having higher output numbers than the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, BMW M5, or Audi RS4, the CTS-V’s engine has a much fatter torque curve that smacks you back in your seat just above idle and builds steadily all the way to redline.

Our only complaint with the powertrain concerned the automatic’s manual mode. Unlike most other units with paddle shifters, which allow you to suddenly order a downshift from drive, eventually reverting to automatic mode, the CTS-V requires you to first move the shift knob to the right into manual mode before using the tap-shifters. On the plus side, the manual mode is truly one, allowing you to run all the way up to the rev limited or lug the engine if desired for traction on slippery surfaces.

But the engine’s monstrous power and torque output would be quite useless without some great chassis and suspension tuning underpinning it all; on this count the CTS-V delivers, perhaps more so than its closest competitor, the C63 AMG. The rear-wheel-drive CTS-V has a 54/46 weight distribution—the same as the C63—and has been tuned to be remarkably composed yet docile. That’s thanks to GM’s Magnetic Ride Control (MRC)—which we’ve found almost unanimous praise for in other models—now standard on the CTS-V. In short, a magnetically sensitive fluid in the dampers can almost instantaneously become soft or firm, as needed on an individual heel level. In back-road touring, the differences versus the previous CTS-V and its less forgiving ride are felt as it rides quite similarly to a standard CTS-V yet tightens up smartly in corners.

Unlike BMW’s M Drive, with its intimidating array of performance settings that might leave you wondering if you’re choosing the right one, the CTS-V keeps it simple. There are two different ride modes for the MRC, Sport and Touring; we found very little difference between the two on relaxed back-road touring, with the Sport mode still surprisingly compliant. For track driving, the Stabilitrak stability control has a Competition Driving Mode, which allows more of a slip angle (more yaw) than the system normally would, essentially enabling you to take full advantage of whatever grip the sticky Z-rated Michelin PS2 summer performance tires have. The standard Stabilitrak mode doesn’t cut in abruptly and damp the fun, though it avoids tire vocalization.

Competitive mode also automatically firms up the steering feel. But by the time we’d finished on the track we had just one issue—the steering, while precise, doesn’t transmit much feel of the road surface even when you’re teasing the tires’ coefficient of friction. It’s been improved a bit, but it was one of our complaints with the last-gen V and we’ll keep it on our list of cons.

The V-Series inherits most the standard CTS’s stunning interior, which already felt a class above thanks to stitched materials, very attractive surfaces, and a sweeping, aggressive look that breaks away from the sport-sedan status quo. The pop-up navigation system, with XM NavTraffic, remains one of the best in the business, and cooled seats are a godsend in track driving. Along with subtle badging and trim differences, more standard equipment, and an electric parking brake, the CTS gets gauges that have an arc of lights that illuminates in sync with the needle. As redline is approached, the bright-red arc blinks quickly.

We’d strongly advise getting the optional Recaro sport seats, which bring extended thigh support and adjustable side support. And be forewarned, the back seats don’t fold forward on the V but there remains a small ski pass-through.

Cadillac has done well in making the CTS-V’s interior just as refined as its competitors. Wind and road noise are surprisingly well isolated, leaving you to enjoy the engine’s rich sounds. The supercharger whine is definitely toned down compared to the previous version, and compared to other supercharged motors. From inside, at partial throttle the whine and intake noise still rivals the exhaust, but at full throttle a robust, sonorous exhaust tone completely takes over. And curiously, you don’t ever hear the supercharger whine from the outside when it screams by.

The low-volume CTS-V will start just above the $60,000 mark, say company officials, with a fully loaded V in the upper $60k range. That’s not a bargain; it’s higher than the C63 AMG, the BMW M3, or the new Lexus IS-F, but about the same as an Audi RS 4—and admittedly a lot less than the BMW M5.

When will the great horsepower race end? We’re not sure, but we’re tickled to think that German engineers are playing catch-up right now.

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