REVIEWS: Cadillac CTS-V

September 1, 2003
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There is a corner on the fabulous 12.8-mile Nrburgring Nordschleife racetrack in northern Germany that sorts out the great from the merely good. Approached downhill at extreme speed, the Fuchsrhre ("Foxhole") is a gentle left-hander that exits steeply uphill. A car goes from full jounce to full rebound in short order here, so the suspension damping has to be outstanding. A further complication is the following left-hand bend, where one has to turn and brake at the same time. Porsche 911s and BMW M cars cope with the Fuchsrhre magnificently. Audis and Volkswagens fall down in this corner, their damping unable to cope with its extreme demands. The new Cadillac CTS-V is brilliant here, however, the first American car that can stand up to the world's best sport sedans. It's that good.
The basis of the car, the first in a line of V-series performance Cadillacs, is the CTS sedan. The most fundamental difference is under the hood, where the LS6 5.7-liter OHV V-8 has been squeezed in, replacing the standard car's 3.2- and 3.6-liter V-6s. This aluminum V-8 makes a bountiful 400 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 390 pound-feet of torque at 4800 rpm. The powertrain is similar to that of the Corvette Z06, although there is a new induction system and a new dual exhaust, and the accessory drive had to be moved back 1.5 inches. When you open the hood, you'll also see a structural brace over the V-8, which helps steering feel and precision as well as suspension tower rigidity. A six-speed Tremec manual transmission is the only available gearbox. The engine and transmission account for about 119 pounds of the 264-pound penalty over a CTS.
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The CTS's chassis also came in for plenty of attention. The front and rear suspension cradles have been strengthened, front damper diameter has gone up from 1.4 to 1.8 inches, damper valving has been modified, the front and rear anti-roll bars are larger, and the spring rates have been increased by about 27 percent. The knuckles, all but one of the bushings, and the control arms for the front and multi-link rear suspension are carried over. To cope with the extra grunt, the driveshafts and prop shaft have been beefed up, and there is a Getrag clutch-type limited-slip differential. Cadillac's StabiliTrak skid control system has been upgraded to provide four modes: traction and stability control on, traction control off and stability control on, a competition mode that allows some sideways action, and traction and stability control off.
Brembo answered the call for uprated brakes with huge ventilated 14.0-inch-diameter front and 14.4-inch rear discs and aluminum four-piston calipers. Wide 245/45ZR-18 Goodyear Eagle F1 tires sit on slinky Speedline aluminum wheels that are one of the many aesthetic improvements over the regular CTS. (Big wheels and tires always help.) The CTS-V's deep front fascia ducts air to the engine and brakes and incorporates a splitter to improve front-end stability. The grille itself is a cool stainless-steel wire mesh affair. Lowered rockers and rear fascia, a monochromatic rear license-plate surround, and a pair of suitably large-bore tailpipes further differentiate the V from its tamer siblings. Like the regular CTS, the V is a styling statement rather than a thing of beauty, but it looks suitably mean in your rear-view mirror.
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Inside, the CTS gets a number of improvements. The instrument cluster has chromed gauge rings and a 180-mph speedometer. A driver information center (DIC) consists of two digital readouts for information such as tire pressures and engine functions as well as lateral g readings. There are satin-chrome accents on the door handles, the grab handles, and the shifter ring cap. The steering wheel, with an aluminum bezel, has buttons for the DIC, the cruise control, and the stability system. The seats have suede inserts to keep you in place under high-g cornering, and the center armrest has been lowered four inches to keep it out of arm's way. The basic interior architecture of the CTS remains, which means angular styling and high-quality materials that somehow conspire to look cheap.
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You tend to overlook that flaw when moving down the road, though. The engine is stunning, with monstrous amounts of torque and a willingness to rev. When you put your foot in, the engine growl is utterly intoxicating, a noise that could come only from a large-capacity American V-8. At highway cruising speeds, however, the note is muted and refined, never obtrusive. The V is super-quick, with Cadillac claiming a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 171 mph in fifth gear. (The V might be speed-limited to 155 mph, as are its German and British rivals, by the time it goes on sale later this fall.) The transmission is a bit rubbery and lacks the precision of BMW and Honda manual gearboxes. Mind you, there's so much grunt that gearchanging is almost optional.
The real kicker, though, is this car's poise. On the street, the ride is firm, but it feels a touch more supple than a BMW M3 and never becomes harsh. No doubt, it could benefit from some softening up for the worst American roads, but why ruin a good car just because some isolated parts of the country can't look after their highways? The M3 would be a poorer car if BMW had dumbed it down for a small percentage of its buyers. At warp speeds of 150 mph and above, the CTS-V is as solid and well planted as an M5.
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Around the Nrburgring, the V is heroic. Without trying too hard, we were able to lap in less than nine minutes, just four seconds shy of our best time in the ultimate pre-993 Porsche 911, the RS 3.8. John Heinricy, director of high-performance vehicles for GM's Performance Division, has gone around the circuit in eight minutes and nineteen seconds, which is better than the current M3 has managed to do.
The Brembos never tire of hauling the car down from speed and have a reassuring pedal feel that is compromised only when you clout curbs, which causes the pistons to knock back-hardly something that would happen on the street. You expect a big sedan to load up its outside front tire and plow, yet the CTS-V turns in neatly and is surprisingly neutral on both road and track. With the competition mode selected, you can dial in some opposite lock before the system engages to prevent you and the car from flying into the scenery. Turn all the stability controls off, and you can steer the V through the side windows. The handling is very accessible, though, because the tires relinquish grip progressively, and the body control is excellent. Who needs the overcomplication and artificiality of Mercedes-Benz's Active Body Control when conventional springs and dampers do the job this well? The only quibble is with the steering, which is accurate but lacks the final degree of communicative feel.
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The CTS-V is a better driver's car than the Jaguar S-type R, the Audi RS6, or the Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG. It isn't as ultimately involving as BMW's M3 or M5, but it is easier to live with and has stellar straight-line performance and handling. Plus, it's different, its character largely derived from the magnificent LS6 engine. If the interior looked as good as an Audi's or a BMW's, there would be very few reasons to buy a German sport sedan, because the CTS V offers the space of an M5 and will likely be priced close to an M3-$10,000 to $12,000 more than a well-equipped $35,000 CTS, according to Cadillac execs. That's the kind of math we like.

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2003 Cadillac CTS

Base RWD 4-Dr Sedan V6
starting at (MSRP)
$30,000
Engine
3.2L V6
Fuel Economy
18 City 26 Hwy
2003 Cadillac CTS