Long Term: 2014 Cadillac CTS-V

I’ve done my 1,000-mile break-in with the CTS-V wagon, though in this case, the break-in was of the owner rather than the car. I now feel like I have a rounded view of the super wagon.

The majority of my break-in miles were urban, back and forth to school and the supermarket as I play Daddy-homemaker. A few trips to San Francisco gave the CTS-V a chance to stretch its legs on the highway. Then, finally, this weekend, the CTS-V got a proper workout on my favorite Bay Area road.

How is the CTS-V in town? Glorious. Berkeley is a city that promotes mass transit, walking, and biking over car ownership, and so it has, unsurprisingly, some rather nasty roads. The Cadillac’s magnetic-ride suspension smooths all out the broken tarmac and makes it better than tolerable. (By comparison, my M3 now feels overly stiff. How the tables have turned on the BMW since the Focus RS left the stable!) They say the CTS-V is “not your father’s Cadillac,” but I don’t think my father, or grandfather, would mind the ride quality.

The CTS-V engages me and communicates with me even when I am tootling along in town. While I work on smooth upshifts and perfectly rev-matched downshifts, I enjoy good vibrations from the seats and steering wheel. There is more steering kickback over bumps in the CTS-V than in the M3, but I find it charming rather than offensive, as it is one of the many ways the car communicates the road texture to me.

I had initially lauded the manual transmission for feeling beefy and hewn from metal, but I have to retreat slightly on my praise. There is more in-gear slop to the shifter than a new transmission should have, and the clicks I hear and feel as I move the lever through the gates sound more plastic than metal.

Regardless, I am 100% convinced the manual transmission is the right choice for me and the CTS-V. The downshifts are a bigger challenge to ace than I’d have expected; the short gearing means I must blip the engine gently, and the rev response from the supercharged V8 is less predictable than in other cars I’ve owned. The upshifts are usually butter, but—very infrequently—the shift up to second gear surprises me when GM’s skip-shift mechanism blocks the gate and tries to divert the lever into fourth instead. I’ve come to recognize the mechanism in action, and head for third gear without chafing at the interference.

I am similarly pleased with the feel and sound of the LSA engine in town. It speaks quietly but is still clearly a V8. For most of my commute it loafs along contentedly between 1k and 2k rpm, and if I ask it for a little blast of acceleration, the motor is there for me.

There are few wants and annoyances with the CTS-V in the city. Most annoying is the lack of a proper handbrake or automatic hill hold. I have my share of hill starts in Berkeley, and while I’ve learned to use the electronic parking brake’s auto-disengage feature as a hill hold, the process is frustrating. It takes several seconds for the parking brake to engage after I pull its switch. I am forced to wait impatiently mid three-point turn (while blocking traffic!) or reversing into a parking space.

Other luxuries I miss include BMW’s mirror tilt function, which aims the passenger mirror at the curb while reversing. That is a nice feature that helps me avoid hitting the curbs in parallel parking. BMW has auto-up and auto-down window switches; Cadillac is strangely missing auto-up for the rear windows. Could it really have been worth the two pennies saved?

I appreciate the Cadillac’s power tailgate and the multipurpose trunk floor, which can be stood vertically to partition the trunk and keep shopping bags in place. The wagon format of the V is fantastic; I can easily load it with bags and offspring.

Some accuse the San Francisco Bay Area of lacking roads that can rival Los Angeles’s wild Angeles Forest tarmac. By and large, the accusation is true because the Bay Area’s great roads are crowded with hikers and naturalists. The Marin Headlands and Santa Cruz mountains are afflicted and full of weekend traffic. Thankfully, ranch country east of the Bay Area has some twisting B roads of no interest to hikers. These are our local Angeles Crest Highways if admittedly the NorCal versions are in worse repair and sometimes narrow down to one-lane roads.

If any suspension is up to the challenge of these rough and ready-to-rumble roads, it is the magnetic-ride suspension found on the CTS-V. I hear McLaren’s best can pull off the following trick, but I’ve not driven any car that has mastered suspension compliance and body control with the proficiency of the CTS-V. Hoon in Tour mode (the softer suspension setting) and the CTS-V is a steamroller on Michelins: Bumps are flattened, and dips are filled, and there is never a hint of float. The wagon rolls in the corners, but the suspension’s Sport mode tamps it down for quicker flick-flackery. The only downside to Sport mode is that the firmer shocks can’t keep the tires in contact with the road over the worst chop.

The CTS-V has an amazing grip and gumminess to it. Even when loaded with nearly 1G of cornering force, the Caddy shrugs off mid-corner lumps and keeps true to the line. 556 hp at full throttle should roast the rear tires, but the miracle-working tires and chassis let me drive the CTS-V as if I were in an all-wheel drive Focus RS, stepping deep into the throttle pre-apex and blasting out of the corner with full grip and a head of steam. Only deliberate provocation in the tightest hairpins will overwhelm the tires.

Just as I do in the city, I enjoy the challenge of clean up and downshifts as I roar through ranch country. The CTS-V is unusual for having a first gear so tall that it can be regularly used in tight hairpins. Blipping down to first is no problem, and exiting the hairpins in first results in either a mild intervention from the ESP nannies or elevenses when Competition mode disables traction control completely. Competition mode is so competent and unobtrusive that I see no need to fully disable the stability control. Kudos to GM for mastering electronic stability control for sports cars.

The V wagon is a heavy beast, and its brakes should be the first to whither. Not so. The brakes are completely unchanged in feel and response as I climb and then descend 4,000-foot Mt Hamilton. The firm pedal is reassuring, but I’d like the initial bite to be more voracious. I have to put muscle into the middle pedal before the car approaches its ABS threshold and stops with authority. Drivers accustomed to using moderate pressure on the pedal will feel that the car is under-braked for its heft and pace.

Heavy use of the CTS-V’s corner-exit acumen reveals the car’s Achilles Heel. The rear differential is not adequately cooled. After 25 minutes of spirited canyon driving, a hot differential warning illuminates on the dash, accompanied by an advisory to reduce speed. Stubborn me: the warning is on throughout most of my backroad drive. I am severely disappointed that the CTS-V throws in the towel on a canyon romp. How can I ever hope to complete a track session without provoking this error?

The LSA engine produces all the pace I want, but the engine note is less V8-y when driven at high rpm. A howling Corvette the CTS-V is not. Perhaps I’d appreciate a Corsa Supersport exhaust after all. The engine is slow to rev and feels coarse as the rpm climbs, but the torque and the power are never in dispute. Undisputable too is its thirst; a half tank is downed in 50 miles.

The CTS-V has lived up to its promise of being a wagon that drives like a sports car. I am delighted with the car and its capabilities at all speeds and environments. The next test should be a day at the track, but what am I going to do about the rear differential?

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