I’m coming into this review pretty conflicted. Not about the car — the new 2016 Cadillac CTS-V is an extremely impressive vehicle, and I’ll cover why in plenty of detail — I’m conflicted about what this car actually means both to Cadillac and to us Americans, as people. It’s not bad, necessarily — well, here, we’ll just talk through this.
(Full Disclosure: Cadillac was so eager to let me drive one of their fancy new cars that they flew me to Kohler, WI, where I ate sushi surrounded by more toilets and bidets than I’ve ever seen at once. It’s sublime.)
My conflict stems from a few things, most of which have to do with how well-engineered and generally just how good this car is. It’s not that I don’t expect a car that starts at $83,000 to be excellent, it’s more the manner by which this car is good that’s making me think.
See, this car is a Cadillac. I grew up around Cadillacs, thanks to a grandfather, a Romanian tinsmith who came to the US on a cargo ship. As soon as he was financially able, he always bought Cadillacs, and I have many fond memories of riding on the armrest of the front bench seat in his big, gold Sedan de Ville in the era before people cared if their kids flew through windshields.
A Cadillac was a car with a very specific set of jobs to do:
• Remind people outside the car how successful/important you are with the styling and sheer scale of the car
• Remind you how successful/important you are with the interior materials, design, and gadgetry
• Keep everyone inside lavishly comfortable
• Have enough power from a big V8 to pass all those other chumps effortlessly
... and that was pretty much it. I think if you took a well-to-do, successful, average Cadillac buyer from 1968 and described to him, in detail, what the 2016 CTS-V is capable of, with its 640 HP motor, transmission and differential coolers, 6-piston front brakes, advanced traction control, and all that, his answer would most likely be “what the fuck you think I’m going to be doing in this car?”
And that’s a pretty valid question. The CTS-V is a very carefully-engineered high-performance car, and much of what makes it different from its CTS brothers is how capable it is on the track. I both love that about the CTS-V and am a bit baffled by it, all at the same time.
What once was a Cadillac — what once defined what a luxury car was according to Americans — is dead. Long dead, even. The CTS-V is a car built to a European, specifically Teutonic ideal, something freely admitted by Cadillac and revealed in the two target cars the CTS-V is aiming for: the BMW M5 and the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG. This is, quite literally, not my grandfather’s Cadillac, and I’m fairly certain Grandpa Joe would have no farkakta idea what to do with this car.
The CTS-V is a legitimate 200 MPH car. Really, they clocked it at 201.8 MPH, and it’ll do the quarter mile in 11.6 at 126 MPH. And it drives and looks to be a level above a car like the Charger Hellcat, which has a much more shove-a-huge-engine-in-a-sedan-and-then-smash-a-beer-can-on-your-face sort of feel.
The CTS-V isn’t as clamshit crazy as the Hellcat, and that’s part of why I can’t stop thinking about this. It’s a triumph of packaging, with so many extra intercoolers and radiators taking up space, and making every vent on the car real and functional — I can’t remember the last time I saw a car like that. The brake are these massive 15.4” discs with monobloc calipers that have “nonstandard chamfering.” All of this car’s engineering is as serious as a heart attack that just found out it has cancer, and you can sure as hell feel it on the track.
I think maybe something was lost when Cadillac decided it was going to be an American BMW. It’s not blind nostalgia — I don’t think those old ‘70s and ‘80s Sedan de Villes and Sevilles were better cars — they sure as hell weren’t. But they did fill a niche that is considered embarassing today. When did everybody become such driving experts? Are people who buy a CTS-V really going to take these things to the track? Maybe some will, sure, but if history tells us anything, it’s that the number who’ll really use what this car is capable of will be tiny.
It feels weird to say this, but does this really have to be so good a car? Do people really need something that handles and drives like this, or do they just want the vague idea of it, because that’s what we’ve been trained to understand as having status? Cadillac could have targeted a more accessible Rolls-Royce as an ideal, but they didn’t. They went the other way.
In the process of becoming such potent and capable car, if I have to figure out what actually is lost, it’s something so intangible I have to analogize it like this: in college, in my dorm, was a guy that shows up in almost everybody’s dorm. He was a doughy, funny, friendly goofball who seemingly existed just to sit on his ass and drink beer with you.
I liked him, and I liked his self-deprecating humor; in the shared bathroom, he’d look at his pliant, pasty physique in the mirror and say, “perfect human specimen.” Then he’d see if you were around later to get loaded.
Now imagine you meet this same guy 15 years later and he’s a chiseled adonis who earned so much money he’s a full-time philanthropist now, when he’s not flying the hoverpod of his own design to do volunteer work in Haiti. He’s smart, witty, handsome, and has an abdomen that people have their photos taken with. He’s unquestionably better than he was before, in every possible way.
Now, which version of this guy do you think you’d actually have a better time with? Be honest.
I don’t need to tell you which is yesterday’s Cadillac and which is the CTS-V. And, Cadillac has other cars than the CTS-V, which is, of course, the most extreme example. They still have the Escalade to carry on those old luxury ideals, though that’s sort of become a caricature of what the old Cadillac was. It feels like a silly cartoon of a car Cadillac makes because they know there are buyers, but their heart isn’t in it.
Something happened in luxury cars where everything got all competent and serious, and the days of soft suspensions and interiors like space bordellos are gone. That’s just how the world is now, and even if there’s still part of me that feels weird about how overkill it all is, how much of this beautiful engineering will, frankly, go to waste, there’s still part of me that can enjoy the shit out of this thing when they give me the keys and point to the track.
So let’s just happily accept this delightful overkill of capability in cars. Maybe it’s a last, glorious gasp before the robot cars come, so, why not, let’s enjoy.
What’s Different From The Other CTSes. CTSen?
The head of the CTS-V team is a woman who owns and drives a vintage Corvair Monza, which should tell you all you need to know about the mindset of the CTS-V team, and it’s a very good sign. There’s lots of changes from the regular CTS, ranging from the use of ball joints throughout instead of just bushings, a unique steering rack, a stiffening shear panel in the subframe (the V has half the body roll of the base CTS) all the way to the engine, which is a wet-sump version of the 90° V8 from the Corvette Z06.
The engine is also supercharged, and it takes a full 55 HP just to spin that supercharger. My daily car could only just barely turn the damn thing. The supercharger helps the engine make 640 HP (SAE certified, they made sure to tell us) and 630 lb-ft of torque. That comes to a 6.5 lb/HP ratio, which is very impressive, and, as they also made sure to point out, beats the BMW M5 and the E63 AMG.
In addition to providing a sump for oil, (on the Corvette there is none), the team also added a vertical oil reservoir behind the water pump that helps keep everything nice and lubricated when you’re cornering so hard your V engine looks more like an L. That’s the sort of situation the CTS-V was designed to perform in.
The exhaust valves are sodium-filled, there’s two heat exchangers for the intercooler, there’s an auxiliary radiator, 14-row transmission oil cooler and that cooled oil also helps cool the differential — there’s a reason there’s no fake vents on this car, because every place to suck in air already has a greedy tenant.
The underbody is designed to be as smooth as possible, and as a result everything under the car is packed as tight as abdominal organs in a woman 9 months pregnant with a fat baby. Take the gas tank, for example. To fit it in with the volume they wanted, they had to make it sort of phone receiver/saddle shaped. In testing, they found that they weren’t able to use more than 5/8 of the gas in the tank.
So, to see what was going on and not getting enough good data from the computer models, they actually made a tank with windows and cameras so they could just watch where everything was going, which led them to put in extra fuel pick-ups. That’s the level of testing and care taken here — this is not just a CTS with a ‘Vette engine shoved in.
That big aluminum shear panel that was added was put in, I was told, for the “subjective” part of driving. It helps keep the front from yawing around and triangulates and stiffens the entire front end.
Oh, and the four exhaust exits are also real, not just little siamesed tips or fake pipes. The outer pair are always open, and the inner pair of pipes are opened above 3000 RPM or kept open in Sport mode.
So, what’s it like to drive?
Good question, larger bold type. Cadillac took all of us and a bunch of CTS-Vs to Road America in Wisconsin, a fast, pretty technical track. It’s a good match for this car, and the overall takeaway is that the CTS-V does incredibly well on the track, astoundingly well when you remember it’s a 4100 lb luxury four-door sedan.
I have a video of me driving it here, but this was made before Caddy moved the embargo date up, so I made a video where I avoided talking about driving impressions for no reason. I guess we should have released this last week or something. My apologies. But it does at least show how crazy aggressive the seat belt tensioner can be, and how funny I look in a face-squishing helmet:
The steering is actually quite responsive and communicates the feedback of the track well, at least in Sport/Track modes. When you’re going hard into corners, it weights up and takes actual effort to move — but that’s good. It’s not overboosted, and you feel what’s going on with the car, with the weight shifting, with your lateral motion — it feels great.
Unsurprisingly, it’s quick. On the big front straight I was usually able to get in the 148-150 MPH ballpark before the brake point, though the drivers better than me (not that high a bar, really) were able to break 150+ routinely, and I think the pros would get to 160.
When you’re at 145 MPH or so and you see a turn heading toward you like an aroused rhino, you really appreciate the brakes, which were custom made for the car by Brembo.
In fact, Brembo had a very excited representative at the launch, and he sent an equally-excited follow-up email full of facts afterwards. If you’re interested, here’s a blast of brake-data:
Front Brake System
• Six-piston caliper
• 130 cm2 pad area, specific performance material developed for the V-series
• Monobloc all-aluminum design
• Two-piece brake disc 390 x 36mm (15.4” x 1.4”)
Rear Brake System
• Four-piston Caliper
• 52 cm2 pad area, specific performance material developed for the V-series
• Two-piece all-aluminum design
• Integral brake rotor 365 x 28mm (14.4” x 1.1”)
Brembo caliper key features
• Aluminum construction
• Reduced weight over traditional calipers
• Excellent corrosion resistance
• Fixed-style design
• Styling for CTS-V in standard grey with optional flat red and flat red colors
• Low drag
• Ease of serviceability
So, there’s pretty much all you need to know about the brakes. In practice, I can tell you they turn speed into heat remarkably well, and without any drama or histrionics. The feel of the pedal is muscular and gives steady resistance, like what I imagine shoving your foot into the side of a horse would feel like.
The car is RWD only now, and maybe an AWD one will come later, but I don’t think I’d want that. The differential has asymmetric half-shafts, with one shorter and thicker. The point of this is to get rid of power hop and axle tramp, which sound like an awesome crimefighting team of a radioactive superbunny and a cyborg hobo.
It’s a real electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, which means that when the traction control kicks in, it’s not using the brake system to control the car, it’s using the diff (and, occasionally cylinder de-activation as well, somehow). The differential can almost totally lock as well, I guess if your goal is better burnouts.
The damper system is dynamically controlled and, at 60 MPH, is updating and calculating every inch as you drive. Cadillac’s goal was “performance without punishment” and it’s safe to say they have that. On the road, it handles well and predictably, and on the track it has sticky, gooey bags of grip and loves being pushed hard. Only once did I get a little loose when I overcooked it into a corner and oversteered, putting two tires off. Even with that, it was pretty easy to recover and get back out.
The transmission is an 8-speed automatic unit that happens to be lighter and smaller than the 6-speed in the regular CTS. Interestingly, because of the layout of the planetary gear system (I’m imagining it looks like a huge orrey inside) it should only require a software change to become a 12-speed, if that ever made sense. It did a better job of shifting than I likely would have. But I don’t mind, that’s what it does all day.
So, overall, this is an absurdly capable track machine. People who buy this and never take it on a track are trading saving money on tires for missing out on what makes this car really special. It’s so far overkill from what 99% of its buyers will use it for that I’m back to being confused like I was in all those paragraphs at the start.
What do you think of the looks?
Damn, boldface type, you know just what to ask. What are you doing after this article? I think the CTS-V is quite handsome. Cadillac has sort of toned down their very angular, fasceted styling for this car, which I regret, but the car still looks distinctive and good, with enough sharp creases to keep it from blending too much into the skipping-stone shape of everything else.
It has a sort of overall design theme in the shape of a widened V, and that gives the car the strong central crease that defines it. The cars we tested had the Carbon Fiber Package, which is all real CF and nothing is just decorative — everything is there to lighten or perform some aero function. The hood is all CF, and my favorite name for a part of this package are the “Gloss Black Gurney Lips” which sound like something you’d buy at a sex shop. Or shoppe, if you live in Colonial Williamsburg.
The wire-mesh grille is a nice touch, and I especially like how Cadillac has handled the vertically-oriented lights. Vertical lighting has been a modern Caddy hallmark for a while, and I think the thin strip of LED running lights, broken halfway by a strip of bumper skin, is a great defining visual hook for the car’s face. It looks modern, purposeful, and crisp, and manages not to fall into baroque monsterism like so many other premium brands. Don’t pretend you don’t hear me, Lexus.
It’s a little more conventional and anonymous in the profile and from the rear, but the overall package is pretty dashing, and the sprinkling of all those functional vents and tasteful spoilers do just enough to hint at the CTS-V’s potential. Like a woman in a lovely tailored dress that just barely reveals that she’s wearing a secret jetpack. You know the kind.
How about the inside? Is it comfortable? Usable?
Okay, okay, boldface. Take it easy. The interior looks and feels like it should: quality, nice-feeling materials, a consistent design theme, enough screens to remind you we live in the Golden Age Of Screens. The car I had had these saffron-colored seat inserts and contrasting stitching everywhere which was nice, since I really hate the unbroken seas of blackness so many car interiors become.
Alcantara/ultrasuade is slathered over everything, from the steering wheel to the shifter’s generous scrotum. So, if you have alcantara allergies, be forewarned. The center stack buttons don’t offer as much tactile identification as I might like, forcing you to shift your gaze and look, and I’m not sure how I feel about the remote glove box opening button.
The infotainment system includes Apple’s CarPlay, which I found pretty good. It’s sort of a toddler-ized iPhone interface, with big, colorful buttons, but as Playskool as it may look, it makes a lot of sense when you’re in the car, and want big, obvious targets for your fingers to poke.
One complaint I have — and this is by no means directed at Cadillac — is that I’d like to see more creativity with instrument displays now that so many cars are using full LCD screens. The CTS-V has a couple of half-ass chrome bezels on either side, like shiny parenthesis that suggest old school gauges. But why are we bothering? Maybe it’s time to ditch the skeuomorphic ideas of the same needle-in-round gauges and start trying some new layouts that are free of the old constraints. It’s a challenge! It’ll be fun!
It’s comfortable in the car, the seats are firm and supportive (they helped me work through some self-esteem issues) and there’s a decent amount of room inside. It’s not necessarily spectacular, but the interior experience seems easily on par with BMW or Mercedes.
The trunk is roomy and usable, enclosing a boxy, uncluttered volume with a little hatch at one side for the rear-mounted battery. And the emergency-escape handle is honestly one of the best I’ve seen! No shitty little green glowy T-handle here — this is a nice grab handle with inset glowing icons — this car will be a pleasure to be abducted in.
Tell me one more thing.
Okay, fine. So the CTS-V has the integrated front camera system (the Performance Data Recorder — a $1300 option) that the new Corvette has, and it allows, in Sport and track modes, to record video, along with very video-game-looking overlays showing speed, RPMs. steering angle, weight shifting, that sort of thing. It’s very cool.
The one thing I don’t understand about it is why they don’t make it available for use as a conventional dashcam when you’re driving normally? It all the needed hardware is already in place, and you could have full dashcam functionality without a bunch of messy wires and an ugly thing suction-cupped to your windshield. It’d be just a software change, and really useful, I think. I mean, shit, for $1300, it really should do this.
I talked to the CTS-V team there and they generally agreed it could be handy and was possible, but that’s as far as they went.
The 2016 Cadillac CTS-V a wildly impressive machine. It’s a comfortable, well-equipped, good-looking premium luxury car that just so happens to be crammed with so much track-and-race-ready engineering that it’s almost ridiculous. It’s overkill. Overkill in one of the best possible ways, but if you buy this car thinking you’re going to use it to its full potential, you’re either a liar or a racecar driver with interesting tastes. Maybe both.
The CTS-V is, I think, a very strong competitor to the BMW M5 or the Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG, and it’s less expensive as well. If you want a car that can go speeds you never, ever will, in comfort that you’ll enjoy and with handling capabilities you’ll likely almost never truly test, then here’s your car. Enjoy it!
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