REVIEWS: Cadillac CTS-V takes on the BMW M3 and the Audi S4

August 12, 2004
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This test never could have happened before Cadillac introduced the CTS. Cadillac's previous attempts at building a sport sedan have been, to put it bluntly, half-assed. The Seville introduced in 1975 was billed as a Mercedes rival, but in reality it was little more than a shrunken version of the same old Cadillac philosophy: big, cushy, and outdated. It had a pushrod engine in front and leaf springs in back; both were considered archaic even then. The '80s spawned nothing from Cadillac that even passed the laugh test, but Cadillac hyped the 1992 STS as a rival to European sport sedans. In reality, it was shoddily built, and its front-wheel-drive chassis never measured up. Its Northstar overhead-cam V-8 was its only truly world-class component.
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All that has changed. The CTS sedan, introduced as Cadillac's smallest and sportiest sedan for 2003, got a proper rear-wheel-drive platform and well-sorted handling. For 2004, Cadillac introduced its sporting V-series line with the CTS-V, and it has the requisite hardware to take on all comers. V is Cadillac's answer to BMW's M and Audi's S lines of performance-enhanced vehicles. To make a CTS a V, Cadillac massages the base CTS with the late Corvette Z06's 5.7-liter 400-horsepower pushrod V-8 and six-speed transmission, bigger wheels and tires, massive Brembo brakes, and a suspension tuned at Germany's famed Nurburgring road course. The CTS-V is aggressively priced at $49,995 which includes a Bose stereo, a navigation system, and nearly everything else you might hope for. Only a moonroof and upgraded shock absorbers are optional; those of us with long torsos and big hair appreciate the ample headroom without the moonroof.
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We have been mightily impressed with the CTS-V-not just "for a Cadillac" but impressed, period. The only way to assess its greatness is to stack it up against the best competitive cars. The ultimate CTS-V challenger is the BMW M5 sedan, but since the previous version of that car is gone and the new one won't be available for another year, we'll save that comparison for another day. The new 2006 M5 will have 500 horsepower and cost nearly twice what the CTS-V does anyhow.
BMW's M3 is a bit smaller than the CTS-V and only available as a coupe and convertible, but the M3 coupe costs almost exactly as much as the CTS-V, so we invited the M3 along for the ride. Audi's hot rod S4 version of its A4 sedan is also slightly smaller than the CTS-V, but it stacks up well in terms of price and specification. We briefly discussed Mercedes-Benz's AMG line of performance cars, but none of the sedans is available with a proper manual transmission, and that was the end of that discussion.
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Our objective is to find the vehicle among these three that we'd most want to own. Performance, quality, comfort, and styling all have to be faultless. We'll drive around town running errands, blast down our favorite windy two-lanes, and scrub tires at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. Is the M3 still king? Is the CTS-V a real contender or another also-ran from Cadillac? Can the S4's lusty V-8 propel it past the others? We'll find out.
The Audi S4 has a sonorous 340-horsepower 4.2-liter V-8 mated to a six-speed manual transmission and a lowered suspension. The already fabulous interior is dressed up with Recaro seats and aluminum trim. The S4 comes decently equipped for $48,070, but options like a Bose stereo and heated seats cost extra. Ours stickered at $51,620 and it didn't have a navigation system.
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The S4 is exquisitely finished inside and out. The interior is stunning with its available two-tone seats and some of the best-quality materials and switchgear in any car at any price. The Audi is unique in this group with its Quattro all-wheel-drive system. This front-wheel-drive-biased system and a suspension set up with too much front-end stiffness conspire to produce understeer in nearly all situations. While the lack of the potential to rotate is surely confidence-inspiring for novice drivers, it hampers the fun quotient. The handling is further compromised by damping that isn't up to the aggressive spring rates; on bad surfaces, the car won't settle down and feels flummoxed. Don't let this lead you to think the S4 isn't fast around corners; it is. Just don't think you're going to throttle steer except at the absolute limit.
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The S4's steering is nicely weighted but doesn't offer much insight into what the tires are doing. No matter; they're understeering. Trust us. The S4's brakes work fine on the road, but on the track they turned to mush while the other cars' remained firm and responsive. The S4 gets the job done capably, but it's not the dancing partner that the BMW and Cadillac are.
The S4 is a four-door sedan, but its back seat isn't much better than the two-door M3's, and it is far smaller than the CTS-V's. The S4 makes up for the lack of space with elegant surface treatments and styling. Put another way, being cramped isn't as much of a concern when leather, soft-touch plastic, aluminum, and Alcantara are doing the cramping.
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If tail-out antics aren't your bag, the S4 might be. The Audi's shift action is well-weighted, and the clutch is far more user-friendly than the M3's on-off switch or the CTS-V's stiff affair. As a highway commuter, the Audi's somewhat softer ride makes it preferable to the other cars. Getting from A to B quickly is effortless in an S4; it is a supreme high-speed cruiser. But for it to offer the same level of driving involvement put forth by the other two cars in this test, everything needs to be screwed down another half turn.
The CTS-V is a brilliant handler, and it is in some ways the rawest performance car of the group. It is happy to kick its tail out, sometimes unexpectedly, but overall its handling is neutral, reasonably well-damped, and extremely capable. On the track, the linear torque curve and relatively narrow rear tires made throttle steering fun and easy. Turn-in is crisp and precise, and the steering weights up naturally and offers good feedback. The ride is stiff but, like the M3, it never feels punishing unless the roads are seriously pockmarked.
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And, oh, that engine; your torque is served, sir. This V-8 has the twist to back up its ferocious roar. The exhaust is plenty aggressive when you're on the loud pedal but never boomy when you're tooling around. Acceleration is tremendous at any speed in most any gear. The CTS-V's engine barking through the gears says "badass American muscle" louder than any testosterone-filled truck commercial ever could.
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The CTS-V has an axle tramp problem, and it can be quite frustrating. Wheel spin excites the back of the car like a heroin addict with the DTs. And like a heroin addict, we couldn't resist trying to burn out repeatedly. It always ended the same way: passengers terrified of the bucking, and forward progress retarded by lack of tire contact. Cadillac sent us an early-production 2005 CTS-V because its engineers have refined the rear end to lessen the wheel-hop problem. The situation is better but not yet solved.
The CTS-V excels when driven aggressively and only falls short in terms of ultimate refinement. Its interior looks inoffensive enough - until you see the high-quality switchgear and materials in the German cars. The Cadillac's cabin has sloppily designed molded plastic, junky-feeling control stalks, garish fonts, and too many ill-conceived seams and visible mold lines. Why must there be a two-millimeter black hole around every button in which it can wiggle whenever you press it? The BMW and Audi buttons offer crisp, precise action. The CTS-V's lack of precision doesn't end there. Its transmission is muscled into gear, not shifted elegantly. The seating is fine but doesn't offer the support-either lateral or lumbar-of the other cars. The engine sounds a lot like it does in the Corvette Z06; it belts out a mean rumble but it is more Metallica than the Audi's Brahms or the BMW's Moby.
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Cadillac tried hard with the CTS-V, and it shows, but it isn't the M3's equal in its overall refinement. BMW has perfected its cars to greatness not through magic (though it sometimes seems like it), but through dedication to developing a recipe over the long haul. Not counting the 1997-2001 Catera, a glorified Opel brought to the U.S. as an entry-level model, Cadillac just rediscovered rear-wheel-drive cars one year ago, so it does seem a bit much to expect the division to have a car that is BMW's equal already. The significance of the Cadillac being competitive in this test cannot be overstated. If Cadillac engineers refine the next CTS-V with a (much) nicer interior, a Northstar engine, and a less truck-like transmission, they may have a true world beater on their hands. They're that close.
The One to Beat is the BMW M3. The current version of the M3 coupe, introduced in 2001, offers a seemingly impossible blend of performance, handling, luxury, and-most important-refinement. It was an Automobile Magazine All-Star in 2003 and won our unqualified praise during a year-long Four Seasons test. But the M3 is getting old, and it is expensive. Our test car cost $50,470 and it had manual, unheated cloth seats, an upgraded stereo that sounded like hell, and no navigation system. M3s equipped like the other two cars in this test cost between $55,000 and $57,000.
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The M3 is worth the extra money. The engine sounds to onlookers like a weed wacker with a shot of nitrous, but as long as you keep the windows up, the noises that enter the cabin are glorious. The 3.2-liter inline-6's powerband is unimpeachable. Where else can one find an engine that revs to over 8,000 rpm and still offers serious torque down low? Nowhere this side of a Ferrari. The clutch is a bit tricky, but once you acclimate to the on-the-floor engagement point, it is predictable and precise.
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The interior doesn't offer quite the style, space, or features of the Audi, but its materials are just as nice. The M3's seats aren't as gloriously supportive as the S4's, but they get the job done, and a comfortable driving position is always easy to find. The thick, small-diameter steering wheel and shifter are exactly where they should be.
The M3 stands out for being not only as capable as you'd expect, but also relaxed. Where the CTS-V can feel a bit high strung with its nervous ride and demanding transmission and the S4 can feel a bit slow-witted in this company, the M3 manages to carve up twisty roads without ever feeling like it is trying.
A number of factors feed this feeling of effortless capability; the steering, suspension, and transmission are obviously the products of exquisite fine-tuning far beyond what is necessary to get good lap times.
The M3's steering is something to behold. It offers amazing depth of information transmitted to the driver. The limits of adhesion and changing road surfaces are always clearly communicated, but the wheel is never jittery and it never kicks back on bumpy roads.
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The M3's trump card is its fundamentally good chassis tuning. While the car is undeniably stiffly sprung, it is also damped well enough to keep body motions in check. Bumps make themselves heard and felt, but the car never loses composure. Wallowing and bouncing just aren't in the cards for the M3. Only over the worst roads does the M3 become harsh.
The six-speed manual transmission is precise and user-friendly. The shifter's throws are just the right length and its engagement is crisp. The top of the shift lever lights up in a singular concession to bling.
The M3 is refined-and we mean refined in its road manners, not just in how luxurious it is-far beyond the other cars here. That should come as no great shock; BMW has been perfecting the rear-wheel-drive small coupe since the fantastic 1968 2002 model, and it shows.
All the cars here are compromised animals. The Cadillac's back seat is the roomiest of these three, but it is too soft and flat to provide sustained comfort. The Cadillac's curb weight of 3850 pounds is only 25 pounds more than the Audi's, but the CTS-V is more than a foot longer and far more spacious inside. The BMW is fourteen inches shorter than the Cadillac and far smaller inside, but at 3415 pounds, it is, at least, a lot lighter.
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Not surprisingly, the heaviest, most powerful car here, the Cadillac CTS-V, returned the worst mileage during the road and highway portions of this test: 10.2 mpg. The significantly less powerful Audi barely bettered the Cadillac at 10.9 mpg. The lighter BMW managed a winning 12.8 mpg, but that could be because it got a bit raucous at high rpm, so we operated the engine more slowly overall than the other cars'. The EPA says to expect about fifty percent better mileage in the city for all three cars, so it is possible that we were in more of a hurry than the EPA was when testing.
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The lack of economy doesn't end there; none of these cars will deliver the maximum impressiveness to the neighbors available for $50,000. That money would buy you a BMW 5-series, an Audi A6, or a Cadillac STS-all larger cars. But if you're considering our trio, you couldn't care less what the neighbors think. You want to get from A to B quickly, or maybe even just get from A back to A and have a bit of fun in the process. Because of this, the S4 falls behind the other two cars in this test. It is an excellent cruiser, and viewed as an A4 with extra power, it is a perfectly nice vehicle. But viewed as a sport sedan, it comes up short. Liven up the steering, bias more power to the rear axle, firm up the damping, dial out a bit of understeer, and you've got a contender.
The CTS-V is a bit rough around the edges, but it delivers grins and gadgets aplenty. It might make you feel like a Duke boy, but at least it is more Luke Duke in a suit than Bo Duke in dungarees. While both the S4 and the CTS-V have unique appeal, the clear winner among these three is the BMW M3. It is all the fun of the CTS-V with all the quality of the S4 and a heaping helping of refinement to top it all off. The M3 is the one that we'd own if we had the means.
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