Elbowing its way into the high-performance niche carved out by Mercedes' AMGs, Cadillac's CTS-V is powerful, nimble, and a great deal
Each time I headed out in the new CTS-V, my reaction was the same: I can't believe this is a Cadillac.
Cadillac's V-series offers more powerful versions of regular Cadillac models, designed to compete in the performance segment with the AMG versions of Mercedes (DCX) models and the M versions of BMWs. And, in my opinion, the CTS-V offers far greater value than the other Cadillac V-series model I've driven, the XLR-V roadster (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/28/06, "$100,000 Cadillac") and is a much better car. For the money, it's an exceptionally fast and decent-handling car.
The big question: Would you choose a Cadillac over a German car, even for less money?
The CTS-V comes in a single everything-on-it format that includes a power sunroof, navigation system, leather upholstery, stability control, big Brembo ventilated brakes, 18-inch spoked wheels, and high intensity headlights. A 6-speed manual transmission and a powerful 6-liter 400-horsepower V8 are standard, too—it's basically the same engine you'd find in the Corvette (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/6/06, "The No-Sweat 'Vette"). The main choices you have are to forgo the sunroof (which saves you $1,200) or add special Goodyear run-flat tires (an extra $550).
QUESTIONS ON QUALITY.
For all that, CTS-V lists at just $52,395—and goes for a lot less in the real world. With General Motors (GM) struggling, dealers are bargaining on price. The company also is offering a $3,000 cash-back deal on the '06 model. As a result, according to the Power Information Network, the actual average transaction price of the CTS-V comes to only $46,307, way below the BMW M 3's average of $59,538 and the Mercedes-Benz C55's $58,039.(The CTS-V has not only a bit more room than the C55 but also a 6-liter 400-horsepower V8 engine that's more powerful than the German's 5.4-liter 362-horsepower V8.)
It's an elegant looking car, too. It has Cadillac's signature (and very American-looking) chrome mesh grillwork up front and two big exhaust pipes out back to let other drivers know this isn't just any luxury compact. There are "V" logos all over the car in case anyone misses the message. Exterior fit and finish are very good, with the gaps around the doors, hood, and trunk much tighter and more uniform than on most Detroit models.
However, doubts about the car's quality constitute a big negative in my mind. The basic CTS has a three-and-a-half-star Initial Quality rating from J.D. Power, which is slightly above average (like BusinessWeek and BusinessWeek.com. J.D. Power is owned by the McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)). But on my test car, a piece of trim fell off the driver's side door handle into the parking lot one day (luckily I noticed it before I drove off). And when I took the car out on a bumpy back road, I heard a couple of persistent rattles in the passenger compartment. The economy-class Chevy Cobalt SS was rattle-free on the same road. If Cadillac expects to compete with the Germans, it has to do better than that.
Continuing quality doubts may be one reason the CTS—like nearly all GM models right now—isn't selling very well. Through the end of June, CTS sales are off 12.3%, to 29,049, only modestly better than GM unit sales overall. GM doesn't break out CTS-V sales, but says the model accounts for 6% to 7% of total CTS sales.
On the plus side, this is one performance car that can easily double as a family sedan. The passenger cabin offers more front and rear legroom than you'd expect in a compact luxury car. Hip and shoulder room in both the front and rear seats are more than 53 and 56 inches, respectively. Front headroom is listed at just 38.9 inches, but the sunroof creates an illusion of more space. I'm 5-foot-10-inches tall and there was plenty of legroom in back with the front seats set comfortably for someone my height.
It's an easy car to park because of its relatively compact shape and turning radius of just 36 feet. Trunk space measures an adequate 12.5 feet, and the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 pattern. I hauled a bunch of deck posts and a couple of 8-foot railings in the car one day, and there still would have been plenty of room for a rear passenger and two people up front.
Like the basic CTS, the CTS-V comes packed with safety enhancements, including standard side curtain airbags. The CTS earned four- and five-star ratings in the government crash tests and was named a "Best Pick" for safety by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The CTS-V is rated to get 16 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway, but uses expensive premium gas.
BEHIND THE WHEEL.
The big appeal of the CTS-V is its raw speed. The company says it will jump from zero to 60 in 4.6 seconds—Corvette-fast. I did some trials on an empty blacktop road and never that speed in under five seconds. I burned a lot of rubber and had a lot of fun trying, though. When you pop the clutch on this car, the tires definitely squeal.
Unlike a lot of Detroit-made fast cars, the CTS-V performs quite nimbly. I picked the car up in New Jersey one afternoon when I was running late for an important meeting in the Chelsea art gallery district of Manhattan. It served as an ideal vehicle for making up time. In heavy, fast-moving traffic, I went barreling down the Palisades Parkway, across the George Washington Bridge and down Manhattan's West Side, weaving in and out of slower-moving traffic, feeling confident at all times that I could brake or accelerate my way out of any binds that might arise (and, of course, at all times more-or-less obeying applicable traffic regulations).
The V's springs and shocks are firmer than in the regular CTS. Shifting is solid and tight. In third and fourth gear, the engine has enormous power when you need to shoot ahead and emits a loud growl when you push the car a little.
The CTS-V's interior is plain for a luxury car, but attractive. In my test car, the dash and side panels were in a subtly patterned flat black that resembled carbon fiber. The seat leather in particular, supplied by Eagle Ottawa, felt exceptionally soft and had sumptuous suede inserts. There are still a few very cheap plastic materials in the car's interior, but they're mainly in places you wouldn't readily notice, such as at the ends of the dash and at the back of the center console (unfortunately, visible from the rear seats if you look closely). Still, the car could really use a few more luxury touches. Some wood trim on the dash and doors would make all the difference.
Most of the car's design elements emphasize its performance capabilities. The center armrest is set low, to make shifting easier. The seats have extra side bolters to keep you from sliding sideways during hard turns. The cupholders, thank goodness, lie in the center console rather than on the dash where they are prone to splash liquids on you during fast driving, like they do in the BMW Z4 M Coupe (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/26/06, "Hard Core Z"). The speedometer registers up to 180 miles per hour, though the company says the car tops out at a mere 163.
BUY IT OR BAG IT?
The basic CTS is one of the better bargains on the market right now, and the CTS-V carries that advantage into the performance segment. If you can't deal with a stick shift and a lot of extra horsepower, save some money and buy the basic CTS.
It's definitely worth test-driving the CTS-V if you're considering buying a performance-style BMW or Mercedes, or a sporty Lexus (TM) or Infiniti model, for that matter. If you haven't driven a Cadillac lately, you'll probably be amazed by what a sweet-handling, elegant-looking car this is.
However, the Cadillac still can't match the cold precision of a Bimmer or the luxurious solidity of a Mercedes. The Cadillac's interior is a little too down-market and its quality not quite high enough. As demonstrated by the average transaction prices I gave above, though, the price of German cars mounts very rapidly when you start adding options, and the Caddie comes with everything on it.
If price is an important consideration (and when isn't it?), you can definitely go with the Caddie. But you'd have more confidence going with the Caddie if GM would notch up the quality and elegance a wee bit higher.
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