First drive: 2016 Cadillac CTS-V [Review]

Cadillac\'s hot rod sedan is back and better than ever.

As good as the Cadillac CTS-V has been since its introduction in 2004, it's always been a square peg in a round hole. Straddling the line between the BMW M3 and M5, the CTS-V has never really had a market segment to call its own.

But with the launch of the ATS-V, which now goes head-to-head with the M3, the CTS-V has finally found its lot in life as a direct rival to the M5. With its purpose now clearly defined, we packed our bags for Elkhart Lake's famed Road America racetrack to see if the 2016 CTS-V really has the chops to take on BMW's flagship performance sedan.

The heart of the beastWhen talking about any performance vehicle, it's always a good idea to start with its most important component — the engine. In the case of the CTS-V, that heart is the same basic supercharged 6.2L LT4 V8 that you'll find beating beneath the hood of the latest Chevrolet Corvette Z06. An encouraging starting point for sure.

But the higher-ups at General Motors didn't want a four-door Cadillac upstaging the company's flagship performance coupe, so the CTS-V's power ratings stand at 640 horsepower and 630 lb-ft of torque, down 10 and 20, respectively, from the Z06. Still, those figures more than wallop the M5's 560 horsepower and the 577 horsepower offered by the Mercedes-Benz AMG E63 S.

All of those ponies are funneled to the CTS-V's rear wheels via GM's in-house designed eight-speed automatic transmission. Though not a dual-clutch setup, Cadillac says the unit can swap gears in as little as 150 milliseconds. The gearbox is also about 27 pound lighter than the unit it replaces in the old CTS-V, despite having two more cogs.

Drivers can either leave the eight speed in Drive or take control via the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, which are crafted out of genuine magnesium. There are also several drive modes to choose from, including Sport and Track settings. With the Track mode engaged, there are several more sub-settings available that alter the car's traction and stability control systems. If you're feeling really gutsy, you can even turn all of the electronic nannies to off.

Supporting castOf course it takes more than just an exciting drivetrain to make a great performance vehicle. With that in mind, Cadillac engineers set to fine tuning the CTS's already solid platform.

The CTS-V sports several unique body braces, including a large structural piece under the front section of the car and a strut tower brace under the hood. Engineers also beefed up the CTS-V's firewall, which was actually so successful that Cadillac is now applying those changes to the regular CTS for the 2016 model year.

The end result of that extra bracing is a chassis that is 25 percent stiffer than the one you'll find beneath the regular CTS. But perhaps more importantly, most of those components are made out of lightweight aluminum, which means this CTS-V is actually about 100 pounds lighter than the car it replaces.

To that solid foundation Cadillac bolted its latest Magnetic Ride Control suspension system, which includes a MacPherson setup up front and a five-link kit in the rear.

In order to counter the 6.2L bombshell under hood, Cadillac partnered with Brembo to design a front braking system specifically for the CTS-V. Consisting of a two-piece design, the CTS-V's front discs measure 390mm, which Cadillac says is the largest ever fitted to a production sedan. Clamping power is provided by six-piston calipers up front and a four-pot setup at the rear.

On the aero front the CTS-V employs a front spoiler, cooling ducts for the brakes, a hood-mounted air extractor and a rear diffuser. You can further enhance the CTS-V's aero package by selecting the optional carbon fiber package, which adds a more aggressive front air dam and larger rear spoiler, among other details. Even if you don't spring for the carbon fiber package, you still get a carbon fiber hood as standard.

And there are countless other minor details that go into making the CTS into a V. For example, the CTS-V's fuel tank has special baffles that allow it to corner at max g's with just an eighth of a tank onboard. If you were to try the same thing with the CTS's standard tank, the cornering prowess of the V would leave the engine starving for fuel at just half a tank. Even the CTS-V's grille-mounted Cadillac badge has been shrunken to improve airflow to the engine.

Sum of the partsSo the CTS-V looks good on paper, but how does it stand up in real life? Simply put, brilliantly. Road America's four miles of turns and elevation changes will reveal the weaknesses in just about any car, but we couldn't find nary a fault with the CTS-V.

The CTS-V storms out of the gates with the kind of aplomb you'd expect from a 640-horsepower vehicle. Max torque doesn't come on until a relatively high 3,600 rpm, but the CTS-V still has plenty of grunt off the line. In fact, Cadillac says you can expect the run from 0-60 to whoosh by in 3.7 seconds, eclipsing the M5 by a significant 0.5 seconds. Top speed for the CTS-V is an eye-watering 200 mph; We managed to push the sedan to speeds in excess of 150 mph on Road America's front straight.

The CTS-V is slightly nose heavy, with a 52.7/47.3 front/rear wight distribution, but that seems to work in the sedan's favor. That marginally heavier front end helps to push the front tires into the ground, which results in good turn in. Cadillac specifically dialed in a bit of understeer into the CTS-V's chassis, which largely prevents the rear end from swinging around unexpectedly. You can still slide around the rear end, but you don't have to worry about snap oversteer. Part of that is also down to the CTS-V's trick electronic rear differential.

Of course you also have the safety net of the CTS-V's varying drive modes. Once in Track mode you can select from five different settings, with 1 keeping all system on full alert while 5 locks up the nannies and leaves you to your on devices. We found setting 4 to be the sweet spot, allowing just the right amount of wheel spin without the threat of spinning out of control.

Overall the CTS-V is a very well balanced vehicle that feels extremely planted to the ground. The CTS-V weighs just over 4,100 pounds, but it never felt big and ponderous or out of its element on the track. This is certainly not one of those Cadillacs of yore that likes to roll around corners.

Like most modern vehicles steering in the CTS-V is somewhat isolated from the road thanks to electronic boosting, but the tiller has a good on-center feel and is quick and direct. Steering weight can be adjusted via the onboard computer, with the Track setting offering the heaviest steering.

Cadillac officials harped on the CTS-V's brakes during their presentation of the car, and we can see why. Although they aren't carbon ceramic, the CTS-V's big Brembos offer massive stopping power with virtually no fade. Best of all they come standard, whereas BMW will charge you about nine-grand for a set of track ready brakes on its M5.

The CTS-V's eight-speed auto does a good job of holding gears and down shifting when required, but we didn't find it quite as fast-shifting as advertised. Don't get us wrong, this is no slush box, but the eight-speed auto in the Dodge Charger Hellcat, which is supplied by ZF, just seems to bang the gears a little better.

And off the track?Typically when a car is as capable on-track as the CTS-V is, it's rubbish on public roads. Thankfully, the CTS-V retains plenty of Cadillac's DNA.

Thanks in large to its Magnetic Ride Control, the CTS-V is capable of cruising comfortably over the imperfect roads of the real world. In fact, if it weren't for the audible supercharger wine (and the roar from the exhaust when the butterfly valves open at engine speeds over 3,500 rpm) you might mistake the CTS-V for a run-of-the-mill Cadillac sedan. Likewise, a lighter steering weight in Touring mode makes for an easy Sunday drive.

Our tester was fitted with optional Recaro sports seats, which were mostly a welcomed upgrade. The stylish thrones offer several bolster adjustments and are actually far more comfortable than their sport designation would suggest. However, you lose the seat ventilation function when you select that option box, so buyers more concerned with a sweaty posterior than staying put during a track day might want to stick with the standard buckets.

Likewise, we're also lukewarm on the CTS-V's optional carbon fiber package. While the package's larger rear spoiler does provide more downforce, you'll only really see that benefit on the occasional track day; You'll have to live with the boy racer look of the carbon fiber package everyday. Needless to day, we prefer the under-the-radar look of the standard CTS-V.

Leftlane's bottom lineThey say the third time's a charm, and that certainly seems to be the case with the third-generation Cadillac CTS-V. Encompassing a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spirit, the CTS-V can go from dignified cruiser to a track-capable monster with a mere flick of its console-mounted toggle switch. The M5 has long been king of the hill in this segment, but the 2016 CTS-V may have just stolen the crown.

2016 Cadillac CTS-V base price, $84,990.

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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