I firmly believe that it’s more fun to drive a (relatively) slow compact hatch fast than to drive a big, fast car well below its potential. I remain hopeful that someone will offer a car with five doors and rear-wheel-drive that weighs under 3,000 pounds. (I’d say under 2,700 pounds, but that’s clearly a pipe dream.) Then Cadillac put a CTS-V in my driveway for a week. A wagon with a manual transmission, no less. That Cadillac even offers such a combination warrants respect. The lure of the dark side has never been stronger.
The stealth fighter-inspired design of the second-generation CTS remains polarizing, if less so than the original. Love it or hate it, the car looks appropriate for its role. This particular CTS-V wagon makes no attempt to conceal its evil intent. A “Black Diamond Edition,” it is covered in sparkly black paint and shod with “satin graphite” wheels. The all-black appearance (save the huge yellow brake calipers) makes the car look like a development mule, but I don’t doubt its appeal for some people. Given the intended look, though, why not go all the way with a matte black finish for the body as well as the wheels? Some people (certainly not including myself) don’t care for the wagon’s lines, but no one will deny that they’re distinctive and clearly communicate a sporting intent.
When the 2008 CTS was introduced, its interior was the best GM had yet offered. The “cut and sewn” upholstered leatherette on the instrument panel and upper door panels seemed especially upscale. But GM and the rest of the industry have continued to advance, and given the V’s $60,000+ price tag the cabin isn’t quite up to snuff. In the V the satin-finished trim of the regular CTS has been replaced by piano black, and the latter doesn’t work as well with the other pieces. Having shiny black plastic, black-stained wood, and matte black plastic run side-by-side the full height of the center stack is simply too much. One of the two trim elements needs to be either toned down or eliminated. I didn’t care for the flimsy, overly plasticky feel of the door pulls even back in 2007 (and pointed this out to the designer at NAIAS). Notably, the more recently designed coupe has better door pulls. Finally, the dash-to-door fits are uneven and, as in the sedan, the sections of the rear seat fit together poorly.
Under Harley Earl and then Bill Mitchell, GM continually strove to make its sedans lower and lower. They would not approve of the CTS. To provide good sight lines over the high cowl, the seating position is a few inches higher than the traditional norm. While I had the V I drove a couple of Panameras, and the contrast with the much lower, much wider Porsches is striking. In its defense, Cadillac is under no mandate to make a sedan or (in this case) a wagon feel as much like a sports car as possible. Instead, from its relatively high perch the CTS feels commanding and powerful.
The Recaro seats optional in other Vs are standard in the Black Edition. (A salesman informed me that he’s rarely seen a V without them anyway.) Unlike those in most other GM cars, these seats retain four-way lumbar adjustments. Unfortunately, these adjustments are of little value as the lumbar bulge is overly narrow and sticks into the lower back rather than supporting it. To avoid this unpleasant sensation I adjusted the lumbar to do as little as possible. Despite this shortcoming, I’d advise the Recaros for the lateral support they provide. Both the thigh and side bolsters can be adjusted to provide a tight fit. A “sueded” covering on the steering wheel and shifter is a $300 option. I enjoyed the feel of the shifter, but never quite got used to the fuzzy steering wheel.
Oddly, the high seating position up front doesn’t translate to a comfortably positioned rear seat. The cushion feels small and, like most, it’s too low. Though the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, and so forth do no better, the CTS is nearly as large as a 5-Series. The wagon’s cargo area similarly isn’t expansive, but a power tailgate provides easy access. A floor that can be employed as a cargo organizer effectively restrains groceries during aggressive maneuvers. Interior storage is grossly inadequate. My superzoom camera (styled like a dSLR, but not as large) fit in neither the glove compartment nor the center console, both of which are overly compartmentalized. Consequently it spent much of the week sliding about the passenger footwell.
Any shortcomings fall from mind once the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 is awakened with a pushbutton. With 556 horsepower at 6,100 RPM and 551 foot-pounds of torque at 3,800 RPM, it’s more than a match for the CTS-V wagon’s considerable 4,398 pounds. Acceleration is traction limited at low speeds, especially when the car is fitted with winter tires (as this one was). Luckily, it’s not hard to modulate the throttle and achieve reasonably drama-free launches. The first-generation CTS-V suffered from severe wheel hop. To solve that problem GM fitted half-shafts of differing mass to the new car. These oscillate at different frequencies when subjected to the full wrath of the V8.
At any speed the V8 responds strongly and immediately in a way that only a large engine can. And yet it doesn’t feel as astoundingly quick as the power figures suggest it should. As one passenger remarked, “it feels like only about 450 horsepower.” The car’s curb weight is one reason. Declining returns are another. The engine produces more power than the tires can transfer at lower speeds. To fully exploit the V’s extra power you’d have to drive well beyond the legal limit.
But the unexpected refinement of the engine is the primary culprit. The supercharger provides boost so smoothly that the engine doesn’t even feel boosted. In naturally-aspirated form in the Camaro GM’s 6.2-liter V8 can sound like it’s on the verge of self-destruction. These raw tones have been successfully suppressed in the CTS-V, leaving only a mild burble at low RPM, some pleasant mechanical noises in the mid-range, and a restrained roar at the high end. Cruising down the highway the exhaust is barely audible; what you do hear fits the character of the car and doesn’t begin to irritate. Some people will wish for a more expressive engine, but I fear that the result would be something like that in the Camaro. If the engine can’t scream sweetly, better that it cannot scream at all.
Under full throttle there’s a strong rush to the redline, but no surge or sense of a peak. Instead, if you’re not paying close attention it’s very easy to bang the limiter—which intervenes just 100 RPM past the horsepower peak. It’s not easy to pay attention, as it’s not possible to simultaneously watch both the modestly-sized tach and the road. The CTS-V badly needs a head-up display (HUD) like that offered in the Corvette and even some pedestrian GM vehicles like the GMC Acadia and Buick LaCrosse. Barring that, a RX-8-like beep when 500 RPM short of the redline would also work. As is, the LEDs that trace the tach needle’s movement start flashing at 5,200 RPM, but if you’re not already watching the tach you won’t notice this.
That the power peaks so close to the redline suggests that the engine could be much more powerful if only it could rev higher. In the Corvette ZR1, titanium intake valves and connecting rods do permit a 400 RPM bump. Add another pound-and-a-half of boost to the V’s nine, and the result is 638 horsepower. And even then the power peak remains 100 RPM short of the redline. Putting out under 100 horsepower per liter, the V’s engine simply isn’t working hard. Unlike more high-strung engines, it should last forever with proper care.
The shifter is not an issue. A vast improvement over that in the first-generation CTS-V, it has a satisfying level of notchiness and snicks with a moderate amount of effort and good precision from gear to gear. Given the limited traction at low speeds and low redline, it’s no surprise that the Tremec’s six gears are tall. First runs to 48, second to 72, third to 99. They’re also tightly spaced, with a ratio spread of only 4.2 between first and sixth (vs. 5.3 for the Aisin in the regular CTS and 8.0 for the seven-speed S-Tronic in the Audi S4). The big V8 is spinning a bit over 2,000 RPM at 70. At this speed, downshifting is rarely necessary.
The clutch doesn’t feel heavy unless you’re sitting at a light, where you can select neutral and relax. This said, after spending a few days in the V I nearly put my left foot through the floorboard in my Mazda Protege5. My heel-and-toeing skills aren’t what they should be. No matter-with the accelerator positioned much lower than the brake pedal it’s not a possibility in the V anyway. Those huge yellow calipers aren’t just for show—the CTS-V stops as well as it goes, and with a satisfyingly firm pedal feel.
Fuel economy? Well, even more than in other cars this depends on how you drive. During an especially hard stretch of driving the trip computer reported just a bit over seven miles-per-gallon, and quite often under ten. On the other hand, when hypermiling the V over a few suburban miles where my red light karma was good, I observed 22 (vs. 26 in a Lexus IS-F). I noted the same 22 during steady highway driving. When driving the V like a normal car around town I observed between 12 and 16 depending on the frequency of complete stops, supporting the EPA city rating of 14.
My observations on ride and handling must be qualified, for the tested car was wearing Pirelli winter tires that are likely squishier than the stock Michelin PS2s. This said, the steering, while still numb compared to that in a Panamera, has a more direct feel than that in the regular CTS. Feedback from the contact patches tickles attentive fingertips. Hit the stability control button on the steering wheel to active “Stabilitrak Competition Mode,” and the steering firms up while the electronic nannies are relaxed. But the resulting wooden feel makes the car feel heavier and less agile without doing much to enhance feedback.
It’s not necessary to rely on your fingertips for much anyway. The V prefers to be driven like a blunt instrument, but paradoxically a blunt instrument that can be driven with precision. You can throw it hard into a curve with total confidence of where it’s going to go. Guide it precisely through a curve with your fingertips? Save that for a different sort of car. As in other rear-wheel-drive GM cars, the seat of your pants will tell you pretty much all you need to know. The chassis feels so natural, and power oversteer builds so progressively, that the V can be driven from your gut. The center of rotation feels like its right under the driver’s seat.
Dive into a turn entirely off the gas, and the V understeers (though quite possibly less on its stock tires). A little gas easily evens out the chassis, and the desired degree of oversteer can be summoned up at will. The stability control seamlessly manages oversteer if you go too far. (Engage the “Competition Mode” or entirely turn the nannies off and it becomes clear how well the system works.) It manages understeer more obtrusively.
The magnetic ride control shocks, a GM innovation now also employed by Audi and Ferrari, very quickly adapt to road conditions. Since the shocks quickly move through their full range in either “Tour” or “Sport,” the difference between these two modes isn’t night and day. In “Sport” body motions and roll are a little more restrained, and the ride is a little more abrupt. In either mode the V doesn’t feel nearly as hardcore as its appearance and power figures suggest. Even in “Sport” mode there’s a modest amount of roll in turns. On the other hand, the car’s ride quality is actually better than my father’s regular CTS with the mid-level suspension, and much better than that in some other cars in the class (the Infiniti G37 especially comes to mind). The car is shockingly livable even on the awful roads around Detroit.
Can a $69,490 car be a bargain? A similarly-equipped BMW M3 lists for about $2,500 less. Adjusting for feature differences with TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool narrows the gap to under $1,000. This decision isn’t going to come down to price. Rather, power vs. precision. Around town the Cadillac has stronger, more immediate responses and so is generally more fun to drive, but the BMW has a more precise feel. To get similar power in a BMW, you must step up to the even heavier upcoming M5, which will likely cost about $100,000. If you’re looking for a wagon—well, no one else currently offers an ultra-high-performance wagon in the U.S. unless you count the Panamera. And if you have to ask the price of the Porsche…
All of these details don’t fully capture the essense of driving the V. It’s quite simply intoxicating, the immediacy and strength with which the engine reacts, the predictable competence and willingness of the chassis, all without any significant downsides save a thirst for premium unleaded and the endangerment of one’s license. On top of this, the entire experience has a seamless cohesiveness that’s rarely found in non-European cars. It’s certainly possible to drive the V casually. When not pushed the V drives just like a normal car, with no untoward noises, jitters, or heat. It’s almost too easy. Your grandmother could drive one and never have a clue about the machine’s potential. But once you’ve sampled this potential, the V’s allure can be hard to resist. All those extra pounds? Forgotten. The only thing that saved me: they insisted on having the car back at the end of the week.
Cadillac provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.