DETROIT TO PARIS
Charles de Gaulle airport is a confusing mess, but I forgive it its trespasses because it is, after all, the portal to Paris, one of my favorite cities in the world. On this particular day, having arrived on Air France's overnight flight from Detroit, I am even more keen than usual to arrive in the City of Light. That's because, rather than taking the dreary RER commuter train into the city center, I will be at the wheel of a 2011 Cadillac CTS-V coupe. Hanspeter Ryser, Cadillac's Zurich-based European PR head, meets me in baggage claim and escorts me to an underground parking structure. "I think it's in aisle 20," he says as we stroll through the low-ceilinged space. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. One glance down the row of tightly packed Renaults and Peugeots in aisle 20 is all it takes to spy the distinctly chiseled, high rump of the big red coupe from Detroit. Ryser pops the trunk lid and points out a thick dossier under the trunk floor that will come in handy should any authorities question the Michigan license plates. He apologizes for the navigation system, which is still dialed in for America rather than Continental Europe, hands me the keys, and wishes me well. This Caddy is mine!
I slide into the Recaro driver's seat and hit the start button. The CTS-V's supercharged 6.2-liter LSA V-8 engine ignites excitedly, and the dual exhaust respond with a throaty rejoinder; the aural effect is something that must be new to this underground parking chamber, which is more accustomed to the tut-tut-tut murmur of small-displacement diesel engines. The CTS-V coupe interior is completely familiar, as it's nearly identical to that of the CTS-V sedan that debuted nearly two years ago, and the underlying design is the same as the one we've seen in the standard CTS sedan for the past three years. There are 4610 kilometers on the odometer, or 2864 miles. The speedometer markings are set to a 0-to-200 grid; it's easy to toggle through the trip computer and choose English or Metric readings. Our test car is equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission, for which I'm grateful: driving into Paris in this relatively big car is going to be stressful enough without having to feather a clutch pedal. And there are paddle shifters for the right opportunity for do-it-yourself gear selection.
Easing out of aisle 20, I carefully circle the ramp that leads up to ground level and look askance at the tight quarters of the exit booths and their very tall curbs. I'm afraid I might scrape the CTS-V's shiny chrome nineteen-inch wheels, so I make a three-point turn and glide through carefully. As I pause at the terminal curb to set my BlackBerry's Google Maps function to Gare du Nord in central Paris, an older couple takes in the car, and the man steps off the curb to get a closer look at the badge. Yep, I'm in the only Cadillac CTS-V coupe in all of continental Europe, and I'd better get used to the attention.
I'm picking up my brother Greg and my friend Al at Gare du Nord (North Train Station), where they're arriving from Amsterdam. This task requires a visit to another subterranean parking structure, this one even more confined than the one at the airport. In these quarters, anything bigger than a Volkswagen Golf feels too big, and I'm very glad for the CTS-V's rearview camera when I back into a narrow slot. Put the car into reverse and the navigation screen rises quickly from the dash and the rearview image appears immediately. This sounds obvious, but the Cadillac system operates much more quickly than those in many other cars.
With my two passengers and their gear collected, it's time to cram bodies and bags into the CTS-V coupe for the drive to Normandy. The rear seats are not what one would call commodious, but they're not bad, and Greg can sit there without hitting his head on the big rear glass. The trunk, for its part, is surprisingly roomy, as it fits three roll-on bags plus Greg's huge hiker-style backpack. Hey, when you've got a big butt like the CTS coupe has, you score some cargo space back there.
On the A13 autoroute out of Paris, the CTS-V coupe settles into a comfortable gallop. The French police are notoriously tough on speeders and we're not pressed for time, so we take it easy, and I leave the transmission in drive and the suspension in Tour mode. Every so often I feel brave, hit the gas, take in the roar of the big supercharged V-8, and we rocket up to 160 kph (100 mph) or even 200 kph (124 mph). Easy, peasy.
AN ARTFUL JUXTAPOSITION
Our friends Steve and Pierre are hosting us at their chateau at La Houblonniere, France, near the Normandy coast between Caen and Lisieux. The 2011 Cadillac parked in the courtyard of this chateau, parts of which date to the 14th century, makes for quite a tableau: we've got ultramodern machinery juxtaposed against a building that predates the automobile by hundreds of years. I'm reminded of the contrast that evening when we're sipping Calvados, the region's famous apple brandy, in the chateau's grand salon. Its restored 18th century splendor is accented by a sleek Italian sofa and coffee table that look as modern and different as the CTS-V does outside in the courtyard. I think they call this "eclecticism."
IN THE LAND OF CALVADOS AND MAGNETIC DAMPER FLUID
"Athleticism" is the word that comes to mind the next day, when we get a chance to wring out the CTS-V coupe on some remote two-lane roads in the picturesque, rolling Normandy countryside. Set the suspension to "sport" and select manual mode for the six-speed automatic by sliding the gear lever to the right. You can then shift manually either by shoving the gear selector up to upshift or down to downshift (logical, huh?). Compared with the base CTS coupe, the CTS-V brings Cadillac's celebrated Magnetic Ride Control to the table, and the effect this system has on maintaining the vehicle's composure when you're pushing the car hard along a good road is very noticeable. Pitch, dive, and squat are effectively tamed by the fast-reacting dampers, which use magnetic fluid rather than mechanical valves. The CTS-V effectively transforms itself from grand touring coupe to sports car. About the only thing your passengers will notice, though, is that the scenery is blurring by more quickly than before; that's how well the magnetic dampers keep everything on an even keel.
Touring the French countryside is nice and all, but what the CTS-V coupe and I are both itching for is a hard run on a section of German Autobahn with no speed restrictions. Al and I have packed off Greg to the U.K., so we've got plenty of room to stretch out in the Caddy coupe as we head northeast out of France toward Belgium. The Caddy continues to draw stares and cell-phone cameras from other motorists, like a BMW 1-series full of young French guys that circles us like a shark.
CHARLEMAGNE, CATHEDRALS, AND CONCRETE BARRIERS
Near the confluence of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany (Trois Frontières), we cross the border into Germany at Aachen, site of the grand cathedral where Charlemagne was crowned, and then head north to Alpen, which is not far from the mighty Rhine. Heading east on the 42 Autobahn, we make our way through the Dusseldorf/Dortmund metroplex, which isn't easy, because there's a long construction zone with the narrowest possible drive lane, and it's hemmed in on both sides by concrete barriers. I swear I have only three inches of wiggle room on each side of the CTS-V coupe's wide rear end, so it's a good thing the Caddy's steering is precise. But I'm still sweating. This goes on for miles and miles through an industrial zone ringed by huge steel factories. Where is my German Autobahn experience, dammit?!?
Finally, the construction ends and we're on the A2 heading toward Hannover. Traffic is still pretty heavy, but the telltale round sign with three diagonal slashes finally appears, signaling the beginning of an unrestricted speed zone. I fall in behind an Audi A8 whose driver is clearly in a hurry, select sport settings for the suspension and transmission, grab the Alcantara steering wheel, and mash the pedal. Six-point-two liters of supercharged Detroit V-8 is on the muscle, and the Audi (an S8? Can't tell; it's unbadged) can't put much distance between us. It's big bursts of acceleration followed by hard, hard braking as we come up on traffic. The CTS-V coupe's 15-inch Brembo brakes are magnificent; no fading, no drama, just massive scrubbing of speed. At 140 mph, the Caddy is in its element: stable, composed, ready to rock and roll. There's a slight intake whine from the supercharger as I use the paddles to shift from fourth to fifth. We hit 150+ mph several times, and then we get one final fabulous lunge to 165 mph before we run out of clear road again. Yes!
Later, in the tourist town of Hameln, home of the Pied Piper, Al heads off to wash and gas the car while I finish coffee, and I'm struck by how good the CTS coupe looks in motion, especially from the rear. With its extreme slope, the rear glass looks great, but it has a minor distorting effect in the rear-view mirror, as it makes oncoming cars look tall and narrow. Rear-three-quarter visibility, not surprising, is compromised, but we didn't find that to be a big issue, actually. Other cabin complaints? We have both found these Recaros superb over the long haul, but the adjustment knobs for the seat bottom and the seat back are located too far back: your hand falls down and where you expect to find these controls, you instead find the lumbar inflators. The CTS-V coupe lacks blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, and smart cruise control, features that quickly are trickling into competitive cars in this price class. And although the ergonomics are good and the materials are nice enough, the CTS cabin wasn't world-class when it debuted three years ago and certainly has fallen behind the likes of Audi, Infiniti, BMW, and Jaguar since, even in gussied-up V-series guise. There is, however, an iPhone connector in the center console, so all will be forgiven for some.
Back on the A2, truck traffic is heavy but there are a few openings where we can play, and in one of them, we come across a Mercedes-Benz E350 CDI (turbodiesel) silver coupe. This time, we only manage to get up to about 140 mph, which now seems a little slow, but there's also great pleasure to be derived from hounding this German steed, whose driver eventually drifts into the right lane and coolly appraises us as we come by on his left. Unleashing a 556-hp, rear-wheel-drive American grand touring coupe on the Autobahn? This is what I call a summer vacation.
2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe Specs
Base Price: $64,290
On Sale: August 2010
Engine: Supercharged 6.2-liter OHV V-8
Horsepower: 556 hp @ 6100 rpm
Torque: 551 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 188.5 x 74.1 x 55.9 in
Legroom F/R: 42.4/35.0 in
Headroom F/R: 36.9/34.6 in
Cargo capacity 10.5 cu ft
Curb Weight: 4237 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 12/18 mpg