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2013 Cadillac CTS-V Sedan review

Highs

  • Supercharged V8 makes your muscle car dreams totally come true
  • Buttery smooth 6-speed manual shifter (once warm)
  • Sounds great, looks sharp
  • Cadillac-level interior detail, room and comfort
  • Fun for the whole family - or just yourself

Rating

Our Score 9
User Score 10

Lows

  • Tech suite just OK, still not up to snuff vs. competitors
  • A few loose ends in that Caddy interior (at least on our test car)
  • Spendy tires you will be burning through
  • Your license - or worse - is in peril if you misbehave too much
  • Count on buying lots and lots of gas
Overly powerful, highly adjustable, perfectly comfortable, big, burly barn-burner of an American sedan. I'll take mine in black, thank you.

My old man had Cadillacs while I was growing up. The first was a monstrous red 1970 El Dorado coupe, a challenging choice for a family of four, but we got pretty good at squeezing through the two doors and into the rear seats. I was but a wee lad at the time and most of what I remember about the car was that it was hugely fast. Previous to that we had been tooling around in a VW Squareback (seatbelts? we don’t need no…), so it was a pretty big step up in every way. It barely fit in the garage.

While $73,000 all dressed up is far from chump change, it’s a lot less than people are dropping on cars with less power and a whole lot less in terms of practicality.

Next up was a 1982 blue Biarritz with a white top. All I remember is that it broke a lot, but my mom liked it, so it hung around. She eventually got her own car.

By the time I had my drivers license, dad was rocking a V8 STS and Cadillac had finally turned the corner from squishy, wallowing land-yachts to something with a semblance of handling, which at first my dad didn’t like (he liked the squish) but eventually came to appreciate.

The STS was off limits to me UNLESS pops was in the passenger seat, or unless I snuck it out while he was out of town – which wasn’t often because, well, a high school kid in a fat Caddy was just weird and tended to attract cops. But I fondly remember the V8 power of that STS, and Cadillacs in general had a lot to do with my early enthusiasm for things with motors. But sneaking off in the STS was pretty much the last time I piloted a Cadillac of any sort, until now.

Now that I’m in my 40s, I’ve become somewhat inured to “fast” cars (not helped by my lust for ever more powerful motorcycles) and have watched as cars have increasingly become loaded with more technology and also become more efficient. But those advances has been tinged with some sadness as performance has steadily slipped away to the demands of efficiency and eco-cleanliness. Sure, there are still really fast cars out there, but for the most part they are impractical for daily driving, too “sport focused” for families or are just plain stupidly expensive.

Except for this Cadillac, this 556 horsepower monster called the CTS-V.

The Shifty Caddy

While $73,000 all dressed up is far from chump change, it’s a lot less than people are dropping on cars with less power and a whole lot less in terms of practicality. The CTS-V unlucky enough to find its way to Digital Trends’ extensive test fleet was the 4-door sedan version – there’s also a two-door coupe the old man would likely get – and from moment one after snicking the V into first gear while seated in the stiffly bolstered leather Recaro driver’s seat, I’ll admit it was a petrol-fueled love affair.

Every gearhead I managed to get in the car for a ride was amazed to find that this CTS-V had a manual-shift 6-speed. No paddles, no CVT, no 20-speed DCT automatic. It’s a Stick. Shift. And rear-wheel drive to boot. I had to ping fellow car nut Nick Jaynes to clarify when Cadillac got its manual mojo back, and he said 2005. Previous to that, Cadillac last tasked drivers with shifting sometime before the Truman administration, when gas was free and the national speed limit was 200mph. Or so my dad tells me.

Chewie, punch it

Turn the fake key… thingie… on the steering column and the supercharged V8 truly rumbles to life, sounding the polar opposite of any Cadillac I’ve ever been in, except maybe that ’70 Eldo.

Slip the shifter into first (notchy when cold), tap the gas and the CTS-V, riding on fat 19-inch matte black wheels swirling over big Brembo brakes gripped by very shiny red “CTS-V” calipers, growls forward with true menace. My education about what Cadillac wants to be known for had begun.

Given a few blocks worth of open space, I stepped a bit into the throttle while in first and was met by anticipated rapid and ridiculous acceleration. A bit more pressure on the pedal at the next light and the V’s two nanny systems kick in, with traction control making the power train jiggle and jolt as it chops engine power while the wide rear tires claw for grip and the Stabilitrak system simultaneously fights to keep the back end in the lane. Oh, lookit that, 55 in a 35 in first gear in a literal blink. I’m going to get in bad trouble in this thing.

And that bad trouble really starts in second gear, which walks a fine line (on dry pavement) of not activating the nanny minders while fairly imitating that jump into hyperspace by the Millennium Falcon. By the time the red sweeper lights in the tach start blinking as the engine roars close to it’s 6,000rpm redline, you’re already in Big Ticket land. And there are four more gears to go.

An only slightly diminished rush greets you in third gear under full throttle but by then you are way, way above any legal limit in the USA and there are probably a Blues Brothers movie worth of squad cars coming up behind you. If not, well, that’s the problem (and the thrill), because you just want to lay on that power again and again and again. It’s Caddy crack for the family man who’s still got some Walter Mitty hiding inside, and this car is made to feed the habit. I can see why dear old dad loved them so (and yes, I gave him a spirited ride. It passed muster).

A true velvet hammer

Tapping a very, very handy button on the steering wheel immediately disables the traction control, and holding it down for a five count clicks off Stabilitrak, at which point it is far too easy to leave long black stripes along the pavement, especially in the first two gears. But be warned: this is a big, heavy car as Cadillacs tend to be. If your enthusiasm overcomes your common sense (and space limitations) you can run out of lane, road, and stopping distance faster than you can say “Oh crap” or something even less family friendly. Trust me, even with the minders turned on, this is a ferociously fast car and the safety systems do an admirable job of keeping it and you out of a ditch or worse. Have fun, but drive smart.

While it’s certainly not a pocket-racer sports machine, the Cadillac cornered with aplomb, with solid feedback through the wheel and the neat-o magneto ride stiffened up.

Yes, the beastly engine and dragster driving dynamics dominate the show, but driven with a modicum of sanity, the CTS-V is also “a Cadillac,” and that means lots of luxurious touches and style to savor when you’re not death-gripping the steering wheel under acceleration.

Driven with a light foot, the 6-speed box shifts smoothly and cleanly once warm and the clutch is surprisingly light, allowing a seasoned driver to fairly imitate an automatic with second-nature gear throws. I drive a manual as a matter of course in my own car so after I got some of the boy-racer oats out of my system, I found the CTS-Vs manual a mechanical pleasure to work, and the car a pleasure to drive while using it.

The CTS-V features a dual-mode ride control system using magneto-activated suspension bits, and switching the ride from Tour to Sport results in a clearly different response from the chassis. While the car still rides with purpose in Tour mode, the response is definitely muted with a side of cush that is welcome while traversing chuck-holed city streets and freeway imperfections. Out on my (ahem) secret test track on an early weekend morning, I switched the CTS-V to sport mode and let the fun commence.

While it’s certainly not a pocket-racer sports machine, the Cadillac cornered with aplomb in Sport Mode, with solid feedback through the wheel and the neat-o magneto ride stiffened up. And, of course, whatever ground you might give in the corners to lighter, more nimble cars, you can quickly – very quickly – make up when the road straightens out a bit. Likewise, hauling the CTS-V down from speed is a task well-handled by the Brembo brakes, which feature six-pot calipers on center-vented discs up front and four-pot units in back. However, as Nick Jaynes found out during our camera passes for this story, repeated hard use will result in some fade. But admittedly, we were hammering the car in all aspects pretty hard. Under normal driving conditions, or even spirited romps, the brakes were top performers.

Off CUE

The Cadillacs my dad owned were always at the forefront of technology, even that overpowered Eldorado, which had cruise control, automatic climate controls and a station-seeking radio. In 1970.

The CTS-V is also laden with most of the tech toys we have come to expect: keyless entry, a backup camera, navigation, bluetooth phone ops, power everything and enough airbags to fill a balloon store. However, this Caddy was missing the “QUE” cabin tech system, which after hearing a number of horror stories about its confusing interface and questionable operability, was perhaps a blessing. Everything in the CTS-V’s not-CUE system worked for the most part and the controls for the tech suite were perhaps a but buttony but well-laid out. I had no problem getting things to do what I want or find a control, but that said, a few quirks stood out.

As with CUE, you still have to use voice commands to pair your phone and admittedly, the system did this quickly and with no fuss using my iPhone 5. However, now that I had tagged my iPhone as the car’s “phone,” I could not play music from it via Bluetooth. Really? Says so right in the manual: phone cannot be used as the music player AND the phone. Maybe I got it wrong somewhere in the setup, but that’s a big miss for me. All of my music is on my phone for a reason. When Nick Jaynes tried to pair his iPhone with the system, it elected to tell us the weather. So your mileage may vary.

I popped my old 30-pin iPod in the driver’s cubby where an iPod connector and aux plugin live, and that worked fine, but the idea here, Cadillac, is to use one device, not two. However, kudos on the Bose audio system, which includes a 40gb hard drive for storing your tunes (or in my case, a portion of them). While it doesn’t quite have the bone-shaking bass like a the Beats by Dre system I recently sampled in a Dodge Charger, the Bose system sounded better in terms of overall quality and didn’t run out of steam as the volume level climbed. Passengers also gave it high marks.

One slick piece of the tech suite is the center touchscreen, which, like many luxury cars, raises and lowers as needed – but with a cool twist. Put the car in reverse and the screen automatically raises and shows the backup camera – but there were no guide or space markers laid over the image. I could not find an option to add them in settings.

Put the car back in first gear, and if the screen was down before reversing, the screen again lowers and fits flush in the dash, but the very top section of the screen is still both visible and functional. It can be set to show radio station presets touch buttons or other information. Smart. But even here, there’s a niggle.

Hit the NAV button when the screen is down and it should pop right up and show the map, right? Wrong. Instead, you are prompted to hit another button to raise the screen, at which point the map displays. Dumb. So most of the time, I left the screen fully up to speed the flow of information, defeating the purpose of the more flush operative mode. It’s a software/firmware fix, Cadillac, so fix it already.

It’s got ‘that’ look

Our test CTS-V came in “White Diamond TriCoat,” or as I like to call it, Cadillac Light Beige. It’s not quite white, not quite tan, not flashy or menacing. If I were to buy a CTS-V, it would have to be black. Glossy, sinister diamond black. But as such, the not-quite-white paint scheme looked good and set off the black wheels, chrome trim bits and brake calipers nicely.

The car retains Cadillac’s love-it-or-hate-it vertical styling. Personally, when the blocky, edgy restyle came out years ago, I was so used to the old style of the cars that I really disliked the stacked lights and sharp angles. But, I must say, the CTS-V’s jib is cut with flair and some panache, from the moving stacked LED headlight arrays with LED trim rails to the double-row of vertical LED tail lights braced by the LED spoiler (which is perhaps a little TOO too…). It’s certainly not subdued like an S-Class Benz or BMW 7 Series, but I’m sure that was the point. It stands out, people commented on it, the old man even liked it. And of course, the no-joke wheels, fat twin exhaust pipes, red brake calipers and hood bump for the supercharger go a long way towards adding a sportier dimension to the look of the car.

Being a Cadillac with a $72,000 sticker in the window, certain luxuries are expected and the CTS-V delivers, most of the time. The $3,400 Recaro seats are highly adjustable but also lock you into position – which is a good thing in this car. They are slathered in leather along with heating and cooling options. Red stitching binds together the black cabin materials and dark wood trim pieces give that executive touch without making it feel like you’re in a Chris Craft powerboat.

Oddly, driving the CTS-V really made me feel successful, like I should be driving (albeit quickly) to the golf course after a successful board meeting where I just made partner. It was a bit strange and a feeling I haven’t had a car evoke while under my scrutiny at DT. The car just makes you feel powerful All The Time.

But even in this aspect, a small flaw annoys. A large panel connecting the driver’s floor section with the center console had come loose and was moving around, revealing the unglamorous undercarriage of the Cadillac. The car has just a tick over 2,000 miles on it. A simple enough fix, but when you’re playing at this level, details (and fasteners) are important.

Target: Me

With the CTS-V, Cadillac continues to move its focus towards younger drivers. This is not a Cadillac my dad would likely buy. Make no mistake, he loved riding in it, loved the styling, interior and especially the performance, but he was incredulous at the manual transmission. A clutch and shifter in a Cadillac? He sniffed at it as if it were down-market in some way.

But that reaction highlights the target Cadillac is aiming at with the V series cars: namely, me, a driving enthusiast that has moved on from boy and toy racers but still wants to fire up the adrenal glands when the wife and kids aren’t in the car. And when they are, the CTS-V is still a highly capable (maybe overly capable) family car with lots of room, exceptional comfort, safety, good looks, and a decent trunk. The big bonus is the barrel full of kick-ass under the hood that will humble a lot of “sports car” drivers who are unlucky enough to sound a challenge at a red light.

If I’ve got a target on my back, Cadillac has hit it hard.

Highs

  • Supercharged V8 makes your muscle car dreams totally come true
  • Buttery smooth 6-speed manual shifter (once warm)
  • Sounds great, looks sharp
  • Cadillac-level interior detail, room and comfort
  • Fun for the whole family – or just yourself

Lows

  • Tech suite just OK, still not up to snuff vs. competitors
  • A few loose ends in that Caddy interior (at least on our test car)
  • Spendy tires you will be burning through
  • Your license – or worse – is in peril if you misbehave too much
  • Count on buying lots and lots of gas

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