By on April 9, 2013

When I was a child, I had some neighbors with a Cadillac. They were either very old or very confused, but probably both since they put their license plate renewal decals on the trunk.

This was the early 1990s, when nobody had a Cadillac. Seriously: the lineup consisted of the Seville, the DeVille, the Eldorado and the Fleetwood Brougham, which was larger than most New York City apartments. None of those sound appealing even by TTAC standards, which seem to consist of: once a car is cancelled, it automatically becomes good, especially if it was designed at a time when fuel was cheaper than postage.

In the late 1990s, Cadillac finally started to become acceptable again thanks to the Catera. Hah! Just kidding. Of course, I mean the Escalade; the Catera simply confused Cadillac buyers by being small enough to fit in a modern garage.

While the Escalade’s runaway success brought Cadillac back from the brink of Lincoln-style obscurity, its popularity seemed to surprise the brand. Four model years went by before they followed it up with something totally new. This may have been because GM’s strategy at the time was: “If it will be successful, do something else.” Which, incidentally, was borrowed from Acura and explains every generation of the RL.

When Cadillac finally brought a new product to the table, it came in the form of the 2003 CTS: a rear-wheel drive sedan designed by someone who must’ve been told that using curves would result in his next company car being a Cavalier. I can only assume he also designed the GMC Terrain, this time under threat of Chevy Spark.

I briefly owned the high-performance CTS-V, which debuted in 2004. This is my review.

Why Did I Buy It?

There are two main answers to this question. The first is obvious: while the CTS-V looks like your grandfather’s Cadillac, it has the engine and transmission from your crazy uncle’s Corvette Z06. That’s right: the powertrain isn’t even from a normal Corvette, but rather from a Corvette Z06, which is better because a) it’s faster, and b) it has those little inlets in front of its rear wheels.

The second reason I bought the CTS-V is probably more important. I found it privately listed on and decided to take a test drive, only to discover the owner was a Korean kid who had lost his visa and was getting deported in less than a week. That allowed me to play CarMax with the price and make a wild lowball offer, which is probably a TTAC story for another time. Years later, as he sits in fear of a crazy dictator just a few hundred miles away, I feel a little bad about all of this. Especially because he left a nice motorcycle helmet in the trunk.

On the Road

The first-generation CTS-V had traditional sport suspension instead of the later models’ GM MagneRide. That’s fine, because despite dozens of eight-minute videos on GM’s press site narrated by engineers wearing lab coats, no one has any idea what MagneRide actually does. I do know it includes magnets, which means you can probably put those tiny refrigerator words on the shock absorbers.

The CTS-V’s sport suspension served two functions. One was to provide good handling – and the CTS-V was, by all measures, absolutely excellent. I later had a Panamera company car, and I actually believe the CTS-V handled better at the limit. This could be because the Panamera is only slightly smaller than the Fleetwood Brougham.

The other function of the CTS-V’s suspension was to provide a bone-jarring ride possibly designed to allow you to inspect every single bump, pothole and small insect on the road. The ride alone would disappoint my early-1990s Cadillac-owning neighbors, who probably would’ve sold the car before they attempted to get an emissions test at the drive-thru ATM.

Regardless, I could handle the rough ride because I was a young guy who wanted one thing: powaaaah! And the CTS-V had that. Cadillac said it did 0-to-60 in 4.6 seconds on its way to a quarter mile in 13.1. These are important figures to memorize when you live in the South.

The problem was that no one who ever drove a stock CTS-V could actually replicate these numbers. There were two reasons. One was that, with any attempt, the differential would fail. Early first-gen CTS-V models were famous for exploding differentials, and GM was equally famous for denying warranty claims with reasons like: “You were driving in a straight line.” or: “You were parked in a parking lot where differentials are known to fail.”

Beyond the differential, the car couldn’t reach its full potential because the gear lever had been designed by GM engineers whose only experience with a manual transmission came on the Bloomfield Hills High School rowing team. As a result, the stick shift was designed like a boat oar, with about as much play. Seriously: it could be moved about an inch to the left or right when it was in gear. After I sold the car, the next owner had a short shifter installed before I even gave him the spare key.

And the Design?

In spite of its curveless creases, the CTS-V’s exterior was a major strong point. I always buy my cars in the color from the press photos (well, except for that damn station wagon I had in pewter), which, in the CTS-V’s case, meant I had to go with black. Personally, I felt the factory bodykit was subtle and handsome, yet muscular in a “Luke, I am your father” sort of way. And the 18-inch wheels completed the package, even though they contributed to the elderly-disorienting ride.

The interior was also generally good thanks to comfortable seats, a thick steering wheel and air-conditioning vents that – despite a cheap look and feel – could be moved to blow air on precisely any small square inch of the cabin you wanted. Rear seat room was good, and trunk space was excellent, especially for storing motorcycle helmets.

But since this was GM in the early 2000s, there were some downsides. The biggest was the center stack. That’s because it was made from plastic that was clearly sourced to the lowest bidder, who created it during bathroom breaks in a factory that made Wal-Mart deck chairs.

The other major downside was that, for some reason, the car had a foot-mounted parking brake. That meant there were four pedals on the floor. And the one you didn’t want to touch for any reason was only a few inches from the one you had to touch every time you changed gears.

The Verdict

Owning the CTS-V taught me a few things. Number one: unless it’s an Escalade, most people still don’t have very strong perceptions of Cadillac. And when you say things like “Four hundred horsepower” and “Chevrolet Corvette zee oh six,” they get bored and pull out their iPhones to play Words With Friends. This didn’t bother me. If it bothers you, BMW makes some pretty damn good cars, all of which are probably on their first differential.

Number two: no car, in the history of cars, should be saddled with a transmission this awful. I’ve driven the latest CTS-V and the transmission is much improved, but that doesn’t do much for people out there driving first-gens. My suggestion: get a short shifter. And for God’s sake, when you’re using it, don’t accidentally press the parking brake.

Most importantly, though, I’ve learned that an automaker really can go from the Fleetwood Brougham to a credible performance car in just a few short years. And all it takes to get there is a big SUV.

Doug DeMuro operates He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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74 Comments on “Doug’s Review: 2004 Cadillac CTS-V...”

  • avatar

    One thing I’ve never been able to get over with the first-gen CTS is the door handles. I know, it’s a minor thing, but at the same time it ISN’T. They went to all the trouble to craft a cutting, edgy, cutting-edge art-and-science skin for their new compact sports sedan…and then they use the exact same rounded rectangle door handles from the STS and DTS?

    I’m sure Mr. Mehta is with me on this: it deserved better than parts-bin handles that do not match the rest of the design at all. I realize the price was an issue, but you don’t skimp on something the driver’s eyes and hands go to every day when you’re trying to reinvent your brand.

    Perhaps the XLR and CTS coupe’s hidden handles cost more…but if they could pull off hidden handles with Cutlass Supreme in the 90’s, they could pull it off with a Cadillac in the 00’s.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      The penny-pinched cheapo interior that is revealed once those parts-bin door handles are pulled disturbs me far, far more.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes. That dashboard would have been laughable in 1985. The vents look like GM borrowed them from Saab.

        • 0 avatar

          I’m pretty sure they ARE Saab air vents. I’ve always thought that. In addition to the terrible materials quality on such an expensive/prestige car, the whole shape of the center stack and how it meets the ill-fitted plastic going horizontally to the center console is awful. That’s always bothered me.

          • 0 avatar

            I’ve heard someone quip that GM wanted to make the interior look high-tech, but the only source of inspiration they had available was the tower of their Compaq desktop PCs. Now when I look at that center stack, all I see is a cheap PC. The disc drive is even in the right spot!

        • 0 avatar

          I read something (possibly here?) a couple years ago purported to be from a Caddy insider who claimed that the worst part about the interior is that it wasn’t even cheap. They paid good money to make it look that bad.

      • 0 avatar
        CV Neuves

        It is called “Cadillac” – that’s the good bit. The rest is somewhere between ugly and downmarket.

      • 0 avatar

        My thoughts exactly when I saw the interior

  • avatar

    Awesome story!

    These are getting pretty cheap, but what is also getting cheap, and more intriguing, are the STS-V of the same era. Supercharged Northstar V8….. I’d be afraid to buy one, but am curious how they hold up.

  • avatar

    When the first gen CTS came out, I can’t say I was a huge fan of the design. It has grown on me and now I find it attractive.

    Althogh I think the CTS turned out well, I think Cadillac should set the bench mark instead of trying to out-BMW BMW.

    • 0 avatar

      I always hated these for the simple fact that to create the voluminous trunk space, Cadillac engineered an equally voluminous Derrière. It was the first car that caused me to wonder how they didn’t back into the shopping cart they left back there because they couldn’t see it in the rear view mirror. And the large arse syndrome only got worse with the coupe. Not to mention the chopped window / Wehrmacht pillbox look that continues on.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    Love, love the exterior styling of this car. If the designer was threatened with a Cavalier for using curves, that’s a good thing. Tired of formulaic amorphous blobs rolling down the road, this thing still has some presence.

    Until you see the interior. Yuck. Glad they fixed that in the redesign.

  • avatar

    Is that center stack crooked or is that just the photo?

  • avatar

    As for the parking brake pedal: how high does it sit when disengaged? I have a pickup truck with four pedals, but the parking brake sits much higher than the others, that there is no danger of accidentally stepping on it. Still, I think the lack of hand-brake is odd in a passenger car.

    I was interested in a used CTS-V, and this is a great review. But other than the back seats and Caddy badges, what makes this better than buying a used Z06? The Z06 has a better shifter, is rated at a higher MPG, and also has a decent sized trunk. Of course they are different cars aimed at different German opponents, but I would think the main advantage of a Cadillac would be a cushy ride. In this case, it seems the CTS-V has just as firm a ride as the Corvette. What is the point of a Cadillac if it doesn’t float over bumps like my Grandpa’s car?

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      If you need a back seat and a lifetime supply of axle hop, you buy this.

      The handbrake thing is because this car is really a reskin of the Catera. GM wasn’t going to undo the Americanized footbrake just for a low-volume muscle car.

    • 0 avatar

      The parking brake was quite high. Truthfully, there wasn’t much worry of hitting it and I never made the mistake. Someone who is totally not used to driving the car might. The real issue was when I first bought the car I CONSTANTLY would stall it when parking, because I would pull my left foot off the clutch to engage the brake.

      Honestly: buy the Z06. The Cadillac is cool, but the Corvette is a real performance car.

      • 0 avatar

        I had 04 and 05, with the latter gone through Corvette modifications of the shifter, brake rotors, radiator(when it had a ProCharger Supercharger)…and ended up weighing in around 3,400 lbs when put it within 2 seconds of my 2,900 lbs C5 at Mid-Ohio. I know a few guys that had C4/C5’s that want and extra set of doors and more comfort of the V.

        2006-07 has better rear end, larger CV shafts and the bigger engined LS2. The trans is the similar T56 used in the Corvette, GTO, Camaro but had a long levered extension with soft rubber bushings. Replacing the bushings with nylon and using a Corvette shifter made quite a difference. All you had to do was get rid of the runflats and the choppy ride was gone while reducing allot of rotating mass.

        Did the OP ever get top use the Brembo brakes on the track? My students were impressed.

  • avatar

    The only thing I hate about these cars is the 6 lug wheels. Seriously, WHY must you limit aftermarket wheel choices on a vehicle begging for more rubber!?

  • avatar

    When did GM finally fix the differentials?

    Although when it comes right down to it, I’d be just as happy with a 3.6V6 powered model with a manual trans.

    • 0 avatar

      Apparently it was a problem on all ’04-’06 CTS-Vs. Mine was still on its original differential and didn’t whine at all, by the way. But I think it must be a ticking time bomb.

      • 0 avatar

        High RPM clutch dumping and power shifting kills them in short order, much like the 10-bolt rear exles in the F-bodies.

        How long it lasts completely depends how hard it was flogged in it’s previous life (or how much you plan to as the hypothetical current owner).

  • avatar

    As someone who is repeatedly mystified by the Panther love on this site, this made me laugh out loud: “None of those sound appealing even by TTAC standards, which seem to consist of: once a car is cancelled, it automatically becomes good, especially if it was designed at a time when fuel was cheaper than postage.”

  • avatar

    “…the 2003 CTS: a rear-wheel drive sedan designed by someone who must’ve been told that using curves would result in his next company car being a Cavalier.”

    I’m confused. I mean legitimately, so maybe someone could explain this to me:

    Why are round cars considered beautiful and angular ones ugly? Why is a Jaguar XKE thought to be sexy, whereas a Buick GNX is not?

    Why is an organically-sculpted car considered sensual and passionate, but a faceted vehicle is derided as looking “like the box it came in?”

    Is it because an angular car looks like TECHNOLOGY and an organic one looks like BIOLOGY, and people are comfortable with flesh and blood and put off by machinery? Or is it something else?

    Any thoughts?

    • 0 avatar

      Definitely not calling it ugly. Hell, I bought the thing! But the styling was rather … sharp. For better or worse.

    • 0 avatar

      Who ever said the GNX was ugly?

      • 0 avatar

        I may have given the wrong impression.

        The GNX is probably my favorite car body design. So straightforward, so honest, so purposeful, so useable in the real world. Swoon!

        My question, and it is an honest inquiry, is about the general trend in the world of the automotive press to give effusive praise to a curvaceous, organic car like a first-gen Viper or the aforementioned XKE, but to heap backhanded scorn upon faceted, angular cars.

        “Looks like the box it came in,” and all that.

        See, to me, far from being ugly, the lines of angular cars endow the vehicle form with a sense of purpose. They’re confident and no-nonsense. They know where they want to go.

        The artistic minimalism is intoxicating.

        The overall effect is one of a vehicle sure of itself and its purpose. A faceted shape defined by a minimum of carefully-chosen lines.

        Contrast that with too many new vehicles, whose styling and panel lines meander about as if lost, with no confidence or purpose.

        I was just wondering what was up.

  • avatar
    Mazda Monkey

    ” And when you say things like “Four hundred horsepower” and “Chevrolet Corvette zee oh six,” they get bored and pull out their iPhones to play Words With Friends.”

    Every one of your articles always has at least one great one-liner that requires me to close my office door so my co-workers can’t see me rolling around laughing.

  • avatar

    Got a kick out of your opener re old folks who stick the license plate renewal decals on the trunk. I’ve never seen that, but as a license plate collector I tend to look at plates, and lots of old-guy cars have the stickers on the clear plastic shield that covers the plate.

    • 0 avatar

      As I get older, I can understand the elderly mindset that much better. And putting the stickers on the shield most likely can be attributed to either ‘I don’t care any more’ or ‘I’m too lazy to remove the cover.’

      My favorites are the people in my state who cover the month tab (which is supposed to be on the left of the year tab) with the year tab, and then place the next year’s tab to the left of that one.

    • 0 avatar

      The thing that drives me CRAZY is people who the put the sticker in random places all over the plate, including the dead center (WTF?!). Its so easy people: the new sticker goes in the same place as the old sticker! Its like people are proud of long the car has been registered and thus don’t want to cover the old (and outdated) previous sticker. Such people should be given a ticket for failure to follow simple directions.

      • 0 avatar

        Counterpoint: In some portions of Philadelphia, leaving your sticker on the corner of the plate is an invitation to have it clipped off (with part of the plate!) leading to the additional cost of both replacing the plate, and dealing with the inevitable PPA fine for expired registration.

        Putting it in the middle makes the guy with the tin snips walk right on down to the next car.

        • 0 avatar

          Counterpoint: In some portions of Philadelphia, leaving your sticker on the corner of the plate is an invitation to have it clipped off (with part of the plate!)…

          A few years ago I would have have said, "He's GOT to be making that up. They couldn't possibly do that!" Then I met my future wife who, while living in a Philly suburb, had that very thing happen to her…twice. Once while her car was parked in her driveway and again after they stole her car. When they found the car it was fine except for the trashed steering column and the plates with a corner clipped out.

  • avatar

    Owned a 2003 CTS, with a 5-speed manual, which was a pretty decent box. I had to order the car to get the stick shift and the dealer wanted to drive it so they could report on its performance. (Obviously, GM hadn’t shared this model with the dealers.) The car was capable and comfortable, but the details were still B- grade. The best interior bit was the rotary volume control on the steering wheel, which made such perfect sense. Naturally, GM dropped it from the V and later models.

  • avatar

    Great article, but you can’t possibly ignore the Northstar Eldorado/Sevilles, which blew people’s socks off when they came out.

    As far as the horrible, horrible CTS interior I can’t imagine how anybody could have slept after designing that. The 2005-2010 STS was nearly as bad with its INCHES of plastic surrounding the CD slot.

    Such a shame, because mid 2000’s Caddys have everything right except the dashboards.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes! The later STS in AWD guise would be great, except for the terrible fake wood, terrible door panels, and poor quality leather and buttons.

    • 0 avatar

      Very true – however, the Northstar actually came out in 1993, which is the time period I was intending to reference. Between 1994 and the Escalade, Cadillac was a wasteland.

      • 0 avatar

        Oh come on, the LT1 Fleetwood was a very nice if unassuming flagship.

        As I recall however, they wanted a lot of money for them and listed less than zero on lots, as even GM wanted people to forget they existed.

    • 0 avatar

      The Northstar was a great engine stuck in less than great cars (excluding the STS and XLR, possibly). It was also an absolute nightmare to work on, as my neighbor and mechanic has often attested.

  • avatar

    That dashboard looks more like it belongs in a 2003 Saturn than a similar-vintage Cadillac. And the CD player looks like a 5.25″ floppy from a 1983-vintage IBM PC XT. Eh, glad they cut costs on the interior rather than the drivetrain (excepting the shifter and rear diff) and suspension though.

  • avatar

    I have no taste, so depreciating CTS-Vs are attractive to me.

    That said, they join most of the first-generation SRT8s in the Good Cars Likely to be Ruined by Owners Overdoing it Club.

    These days you can find low(ish) mileage examples and choose between a 200-shot of nitrous, 700HP twin-turbos or 2500W stereo with 5 DVD players and two 18″ subs in the trunk.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh so true. Such fine examples of how modifications accelerate depreciation.

      Perhaps my favorite example of good cars ruined by mods is the ’03-’04 Marauder. Except in those cases, the mods are usually flip-flop paint and 24 inch rims.

      • 0 avatar

        “Perhaps my favorite example of good cars ruined by mods is the ’03-’04 Marauder. ”

        Yesterday, I saw an almost new BMW 650i with a matte black paintjob, a la neo-ricer-with-money-style. It looked awful. Why?

  • avatar

    Another f’n funny, but completely relevant, review Doug.

    I like the high horsepower Caddy for many reasons, but the foot brake is a total frowny face. There is something funny about a girlfriend getting into a car and worriedly looking for a taped down hand brake button as a sign of things to come.

  • avatar

    There were billboards in San Diego around 2003 announcing that the CTS could be had for $30K. I was curious, as I was shopping for a car in that price range for someone at the time. It turned out that the automatic was bundled with the larger engine(3.0 liter was standard, IIRC), which was bundled with many other things. I visited a Cadillac dealer that had all their invoices posted on the walls as part of some sort of promotion, maybe ’employee pricing.’ The invoices started in the low 40s. I remember thinking that they should just go across town and pay list for some BMW 328is. They’d have had better luck trying to resell them for a profit. I know they were trying to run a classic bait and switch, but how many people want to pay $42K for a car that everyone that can read a billboard thinks cost $30K?

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    You should *really* review the Cadillac STS-V. That thing is like a factory-built hot-rod; I love driving it…

  • avatar

    We had a 2003 CTS with the V6. Took it on a trip to Disneyworld. I’m very meticulous about checking fluids etc. in all my vehicles. When we got to our hotel, I had to add 3 quarts of oil. I went on some forums and found this was a common problem with CTS engines. The odd thing was nobody knew where the oil went. No trace on the driveway and no smoking from the tailpipe. Sold the car when we got home. I did love the handling. Reminded me of Mercedes W123/W124 sedans.

    • 0 avatar

      “When we got to our hotel, I had to add 3 quarts of oil. I went on some forums and found this was a common problem with CTS engines. The odd thing was nobody knew where the oil went. No trace on the driveway and no smoking from the tailpipe.”

      This was pretty common on the 1.8 liter Corolla/Prizm engine of the same era. I’ve heard different theories, mainly bad oil control rings, or the rings getting gummed up. The oil goes right out the exhaust, and the catalytic converters are so efficient that you never see the typical blue smoke out the tailpipe. Do a Google search for Corolla oil burning.

      Anytime I see an ad for a Corolla/Prizm/Celica of that vintage that says “Check engine light on but runs OK/ oxygen sensor replaced/ catalytic converter replaced” I get suspicious.

  • avatar

    I once test drove a CTS 3.6 with the manual and I definitely recall the shifter being very vague and loosey goosey. The clutch was also pretty numb.

  • avatar

    I think I’d rather have a ’92 Brougham, but I’m not in a hurry.

  • avatar

    Back in ’04 I was cross-shopping the CTS-V, M3 and 996 and really considered this car.

    Looking at the photos above I can’t believe how sedate the exterior styling appears 9 years later and how striking it was at the time. It’s aged quite well and almost looks as classic but non-startling as a Mercedes C-class from around the same era.

    I’m also the kind of person who NEVER(EVAH)would’ve even considered looking at a Cadillac before this car was built.
    Frankly I liked everything about the idea behind the car, taking on the German sport sedans head-on, mid-size package, high performance, great handling, etc etc. FINALLY Cadillac had built a car I was interested in!

    But then I remembered it was a GM product and all the negative connotation that brought up for me personally.

    Rattles, squeaks, poor interior fit, interiors pieces coming apart, poor dealer service…..and then I remembered all those Caddy’s driving around with perfect rear bumpers, perfect rear fenders and completely missing rear bumper fillers that Cadillac kept producing on multiple models with the same inferior plastic for what? over a decade?

    Yeah, so I didn’t end up with the CTS-V but I’m sure glad it exists and it catches my eye every time I see one on the road in a way that the BMW’s and Benzes just don’t.

    Maybe one of these days if they prove reliable I’ll grab a used one somewhere. ;)

  • avatar

    According to The Matrix Reloaded – the interior cabin of the CTS is BULLETPROOF.

  • avatar

    I can’t get over FOUR PEDALS! I thought it was a general rule that all manuals have a handbrake.

    Sometimes, I take a step back at my own car (manual) and try to visualize what it would be like for someone who’s never seen a car to try and operate it. Three pedals is bad enough, but four’s gotta be mind-blowing.

    • 0 avatar

      Try manual trucks, one thing I like about first gen frontiers is the handbrake, whereas others such as the ranger use a foot brake, I would certainly be scared to go into Raleigh with a foot operated parking brake with the hills and the way people get up on your ass.

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