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rival, but in reality it was little more than a shrunken version of the same old Cadillac philosophy: big, cushy, and outdated.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.
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.
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.
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.