The Good: Price, speed, magnetic ride control, available automatic transmission
The Bad: Poor fuel economy, doubts about GM's future
The Bottom Line: The fastest regular-production luxury sedan ever
It breaks my heart as a car reviewer to see General Motors (GM) so near bankruptcy. Contrary to popular perceptions, the company's financial woes have little to do with problems in its product lineup. Sure, GM's offerings at the low end—such as the Chevy Cobalt and Aveo—are notoriously poor. But the low end isn't where car companies make most of their profits, and GM's large pickup trucks (Chevy Silverado), SUVs (Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse), midrange cars (Chevy Malibu, Saturn Aura) and luxury cars (Cadillac CTS and STS) are all far more competitive than they have been in years.
An example of how strong GM is at the high end is the sizzling new Cadillac CTS-V, a souped-up and ultraspeedy version of the CTS small luxury sedan. Obviously, a gas-guzzling niche product like the CTS-V isn't going to help much in GM's struggle to survive financially. But most of Cadillac's toughest competitors have similar models: Mercedes (DAI) has its E63 AMG and C63 AMG, BMW (BMWG) its M3 and M5, Toyota (TM) its Lexus IS F, and Audi its RS4 and S6. By improving the CTS-V, GM has become competitive with the best companies in the world in the performance segment, which is a good thing.
The '09 CTS-V is a hell of a machine. The previous-generation CTS-V, which was sold through 2007, was fast; this one is justifiably billed as the fastest luxury sedan ever made. Last May a production '09 CTS-V clad in regular street tires ran Germany's Nürburgring race course in 7 minutes, 59.3 seconds, a record for a production luxury sedan.
If ever a car was a wolf in sheep's clothing, it's the CTS-V. Aside from the discreet bulge in the hood (to accommodate the engine's supercharger), the CTS-V resembles the regular CTS sedan, except that under the V's hood is a 6.2-liter, 556-horsepower supercharged V8 similar to the one in the Corvette ZR1 supercar. The CTS-V also comes standard with a marvelous new Magnetic Ride Control suspension system that dramatically improves handling. And there's now a choice of two six-speed transmissions: the stick shift that until now has been standard in the V, or a lightning-quick new automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The CTS-V isn't cheap, except by comparison with German competitors that can easily top $100,000. The '09 CTS-V starts at $60,700, including a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax (the automatic transmission doesn't cost extra but raises the guzzler tax to $2,600). Standard equipment includes such comfort features as rain-sensitive windshield wipers, rear parking assist, and adaptive headlights that swivel to light the way around corners.
Options include a hard-drive-based sound and navigation system ($2,145), heated and ventilated Recaro performance seats ($3,400), a panoramic sunroof ($900), and 19-inch polished aluminum wheels ($800).
Mileage, as you might expect, is feeble. The CTS-V is rated at 13 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway (and premium gasoline is recommended). In 251 miles of mixed driving, I got 16.7 mpg.
The '09 CTS-V is selling well, considering the state of the economy. Cadillac says it sold about 1,000 CTS-Vs in the first quarter of this year. By comparison, the company says it sold around 2,500 of the previous-generation CTS-V annually.
Overall, the CTS is Cadillac's top-selling model. Sales fell 36.7% to 10,576 during the first three months of the year, but that's a much smaller plunge than any other Cadillac model. STS sales fell 70.6% and DTS sales 62% during the same period.
Behind the Wheel
GM says the CTS-V will accelerate from zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds, which puts it in Ferrari territory. I couldn't match that time, partly because my test car had snow tires and partly because when I punched the gas the wheels spun and the rear end fishtailed dramatically. However, this car is so fast that even when I eased off the gas to accelerate smoothly I got times of lass than 4.5 seconds—which is to say a Sunday driver can hump the CTS-V from zero to 60 as fast as a BMW M5 or a Mercedes E63 AMG will do the run at full throttle.
What's astonishing about the new CTS-V is how livable it is in daily driving (just don't watch the gas gauge too closely). As long as you don't punch the gas too hard, the car is well-mannered, with none of the jerkiness in traffic you get in Ferraris and other overpowered performance cars. I had absolute confidence that the CTS-V could handle any situation. If, say, there was a break in a long stream of traffic or I needed to zoom past a line of traffic to get to an upcoming highway exit, it was marvelous to have so much power at my command. And if, say, you need to slam to a halt to avoid an accident, the CTS-V's huge Brembo brakes will bring the car to a full stop from 60 mph in a little over 100 feet.
A major selling point of the CTS-V is the Magnetic Ride Control system, which GM bills as "the world's fastest-reacting suspension." Electronic sensors in all four wheels read the road every millisecond, adjusting damping to control the car's body motion, a boon during hard cornering. More important for most owners, the Magnetic Ride Control system does an excellent job of smoothing out potholes and other irregularities in the road. In "touring" mode, the suspension is sporty without being boaty. Shift the system into the "sport" setting by pushing a button in the center of the dash and the suspension stiffens up noticeably (and immediately), but the system still smoothes out bumpy roads very effectively.
The CTS-V's cabin is as classy as the one in the regular CTS, with stitched leather upholstery and available Sapele wood (nursery-grown African mahogany) trim. The touchscreen navigation and audio system controls are very easy to decipher. At 13.6 cu. ft., the trunk is adequate in size. The main downsides: Legroom in the rear seats is quite tight. I also found the Recaro performance seats uncomfortable during long highway drives.
Buy It or Bag It?
The way things are looking in the industry, this kind of American car may not be around much longer. This is a male thing (only 10% of CTS-V buyers are women, according to the Power Information Network) and, if you want one, now's the time to buy.
With the CTS-V in relatively high demand, you may have to pay close to list price. The CTS-V sells for an average of $64,180, with an average cash discount of just $1,989, according to PIN. It is covered by GM's new "Total Confidence" program, which helps with payments if you lose your job and props up the car's resale value.
The '09 CTS-V is still a relative bargain. It offers the size and performance of more expensive models such as the Mercedes E63 AMG (starting price: $88,575), BMW M5 (starting price: $89,325), and the all-wheel-drive Audi S6 ($78,025), but is priced in the same range (factoring in the standard Magnetic Ride Control) as the smaller Mercedes C63 AMG (starting price: $57,175), BMW M3 ($56,975), and Lexus IS F ($57,585). (The Audi RS4 is being redesigned for 2010.)
If cachet is your prime concern, a Cadillac can't match a BMW, Mercedes, or Lexus (or arguably an Audi). But if performance for price is your priority, the CTS-V is highly competitive. Among other things, it's the fastest car in its class.
Click here to see more of the 2009 Cadillac CTS-V.