MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — Visit America’s money-bagging coastal cities, sniff around its private schools and fortress-like subdivisions, and a first-time visitor might ask: Does everyone in this flipping country drive a BMW, Audi, or Benz?
Remarkably, the German brands’ sales and cultural dominance have only increased, thanks in part to a blitz of variegated SUVs that have left even Japanese luxury brands — let alone Cadillac — scrambling to keep pace.
With its numbers off even in a booming luxury market, Cadillac’s own record runs from critical successes that have thus far generated lackluster sales — namely the ATS and CTS sedans — to the industry’s biggest egg-on-face of 2014, the epically miscalculated ELR plug-in hybrid. And somehow this Detroit marque finds itself nearly bereft of small, smaller, medium, and large crossover SUVs.
So like a Dutch girl with 20 fingers, Cadillac is racing to plug the spurting holes in its lineup, promising a $12 billion investment to develop eight new models, including the soon-to-arrive full-size CT6 sedan and XT5 midsize crossover slated to replace the SRX in 2016.
Getting a kick out of this Caddy
But enough grubby business. Let’s talk about a car that will likely only generate relative pocket change for Cadillac but enough enthusiast buzz to set the Internet aflame and remind the badge-obsessed that the brand is not only alive but kicking: the 2016 Cadillac CTS-V sedan.
And what a kick it is, 640 horses and 200-mph worth of BMW-booting, Mercedes-baiting terror, amply demonstrated over blazing 4-mile trips around Wisconsin’s Road America circuit.
To sport-sedan rivals, the CTS-V’s nearly 1 g of lateral grip, redoubtable Brembo brakes, hyper-engineered chassis, magnetic suspension, and five-mode Performance Traction Management present an ample challenge. To that, the Cadillac adds an almost unfair inheritance via a modified, wet-sump-oiled version of the Corvette Z06’s supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8. The direct-injected, cylinder-deactivating LT4 generates 630 lb-ft of torque with 9.4 psi of broad-spectrum supercharged boost.
Do the math. You’re looking at an 84-horsepower jump over the second-gen CTS-V. Those improbable 640 horses are 80 and 83 hp more, respectively, than in the BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E63, with an even broader torque advantage of 130 and 99 lb-ft. Cadillac’s weight reductions trim this CTS-V to 4,145 pounds, 107 pounds less than its predecessor, with savers including a carbon-fiber hood. The upshot is a robust weight-to-power ratio of 6.5 pounds per horsepower versus the M5’s 7.8 and the E63’s 8.0.
Internet geniuses will count to 707 to declare Dodge’s Charger Hellcat as the ’Murican sedan horsepower champ. However, the Cadillac doesn’t just slay the Mopar in performance metrics that matter to skilled enthusiasts — responsive handling, braking, lap times, driver engagement — but likely in real-world stoplight bursts. Reliably transferring power without the Hellcat’s fire-and-brimstone tire smoke — via bespoke-compound Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, an eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission, and the aforementioned eLSD — the 2016 Cadillac CTS-V catapults to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and trips the quarter mile in 11.6 seconds, and does each so surefootedly that your DeVille-cruising grandma could do it.
Of course, the Cadillac won’t bother slumming with Motown muscle cars. It’s out to pound richer German prey into schnitzel, though the CTS-V’s $84,990 base price (before a $1,000 gas-guzzler penalty) sneaks closer to those of its rivals.
Handsome but not sexy
The one thing the Caddy can’t do is out-style or out-luxe the German bahnstormers. It sounds like heresy, but we’d trade 100 of those horses for the big-balls attitude of the Mercedes E63 or the inside-out chic of Audi’s RS7.
Circle the Caddy enough times, and you’ll discover a quietly handsome car, especially the locomotive drape of its carbon-fiber hood, chain-mail maw, and obelisk-shaped taillamps. Nor does the function-first design go overboard on jewelry: A $4,900 package ribbons the aggressive front splitter and rear diffuser with book-matched carbon fiber, with more for interior trim, hood heat extractors, a jaunty rear wing, and air-directing Gurney lips along front wheel arches.
Yet for all that, the CTS-V exudes all the sex appeal of a slide rule. The slab-sided Cadillac barely drew a second glance from Wisconsinites, whether in farm country or cruising for photo ops in Milwaukee — folks we expected to eat up the CTS-V like a tub of cheddar. Only when we lit up the tires like teenage idiots in Milwaukee’s Third Ward did an Infiniti G35, with two college-aged guys aboard, buzz the brick-red Caddy for a closer look.
The cabin also hovers in Cadillac’s familiar B-minus territory, graded on the American curve: The design shames homegrown cars of even a decade ago, but Caddy still needs Adderall and a cram session to keep pace with the European wonks. As with the smaller ATS, the CTS’ back seat and trunk aren’t especially well-packaged relative to its overall footprint. Hand-me-down Chevy switchgear lends that enduring whiff of GM-ness to the enterprise. And the seats’ rubbery hides recall a middle-aged dad rocking a leather jacket from Men’s Wearhouse. Cadillac bragged up its investment in a sueded microfiber headliner, door trim, and seat inserts, but they fail to elicit reflexive ooh-and-ahh caresses like its plush Alcantara rivals.
Optional Recaro sport seats do deliver, smartly and supportively, on the luxury sport-sedan promise. Ditto for the striking, reconfigurable instrument cluster and thick-rimmed steering wheel. The reviled CUE infotainment system gets a tad more livable with a faster processor. A 4G LTE wireless connection is standard, and options range from a head-up display to a neat curbview camera that helps drivers avoid scraping the car’s low-slung chin.
Quick on the trigger
Fortunately, CTS-V owners can boast at will about how quickly they arrived at their destination. Led by Tony Roma, the V-Series chief engineer, the CTS-V was stiffened and tuned, mechanically and electronically, for the dynamic brilliance that’s becoming a Cadillac signature.
Six chassis bushings have been replaced with ball joints, and an aluminum underbody shear panel connects the rocker panels to the front cradle, promoting fast reactions while reducing twitchiness from broad, sticky 19-inch tires. Rear driveshafts of asymmetrical thickness negate wheel hop during hard launches. Front brakes include 15.4-inch rotors with six piston calipers. Over-the-top temperature management includes five additional heat exchangers versus the standard CTS, including ones for oil, the intercooler, and the rear differential. Four exhaust outlets open inboard pipes via two-stage valves — above 3,000 rpm in Touring mode, always open otherwise — to play supercharged V-8 music, including a miked-up underhood area that supplements sound via the audio system.
Three driver modes adjust steering assist, throttle, traction, the magnetic suspension, and GM’s in-house eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic gearbox, also bequeathed from the Z06. In its softest Touring mode on public roads, the car feels nearly as quiet and docile as a standard CTS, though more firmly sprung.
As in the Z06, drivers choose among five levels of stability oversight from the eLSD, from straight-and-safe to acid-trippy freedom from intervention. Calculating like an MIT whiz — it clocks myriad parameters on a 6-millisecond loop — the eLSD retards spark to dial in understeer when drivers defy the car’s physical limits and promotes stability under braking and at mid-corner and corner exit.
Speed with ease
Street or track, those modes indeed make the CTS-V a hurricane-force breeze to drive, with steering and suspension as sensitive to conditions as a veteran meteorologist. And how to describe the engine? Call it a radioactive vat of power: Dip your toe, and the CTS-V might turn you into a superhero. Fortunately for our mortal alter egos, it’s unlikely to kill you.
“The CTS-V still has to be a luxurious, bimodal car that’s not scary to drive,” Roma says.
Yet the responsibilities of freedom become clear when, in full No. 5 race mode — zero traction or stability control — we spin on Road America’s notorious “Hurry Down” corner, a downhill left-hander where the combination of gravity and too-fast entry leaves us sideways but still on the track. No harm, no foul, and we nail it on successive laps, the Cadillac barreling to 155 mph on Road America’s grandstand straightaway, the brakes holding steadfast for lap after giddy lap.
If there’s one Achilles’ heel, or mild blister, it’s the Caddy’s eight-speed gearbox: far superior to the previous dawdling six-speed yet less crisp than the latest dual-clutch boxes found on some competitors. Still, take a Corvette Z06, add roughly 600 pounds and a pair of doors, and you’ll have the gist of the CTS-V.
We’d prefer to focus on the Cadillac’s stellar dynamics, a veritable fun house for affluent grown-ups. Yet we can’t help sneaking peeks at the two-story billboard numbers. Let’s leave it to Roma: “We’re very proud to have a four-door car in the 200-mph club,” he says.
That bears repeating: a Cadillac sedan that hits 200 mph. Can the CTS-V help speed a rescue of the slow-selling, price-slashing CTS lineup? Let the heavy lifting begin.
2016 Cadillac CTS-V sedan Specifications
- On Sale: August
- Price: $85,990
- Engine: 6.2L supercharged OHV 16-valve V-8/ 640 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 630 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 16/21 mpg (city/hwy) (est)
- Suspension F/R: Struts, coil springs/ multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R: Vented discs
- Tires F/R: 265/35ZR19/295/30ZR19 Michelin Pilot Super Sport
- L x W x H: 197.6 x 72.2 x 57.2 in
- Wheelbase: 114.6 in
- Headroom F/R: 40.4/37.5 in
- Legroom F/R: 45.7/35.4 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 56.9/54.8 in
- Cargo Room: 13.7 cu ft
- Weight: 4,145 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: 53/47%
- 3.7 sec (est)
- 1/4-Mile: 11.6 sec (est)
- Top Speed: 200 mph