I’ve been more than pretty sure these two cars would be special since I heard they were coming. Driving the regular CT5-V last year made me a little more sure. So when Cadillac asked who wanted to drive the Blackwing cars at VIR, I signed up. As it turns out, my suspicions were confirmed.
I wanted to experience driving these things on track for the same reason I went out to drive a Chiron a while back (that story is coming): I feel like I need to do this stuff while I can.
I spent a weekend with some very capable Cadillac engineers, and from talking to them, it’s clear that we’re both operating with the same sense of urgency. I’m channeling it into my job, which is goofing around, and they’re channeling it into theirs, which is making some of the best performance sedans ever.
Full Disclosure: Cadillac flew me down to Virginia International Raceway, fed me and put me up in a trackside chalet so I could drive both the CT4-V Blackwing and the CT5-V Blackwing, then waited more than a month for me to publish the review.
Testing Conditions: VIR is a big, fast track in the Virginia countryside. Road drives took place on a pre-determined backroad route. The weather was warm and dry.
At about three in the afternoon, we were being gently prodded to wrap things up. We’d done a nice road drive in the new 472 HP twin-turbo V6 CT4-V Blackwing that morning, and we were finishing up a couple hours of track time at Virginia International Raceway. All day, I’d wanted to get a lap in with reigning IMSA champion Felipe Nasr behind the wheel, but I’d already seen him out of his helmet and HANS device, and I was getting the sense that Cadillac’s agency needed the track clear for some photos, even if they weren’t going to outright tell me to go home.
I found Nasr, and he asked if I wanted to go out for a lap. I said something like “Let’s just bag it, I don’t need to be a pain in the ass,” but he was putting his helmet on, agitating for another drive. He pulled Cadillac engineer Kevin Zelenka aside and soon, they were both insisting to the agency people that we should go back out, that it would just be two minutes, that it would be fine. We went back out.
I can’t imagine Nasr is a guy who wants for additional track time or time hanging out with members of the media for that matter. I can say he seemed to be having a lot of fun once we got out there. Heck, we all were.
Whenever I find myself at a race track, which is less frequently than I’d like, I try to ease myself in—get a lead-follow lap or two, a ride with an instructor and then spend my session working my way up to what are by journalist standards respectable speeds. The goal is to get a sense for the car I’m going to have to write about, not to set a fast lap. I screw up plenty along the way, trying to make mental notes and apply them them next time around. At VIR, I asked Zelenka to show me how to do the Oak Tree turn and then spent the rest of the day trying to get it right.
I drove for hours on a fast and unfamiliar track without ever feeling like I’d pushed the smaller Blackwing too hard. The thing that makes GM’s Alpha platform cars so special to me is that there are never any surprises. This was the case with the ATS and CTS, and it’s the case with the Camaro. The cars are eerily good at telling you what’s going on, and telling you what’s going to happen next. If you’ve driven an ND Miata, you know this feeling. You get there faster in these cars than in almost anything else, for me anyway. These Cadillacs are built on the same Alpha underpinnings as the regular CT5 and CT4, but considerable effort was made to stiffen the platform and make it even more communicative.
In the little Blackwing, you can tell where you’re fast and where you’re slow, when you hit your marks and when you missed them, but the car is always there for you. You may not enter the corner the way you wanted to, but when you turn the wheel, the car’s going to turn because there’s a massive amount of grip at the front. The vehicles we drove on the track had the Carbon 2 package, which includes diveplanes at the front, sideskirts on the rockers, and an aggressive spoiler on the back. The diveplanes were a late add in response to test-driver feedback asking for more front end feel. According to one Cadillac aero engineer who was present during our drive, the aero stuff starts making useful downforce at around 80MPH. On a track like VIR, you’re over 80 a lot.
I didn’t touch the car’s braking capability; the numbered brake zone markers were meaningless. Truthfully, I didn’t touch the car’s capability anywhere.
This car’s predecessor, the underrated and underbought ATS-V got a lot of things right and many of those things are present in the CT4-V Blackwing. But I always wished someone had succeeded in making the case for a version powered by what is possibly my favorite factory motor, the LS7 V8. (I’ve heard that more than one GM employee literally lost their job for arguing that case too strenuously to the wrong person.) It wasn’t that the twin-turbo V6 was bad, but it wasn’t enough to erase thoughts of what might have been had someone recognized that General Motors more or less figured out V8 engines in the 1950s and has barely had a peer worth mentioning when it comes to building them since.
I’m not going to say that the CT4-V Blackwing’s version of the same boosted V6 made me forget about stuffing an LS7 into the engine compartment, thus creating the crowing achievement of the combustion era. But I will say that it’s a characterful, powerful, tractable motor that makes a nice (artificially enhanced) sound—in other words, absolutely not a weak point in an otherwise excellent car. It makes 472 HP and 445 FT-LBS of torque. Not weak.
It also has titanium con rods, but only if you get the manual. The previous version of this engine got titanium con rods regardless of transmission, but Cadillac now knows they aren’t necessary with the auto, which sees less variation in engine speed.
The suspension gets Cadillac’s MagneRide 4.0 magnetorheological shock setup, which is one of a handful of truly great automotive inventions to have made it to market in my lifetime. I have to say it, but you already know it delivers damn near perfect comfort over imperfect roads and allows you to bash through the curbing at VIR without upsetting the car too much, which means you can do the uphill esses flat out if you have the stomach for it. Nasr did, and when he was through and braking for the downhill before the Oak Tree, he asked me if Zelenka had. I told him he had and he seemed a little bummed. We blew straight through the chicane they’d put out to slow us on the back straight, hitting something like 147 MPH before the brakes came back on approaching turn 13.
Chris Mikalauskas, Cadillac’s Lead Creative Designer told us that the wheels come in one size, 18-inches because the wheel wells are so packed with tire, that making them larger would have restricted suspension travel. The deal is the same with the CT5-V Blackwing, only the wheels there are 19-inches. When you have the good suspension, why wouldn’t you let it work? All three wheel options are aluminum and rears are half an inch wider than the fronts if you were hoping to buy your special Michelin PS 4S tires in bulk.
Off the track, CT4-V Blackwing is comfortable and compliant and it flies on backroads, eating up imperfect pavement, maintaining composure and grip where some more-stiffly sprung sports sedans might skip and slide into squirrely territory. Just like at the track, it’s approachable and communicative, and fun.
When speccing your interior, you’re presented with a variety of fun upholstery options, including some genuinely novel stitching, perforation and embossing that is all very well executed. There is some nice carbon work and one piece of that sparkly black plastic that here, directly below the nav screen, is truly incongruous. If I bought one of these, I’d bring a can of black spray paint to the dealership so I could pry that single piece of weirdly sparkly trim off and paint it in the parking lot before I left. The sparkle finish didn’t look that weird on the second generation CTS-V, but this car is about a hundred times nicer inside than that CTS-V was, which makes this tiny piece of trim look like the one obviously cheap thing in the whole cabin. Unless you get the automatic, then you get a kind of crappy shift lever, but you should absolutely not get the automatic.
If you break it down to materials, assembly and design, interiors in these top tier sporty luxury cars are all pretty similar. You’ve got your black plastic, your soft-touch plastic, your perforated leather, fake suede, etc. From Rolls-Royce on down, if you pay attention it’s probably 80-90% the same stuff. The magic comes in how the materials are combined to create a whole, where the cheap stuff is hidden, where the automaker spent a little extra to create a focal point. It’s all very subjective—what feels better—but there is a general consensus.
The best interiors in the luxury-but-not-hyper-luxury universe are made by Mercedes-Benz and Audi (and maybe Genesis now). I’d put the Blackwing cars a wrinkle behind Mercedes and Audi but ahead of BMW, Lexus and the others. If you’re a furniture enthusiast this may be unacceptable to you. If you’re more into driving, you should buy the Cadillac and maybe a nice chair for the living room. If you’re into screens, and knowing about different kinds of screens, then please e-mail me; I just want to know how you get to be that way.
As good as the CT4-V Blackwing is—and it is absurdly, monumentally good—you’re here for the big car, with the big motor, the one that on balance, may be the best sports sedan ever made.
First and foremost, this is the only car in its competitive set that you can have with a manual transmission, so it’s ahead of its competition by default. I love an E63 AMG, I love an RS6 and both of them come in wagon form—but at this stage in the evolution of the performance car, being the only car in a given segment that comes with a six-speed is like being the only guy at the OK Corral who remembered to bring a gun. If you lose, you really fucked up.
Both cars have nice wonderfully thunky shifters with “no-lift shift” which means you can keep your two tones to the floorboards when you downshift and the car manages the heel toe thing for you. If I owned one of these I’d want to get used to doing that myself, but while learning my way around VIR in the CT5-V Blackwing, it was nice to offload it without giving up the fun of shifting gears entirely.
And working that mirror-smooth, crisply positive shifter is fun. If it wasn’t attached to anything, if it was just a thing to fidget with, it would still feel great. But, as it happens, it is hooked up to something. A 668 HP supercharged small-block V8, god’s perfect motor, the crowning achievement of the capitalist system. Compact and light and serviceable, cheapish to build, even kind of efficient when it needs to be. A million ideas, and billions of dollars have been applied to the problem of building a better engine. Miles of timing chain and turbo piping have been thrown at the problem. But unless there’s a last second revelation coming, I’m pretty comfortable saying that nobody’s going to figure out how to make an across-the-board-better engine than GM’s small block, and this one is among the best ever fitted to a road car.
Remember that thing I said about climbing the esses in the smaller Blackwing? How hitting the curbs hard wouldn’t upset the car so you could just go right through? In the big car, there are no curbs. There are very few things on the whole track that require you to slow down at all. That’s an exaggeration, but that’s how this car feels.
Coming off the back straight at VIR and into turn one, you have to slow down quite a bit, because turn one basically doubles back on itself, like a horseshoe, which is how it got the name “the horseshoe.” If you’re there at a manufacturer supervised test day, this all happens in full view of a lot of people, which gives you some incentive to not fuck it up.
At one point late in the day, I came in, and one of the engineers said, “You’re braking really late, blowing through some braking zones.” I said, “Yeah, I know. Is that cool?” He said, “Yeah, definitely.” Or maybe “Yeah, go for it.” I’d been gradually braking later and later as I learned to trust the carbon-ceramic brakes, but I never figured out how far was too far. This is a 4,123 pound car with—conservatively—250 lbs of me in it, and it just kept slowing down, kept making the turn, everywhere. “Yeah, go for it” should be the official tagline of the Blackwing lineup.
Part of that is probably that Cadillac’s PTM (Performance Traction Management) system is pure magic when it comes to making you feel confident and comfortable. It’s adjustable on the right side of the wheel via a switch similar to Ferrari’s Manettino dial, or you can push the big V button on the left for your own personal setup. I didn’t dick with the button on the left. I’ve driven Alpha cars in the wet and in the snow without PTM, I’ve hooned them in parking lots. Unlike a lot of these systems, it doesn’t hide the car’s fundamental behavior or cover up flaws. It’s there to save your ass when you need it, and to work with an electronic limited slip differential, custom Michelin’s, the chassis, suspension and thousands of engineer man hours to turn a big (4,123 LBS!) car into something you never want to stop driving.
David spent a lot of time poking around under these things last year, looking at various heat exchangers and ducts, making sure to note how the grille was painstakingly, over the course of dozens of revisions, optimized for airflow. I spent a lot of time looking at them myself in Virginia, and I concluded that someone with the authority to hire and fire engineers was unhappy with the way a certain other GM product managed heat at the track. Our sessions included half a lap off cool-down at the end, but I don’t know that either car needed it.
As far as creature comforts, you’re not getting a lot of variation between the 4 and the 5. If for some reason you skipped the part about the interiors above, just know that these are the best interiors I’ve ever seen stuck in an American car. The imaginative stitching and choice of unexpected colors are old-school GM Design stuff—the return of a Cadillac that demonstrates some self-confidence. The materials are much better than anything coming out of the golden era, especially if you step up into the higher spec optional interiors.
If we live to see the EV takeover that’s been promised, I’ll be glad for it. It’s a necessary part of fixing the only world we’ll ever live on so, the sooner the better. But based on the EVs I’ve driven to date, I don’t expect I’ll ever drive one that delivers the experience as this car does. The things I enjoy about driving, and really a lot of the things I find appealing about cars from a mechanical standpoint aren’t present in EVs as they exist today.
I’m not saying that the same engineers that built these things won’t figure out how to make an EV that’s fun to drive, I’m sure they will. The EV era will bring plenty of opportunities to make all kinds of incredible cars, this is a particular kind of incredible car they’ll never have another opportunity to build. This V8 manual sedan isn’t the last of a dying breed — this car is that breed coming back from the dead. And, if Cadillac hadn’t nailed it so emphatically with this thing, I’d say that was a shame.
I don’t think GM built these things because they believed a ton of people would buy them. The writing has been on the wall for sedans, and American sedans in particular. I think they built them because they’re the kind of cars that brilliant people who genuinely love this stuff aspire to build.
If in years past, Cadillac’s various marketers and agencies wouldn’t take the time to really get their heads around these types of products, if they didn’t get why Mercedes wants you to see their AMG cars doing lurid, smoky drifts or why it matters when you win the The 24 Hours of Daytona, there were still designers and engineers staying up nights to make sure the actual product defied every expectation.
The shifters on the manual-equipped Blackwing cars have a little 3D-printed medallion on the top showing the shift pattern. At first, I thought it was kind of gimmicky and annoying; 3D printing feels a little passé. Now that I know what it represents, I think it’s one of the coolest parts on the cars.
The story goes that the financial case for the manual wasn’t there, but that using 3D printing allowed them to make a manual-compatible wiring bracket and manual-compatible HVAC ducting at a cost that would allow the project to wash. Looking at that little medallion, you are reminded that a group of people would not let these cars get out the door without a manual transmission, that the people who designed, tested and built these cars did everything they could to get them one-hundred-percent right for customers who care about driving more than they probably should.
Does knowing about stuff like the 3D-printed parts give this car a kind of skunkworks, underdog appeal? I think it does, and I’m sure that’s why Cadillac told me about it. The better question is, does a potential buyer of a car like this, care?
Over drinks, a Cadillac rep related a story about a woman who’d attended a focus group for one of Cadillac’s SUVs. The woman came away impressed with the car, but said she’d still probably buy a Mercedes when it came time, because buying the Mercedes meant she’d never have to explain herself to anyone—it’s a Mercedes.
A handful of companies know how to make really good, really fast performance sedans right now. I’d bet those products are all within a couple seconds of each other on a track like VIR. And, if you buy any of them except the Cadillac, you won’t ever have to explain why to someone you’re trying to impress. If that’s what your car is for, go with god. It’s your money.
And sure, fun, used gas cars will probably be around for the rest of your life. Even if they aren’t you’ll probably always be able to walk into a dealership and buy something that everyone knows is expensive and good.
But as the internal combustion era draws to a close, I’m trying hard to etch the kinds of singularly joyful driving experiences that these cars are so good at providing into my brain. And I’m about as sure as I get that while EVs may end up being fun in their own way, once these Blackwing cars are gone, the particular sensations they’re made to elicit will go with them.