2005 Cadillac CTS-V and 2006 STS-V review

Few nameplates have as storied a history as Cadillac. They were, in other decades, truly looked at as the “standard of the world.” Cadillac has a number of innovations that they can and should be proud of. Then the ‘80’s happened. In response to the economy of the day, they began introducing riveting cars like the Cimarron. They started experimenting with front wheel drive. They tried the quasi-exotic car thing by bringing out the Allante. Sales were stagnant. People were losing interest. Then the worst thing possible happened to them – Japan learned how to build true luxury cars that not only drove great, they were reliable to boot. BMW and Mercedes were affected by this move as well of course, but the tides were definitely changing.

Then in the first parts of the 21st century, GM finally woke up and realized that if they didn’t do something positive (since flailing their arms wasn’t working) that once proud Cadillac could go the way of Plymouth, Hudson, Edsel, and so many other nameplates. Worse, people interested in Cadillac’s were dying off (literally) and there were no new customers to take their place. Instead of being Lincoln and rebadging all of their Chevy’s and Buick’s into a Cadillac, or keep on doing what wasn't working, they made a bold move (sorry Ford) and in 2002 introduced the CTS sedan. This replaced the stillborn entry model, the Caterra. It was properly, for a sport sedan, RWD and was aimed squarely at a younger crowd who grew up lusting after models from other manufacturers. The design was certainly original – especially for Cadillac. It was sharply creased, very angular; it definitely made a statement. The gamble worked and sales took off.

Not content with just one success, they came out in 2004 with the first of their V series, which was their answer to the big German letters M and AMG. The approach was standard American: put the largest motor you can in the front, beef up the brakes and suspension and hang on. The car to donate the motor? Nothing less than the Z06 Corvette. 400hp, a 6-speed manual, and performance tuned on the ultimate torture track – the Nurburgring - right in BMW and Mercedes backyard. Things got interesting. Cadillac even started racing again with the CTS to prove they were actually serious this time and to build street cred. Two years later, they brought out V versions of the larger STS sedan and XLR convertible, both packing supercharged versions of the Northstar V8. Notably, the STS in V trim was rated at almost 470hp – the most powerful factory Cadillac in history up to that time.Naturally I was anxious to sample some of their V line to see how they stack up, and had the opportunity to take the CTS-V and STS-V out for a shakedown.

First up was the CTS-V. The one I drove was a '05 model with only about 4000 miles on the odo. The first thing that struck me was how - how should I put this - inexpensive - the interior looked. For a car that costs north of $50 large when new, I expected more. The quality of the plastics on the door and dash felt and looked cheaper than what you may expect in say, a Hyundai. You don’t need to have a lot in your car, but what’s there shouldn’t need to be explained away to your friends either with a “yeah but…” when they say “I thought you bought a Cadillac…”. It did have some neat toys. Think of what you’d like to see in a luxury car and it pretty much had it. The seats were comfortable. Room was decent. Couple of odd notes – the e-brake is a fourth pedal under the dash, the steering wheel feels like it came from a Greyhound, especially when you discover exactly none of the 4 angles you get to choose from are adequate, and the pedals are not ideally spaced for heel and toe downshifts. That last one is an especially curious oversight for who Cadillac markets this car to. Lift the hood to see the business end of the V and you'll see where the development money went. 400hp from a V8 hooked to a 6 speed manual trans. (In 2005 the engine became the same one as the standard C6 Corvette) In reading other reviews, the CTS-V has been criticized as having a notchy gearbox. Personally I didn't see it that way. I found it direct and precise. While nothing comparable to a S2000, I never missed a shift or questioned where I was in the maze of six gears. Frankly I preferred it to the manual gearbox in a BMW 3 series. When the key was turned and the motor barked to life (and I mean BARKED) a smile crept across my face. Classic American muscle car sound, wrapped in a classy body, and disguised as a possible family mobile and/or professional business car. Outside styling and sound earn it a +1.

Now for the moment of truth - the drive. I pulled out onto the street, feathering everything to get the feel and let it warm up. I went to a freeway on-ramp, turned on in second gear, and stepped on the only pedal that matters. The torque laid me into the seats. It revs slower than you may expect from a 6-speed equipped car. Undoubtedly due to the tremendous torque from the Vette engine, the gear ratios can be spaced farther apart, using higher gears more for fuel economy (ha!) than outright performance. I wound it most of the way up in second, a quick shift to third and the fun started all over again. THAT was fun - until the end of the on ramp which had a serious bump in it. Well, it wasn't serious, but the way the CTS-V's uncompliant suspension absorbed the bump made it feel like the car should have exploded. And here is my biggest gripe with the CTS-V. The suspension is rock hard. I mean ROCK hard. I don't mind a stiff suspension on a performance car - but this one was punishing. The more I drove it around Michigan's blown out roads the unhappier I became. But, I figured with a suspension like this, it must handle like a dream, right? Well, if that was the case I would accept it as a price to pay for phenomenal handling. When I took a different on-ramp that circled around almost 360 degrees, the CTS-V did not have the calm, confident handling that one would expect from a car designed to compete with Europe's best. Yes I know it pulls strong skidpad numbers in all the tests, but there is something to be said for how it FEELS when it is being pushed. The V, while appearing capable on paper, lets you know it does not appreciate what you are trying to do when hustling. As the g-force mounted the handling began to get unpredictable, uncomfortable, and I did not feel safe exploring its limits any further. In contrast, a E36 M3 chassis oozes confidence and makes you feel like you can do no wrong.

It’s like watching Formula 1 racing, and seeing the difference between a McLaren and a Red Bull machine. The McLaren flows around the track while the Red Bull drivers are definitely fighting to get the car around the track, even though both turn in close lap times. Unfortunately that’s the quality was missing from the CTS-V - a grave disappointment from a car claimed to be tested and tuned on Germany's 'Ring.

In summary - for someone moving up from a Mustang, Vette, F-body car, or similar, those people will probably feel right at home in the CTS-V. You get all the good and bad from a dedicated muscle car with the usefulness of a sedan body. If that's what you like, then you have found your nirvana. If you're looking for an alternative to other luxury mobiles, the CTS-V may not exactly be what you're expecting. Just watch out doing drag races and burnouts with it – they are quite well known to eat their diffs. Other tests have noted problems with cooling and oil starvation in extreme (track) use – problems that don’t surface nearly as often from the competition. Great concept, ok execution.

The STS-V, however, is a different story. From the moment you slip into its interior, the STS-V screams luxury. The quality of materials is MUCH nicer than the CTS-V. Leather is everywhere – even on the dash. Everything seems to fit together better. The seats are quite comfortable. The only niggles are a backseat that is tighter than expected and trunk that is smaller than expected from a car of this size. But, again, this is probably not this vehicles main purpose in life. At least not when wearing the V-badge. Prospective buyers of the mainstream models may feel differently. The same Greyhound steering wheel from the CTS-V greets you, but it has full adjustability so it doesn’t seem as out of place. The outside is very classy and gives just a few subtle clues to what you're piloting. The suspension sits lower than normal. It has tasteful, large wheels, a mesh grille, and tasteful body add-ons that distinguish it from its less powerful stablemates. This one is powered by a supercharged Northstar V8, dishing out 468hp to the rear wheels. On start up it is noticeably quieter than the CTS-V. This car definitely has the luxury/sport combination more in balance. The STS-V also throws in some additional luxury options such as heated AND cooled seats, plus a neat way to start it. No key is required - simply have the fob with you, get in, press the brake, and push the start button. Very trick.

I drove to the same area to objectively compare and contrast the two Caddys. I took the same on ramp and hit the same bump. Rather than feel like I was going to need to visit the dentist again, the car absorbed the road irregularity with a WHOMP and little discomfort in the cabin. Cruising the highway was a quiet and docile experience. But roll on the throttle to let the engine do its work and it's hang on time! It builds speed quickly, at least to just above legal speeds. After that it seems to drop off as if to say “Ok time to conserve gas now”. Don’t worry, you’ll still obliterate most things on the road – just don’t start any races at highway speed against the current M5 or AMG E55 unless you you’re using your opponent to discover police radar for you.

Time for handling. Attacking the same circular ramp as in the CTS-V revealed different handling characteristics. Softer for sure, but with more understeer built in than I would have expected. Once again, the harder it was pushed the less poised it felt - especially when compared to its Euro competition. It gives up too soon. As the g-forces built up, it started to feel uncomfortable and began to feel like the large car that it is. This has to be taken in context, but we are talking a car that Cadillac would like you to compare to the top names on the heap. Not bad - but the engineers definitely paid more attention to the power side of the equation. At one point, I gave it a quick 90 degree turn at about 30mph. The STS-V understeered as badly as a FWD chassis, and really didn't inspire a ton of confidence during the quick transition. Oh well. Definitely a nice car for someone who craves straight line power, and it is DEFINITELY subtle enough to make warp speed runs on a traveling vacation.

But all of that comes at a price. $77,000 to be exact. That's a LOT of money and puts the Caddy with some pretty heady company. Worth it? No. Neither is the CTS-V new at $53k. Fortunately all Cadillac’s come with one good thing standard - monumental depreciation. The V series fare no better at trade in time than any other regular Cadillac. As I write this, a lightly used, certified STS-V is in the high $30k’s all day long. Early CTS-V’s are in the mid-upper $20k’s without looking too hard. Getting one off the bargain rack at 50% off so quickly is surprising, and will soften the depreciation blow quite a bit. It’s sad really because they are not BAD cars if you can’t bring yourself to drive foreign, and their yearly production numbers only consume 4 digits on a calculator which guarantees a sliver of exclusivity too.

Bottom line? Cadillac has made some incredible advances, especially with the V series. They drive opposite of what you would expect from a company known mainly with supplying the Geritol crowd with comfortable transportation. I still don't feel they live up to the European competition for an all-around package, but power junkies and stop-light drag racers should look no further. Some more attention to the handling and interior on the CTS and I believe Cadillac could confidently advertise these vehicles as the "standard of the world". In fact their second gen CTS-V is about to hit the market - redone from the ground up. We’ll see if it does a better job of hitting the mark.

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