First Drive: 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe

By Chris Haak

Let’s say you really like your job.  It pays well, the commute isn’t too long, you like the people you work with, the company is stable, you have a supportive boss, and you’re doing meaningful work.  If I told you that you could have the same job, but with 82 percent more pay, would you take it?  What if that 82 percent pay raise required another six years of education and some professional certification, and carried a higher tax bracket?  Would you still take that job – which would have all of the good stuff your current job has, but more money?

That’s basically what someone like me, the owner of a 2008 Cadillac CTS with the 3.6 liter direct-injection V6 encounters when pondering the CTS-V.  Instead of 82 percent more salary, the V dangles 82 percent more horsepower (556 instead of 304).  Instead of six more years of education and professional certification, it carries a $15,775 price premium over a “regular” CTS coupe, a $1,300 gas guzzler tax.  Completing the metaphor, the higher tax bracket would be the abysmal fuel economy of the CTS-V (12 city/18 highway rather than 18 city/27 highway in the 3.6 liter V6 car) which you’ll pay every time you hit the gas pump and fill its tank with premium unleaded  But boy, is that 82 percent more money – I mean, horsepower – ever something to behold.

Since the 2008 CTS made its debut at the 2007 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, I’ve been smitten by the sedan’s shape.  After all, I voted with my own money in August 2008 and bought one of my own (a black/black RWD example with navigation and the premium luxury package).  With the CTS coupe, GM’s best and brightest designers have taken an excellent starting point – Cadillac’s Art and Science design language – and turned it up a few notches.  The resulting vehicle is spectacular-looking sport coupe, and with its slightly-lowered roofline, dramatically swooping backlight, and truncated trunklid.  The V Coupe’s designers did a remarkable job of applying a sport coupe’s design onto the same wheelbase that spawns a sedan and wagon, without giving the car any unnatural proportions.

Up front, the CTS-V has a huge, two-part chrome grille.  At first glance, it might look similar to the first-generation CTS-V’s treatment, but you then realize that the lower portion is just enormous.  Combining the surface area of the two grille openings, there is an enormous amount of airflow going into the big 6.2 liter supercharged and intercooled V8.  The maw on the CTS-V is certainly larger than even the Audi A8’s largemouth bass grille.

In profile, the car has a combination of curves and straight edges that still fascinates me to this day.  In fact, I spent a few minutes looking over my CTS sedan last night in the garage and studying how the rooflines of all CTS models is a single arch that blends neatly into the fender air extractors at the front and into the beltline at the quarter panels.  The harsh corner at the top of the front fenders is offset interestingly by the gently swollen area surrounding the wheel openings.  The extended backlight and shortened trunklid have the visual effect of, in profile, giving the car nearly the appearance of a hatchback with no trunk opening to speak of.

The car’s rear end treatment, unique to the coupe, is perhaps its most dynamic, interesting, and – yes – beautiful angle.  The taillight lenses stretch forward to form a straight line with the intersection between the rear window and decklid, and add an element of the classic Cadillac tail fin.  The CTS-V coupe’s center high-mounted stoplight, chrome decor above the license plate opening, and bumper all form not-so-subtle V shapes to add visual interest to the car’s rear end.  The CTS-V coupe has two giant circular exhaust outlets mounted in the center of the bumper.  Generally, I love how every crease, every curve, indeed every shape on this car’s exterior is neatly aligned with a corresponding shape.  There’s no random swage line truncation (I’m talking to you, Mercedes-Benz CLS).  It’s not a car for introverts, but it is a car that will most certainly get you noticed.

This test car featured the optional Thunder Gray ChromaFlare paint, and – as a fan of black, gray, and silver cars – I really dig the color.  The paint is embedded with tiny metallic pigment flakes that act as prisms, effectively altering the color’s appearance slightly from various angles and increasing the car’s perceived color depth.  It’s also a $995 option and is probably all but impossible to color-match if body work is ever required.  But it’s not like a 556-horsepower, 551 lb-ft of torque car is difficult to keep in a straight line, right?

Stepping inside the V Coupe, the sensation is one of familiarity.  Having spent over 22,000 miles behind the wheel of a Cadillac CTS, I’m less impressed by the car’s interior than I was during the honeymoon phase.  Sadly, the CTS interior has received nearly no updates or upgrades since the car’s first model year, 2008.  In its fourth model year, I now wish that the stitched dashboard and upper door panels were covered in more-convincing fake leather; the pebble-grained vinyl doesn’t do it for me anymore.  I found this particular car’s all-charcoal interior to be a bit dark for my taste.  The carpet, seats, door panels, pillar trim, carpet, and headliner were all finished in nearly-black charcoal.  My preference is to add a splash of color (as the optional saffron seat inserts depicted in some of the PR photos that I used below), or at least light gray for the headliner and pillar trim (as my own CTS has).

Visibility, particularly rearward, is not great thanks to the steeply-angled backlight and sharply-tapered rear quarter windows.  The small windows and dark interior, coupled with a test car that didn’t have a sunroof, gave the sensation of sitting in a confinined space.  The CTS Coupe (V and standard) has only a standard-size sunroof available, while the wagon and sedan offer a dual-pane panoramic roof.  The larger sunroof allows a lot of light into the sedan and gives it an airier feel.  At least the missing sunroof in this V Coupe gave fractionally more headroom (important for tall drivers like me) than sunroof-equipped cars would have.

Interior differences between the 2011 V Coupe and 2008 sedan that I drive regularly are few.  All CTS-Vs have piano black trim on their center stacks in place of the fake metal surround on the regular CTS.  Both are made of plastic, but the piano black does look more sporting than the metal.  Unfortunately, the black also attracts and hold fingerprints quite easily.  The V Coupe has an electric parking brake (with the switch behind the gearshift lever) instead of an ugly plastic plug in CTS models equipped with a foot-operated brake.  Most CTS-Vs that I’ve seen have been equipped with the optional ($3,400) Recaro seats, which add only about 5 percent to the cost of the CTS-V, but to me, seem to be worth it.  My number one complaint about my 2008 CTS is that the front seats are not particularly comfortable.  The standard seats’ bottom cushions are too flat and aren’t long enough for those of us with long femurs, and are seriously lacking in lateral support.

The Recaro seats provide considerably more lateral support than do the standard CTS front seats, including an extendable thigh support.  After spending time with the Recaro seats, I was ready to get my socket set and swap seats.  Unfortunately, though it would seem that replacing the “regular” front seats in a CTS with a set of the Recaros from a junkyard would be a possibility, a Cadillac representative noted that it actually requires a considerable amount of work thanks to the side airbag programming.  I believe the quote was, “not impossible, but very difficult.”  Those darn safety features.

There are two back seats, bisected by an attractive center console.  At another event, I did spend a few minutes riding in the “cheap seats” of a regular Cadillac CTS coupe.  Legroom was certainly an issue for me (I’m six-foot-four), but headroom was more of a concern.  It’s nice to know, though, that the seats are there if you need them in a pinch.  A Corvette can’t make that same boast, though when I was five years old and an only child, I spent more time than I’d care to admit riding under the glass in a 1980 Corvette or standing in the parcel area of a 1947 Plymouth Business Coupe.

The gauges are basically the same as the ones in the regular CTS, but V has tracers on the needles, and the speedometer is metered to 200 miles per hour rather than “just” 165.  The tracers seem to be mostly a gimmick, but if you’re manually shifting, you can see when you’re close to the redline through your peripheral vision rather than staring at the tach.  Still, by their nature, the gauge tracers would seem to be more effective at showing where you’ve been on the gauges rather than where you are or where you’re going.

Acceleration is fast (Cadillac claims a 3.9-second zero to sixty time), but a bit too quiet and drama-free.  I found myself craving instead the throaty bark of a C63 AMG.  There is a small amount of supercharger whine, but it’s more apparent with the windows closed.  With the windows open, the wind noise is most prominent, drowning out the engine’s soundtrack.   The car’s forward thrust is amazing.  At 25 or 30 miles per hour in first gear, with the traction control fully engaged, it is possible to break the rear tires loose with a sharp throttle application.  The tires also chirp between shifts, which is fairly unusual to see in automatic transmission-equipped cars.  In second gear, there’s a bit of lag around 30 miles per hour under full acceleration, but power again builds quickly.  Let go of the gas, and the exhaust snaps, crackles, and – you guessed it – pops.

The gearshift’s manual mode is activated by moving the lever to the right (away from the driver), which doesn’t make sense and is inconsistent with most other automatic-equipped vehicles that have a manual shift mode.  There are paddle shifters (really, just buttons) behind the spokes of the steering wheel to upshift or downshift, and they work regardless of whether the transmission is set to manual mode or not.  The car will hold a gear to the rev limiter in manual mode and can do nice, rev-matching downshifts, but gear changes are not instantaneous, so tap for the next gear a second before you actually want it.

The CTS-V’s steering is extremely accurate, nicely weighted, and controlled by a big thick wheel.  This particular car was equipped with the $300 Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel, and that definitely helped keep my mitts where they belonged, but it’s not hard to picture how gross a rough-textured wheel would get after thousands of miles of grubby hands all over it.  The steering effort was not overly firm even on sport mode.

During my all-too-brief time with the car, I played a bit with its standard Magnetic Ride Control – a feature not available in the pedestrian V6-engined CTSs.  In MRC’s Tour mode, the suspension is still reasonably controlled.  The ride is not overly firm at all, particularly in Touring mode.  Considering the car’s incredible capabilities, the ride is amazingly compliant.  Activate Sport mode, however, and the suspension tightens up, and the car hunkers down for aggressive driving.  Credit for this seemingly miraculous ride/handling balance, particularly in Tour mode, goes exclusively to MRC’s magneto-rheological shocks that come standard in the CTS-V – a feature that is found in some Ferrari models, by the way.

The CTS-V Coupe’s giant Brembo brakes seem to have less initial grab than the regular CTS’ brakes do, but the competition-grade brakes have a significant amount of bite when you really put your foot into the pedal.  Of note, the brake rotors are neither cross-drilled nor slotted.  According to a representative from Brembo, both of those things reduce brake pad life.  Also, although cross-drilled rotors cool faster, they also heat faster, which negates the cooling benefit to a degree.  I didn’t have the car on a racetrack, only on a deserted road, and several hard stops naturally resulted in nary a hint of fade.  While the standard CTS sometimes feels a bit heavy (and it is), even in RWD trim as my own car is, the much heavier V-spec car feels light on its feet.  Credit the 82 percent horsepower boost and electronically-controlled suspension for the difference.

Another series of settings that the driver can tinker with are the electronic stability control, branded Stabilitrack.  Stabilitrack’s normal mode (“on”) reins in power slides and wheelspin to a degree.  The next step is so-called “Competitive Mode,” which still allows a lot of wheelspin, making it easy to let the car’s back end get away from you.  The curious thing about Competitive Mode is that a truly capable race car driver (of which I’m not) is unlikely to ever leave any sort of electronic nanny activated.  For them, “Off” is likely to be the preferred setting.

The tires are very wide, expensive Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 summer tires, and have a ton of grip.  Though it’s easy to induce oversteer in the V via throttle application, it’s hard to imagine any other tire doing a better job of taming the CTS-V coupe’s power.  Fronts are 255/40ZR19
 and go for $353.00 on, while rears are a wider 285/35ZR19 and cost a whopping $439.00 a piece on from Tire Rack.  With their summer-optimized soft tread compound and all of that horsepower traveling to the street on them, it’s easy to imagine spending $878.00 ( delivery and installation) every 10,000 or 12,000 miles to replace the rear tires.

After a day of journalists abusing evaluating this car, its trip computer reported a paltry 9.2 miles per gallon.  Aye carumba!  Now it’s clear, aside from costing basically double what I paid upfront to purchase my own 2008 CTS sedan with rebates and employee pricing, why I can’t afford to drive a CTS-V.  I suppose that fun has its price.  And that price is a base price of $62,165, a gas guzzler tax of $1,300, and destination/delivery charge of $825 for a minimum price of $64,290.  Throw in the $995 Thunder Gray ChromaFlair paint ($995), Recaro seats ($3,400), Alcantara steering wheel ($300), Dark Sapele wood trim package ($600), six-speed automatic transmission ($1,300), and you get an MSRP of $69,890.  It’s a lot of money, and a lot of money for a Cadillac, but you’re getting a world-class performance car with looks that you will never, ever see coming from Germany, Japan, or South Korea.  Suddenly, the BMW M3 – a remarkably capable and desirable car in its own right – looks like the conservatively-styled, sedan-based car that it is.  The Cadillac CTS-V coupe does a better job with the transformation of pedestrian entry-luxury sedan into bona-fide fire-breathing performance coupe better than any other car in the market today.

But there’s another cost not even considered above:  the cost of potential speeding tickets and insurance, including what that one’s insurance rates would look like for any driver regularly using even half of this car’s capabilities on public roads.  The temptation of having 556 horsepower under one’s right foot is, sadly, just too great.  I’ll stick with my 304 horsepower one, I suppose, and daydream about a world – unlikely to ever happen, by the way – in which 500- horsepower cars get 40 miles per gallon, cost less than $30,000, and don’t raise one’s insurance rates.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Techshake's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Ugly ass car.

    But, nice performance coming from the US.

  2. Good review, lots of info. Writer’s opinion on cts v style? Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion. Me I would shave its ass and make it walk backwards if you know what I mean. God, that’s an ugly [email protected]&$n’ car!


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