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Taking the Cadillac CTS-V to school: Truths from the track

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What does someone mean when they tell you “Go as fast as you can go.” In Houston, on public roads, I think it’s 65. On a closed racetrack — with only your nerves and line of sight to slow you down — it’s more.

And on that same track, in a 556 horsepower Cadillac CTS-V Coupe, it’s a lot more.

The track on this particular day was MSR Houston, in Angleton, where we had the opportunity to sample Cadillac’s newest V-Series CTS models in the harsh, flat-out environment that they were developed in.

So — what kind of Cadillac needs a racetrack to stretch its legs?

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The same kind of Cadillac that needs enormous six-piston Brembo calipers to slow it down repeatedly without fading. The 2011 CTS-V Coupe and sedan feature enormous, specialized brakes to counteract the 6.2 liter, 556 horsepower V8 that propels them.

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Having all that horsepower sounds good, but how do you put regular drivers behind the wheel with that power without things getting scary very quickly?

Cadillac uses its StabiliTrak Electronic Stability Control System to keep the car planted and straight, no matter how much power is applied or in slippery conditions. It’s intelligent, unobtrusive and leaps beyond stability control systems from just a few years ago. It’s also seamless.

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Cadillac brought professional instructors from the world-renown Skip Barber Racing School to help us find out way around the circuit and teach us the basic principles of high-speed driving and car control.  

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To demonstrate the Magnetic Ride Control technology, we were given a tiny sealed plastic pump filled with the shock absorbers’ special magnetorheological fluid.

Normally, the fluid flows easily, but bring it in contact with a magnet, simulating an electric current, and the fluid becomes near-solid, and impossible to pass through the pump. The fluid’s characteristics can be changed in milliseconds, and change the CTS-V’s character at literally the push of a button.

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Former director of the GM Performance Division John Heinricy takes it all in. Heinricy spearheaded the CTS-V project from the start and carried it all the way through the V’s setup and testing.

This included personally setting a sedan lap record at the legendary Nürburgring racetrack in Germany.

“There are five places where a high-horsepower car gets off the ground at 120-150 mph” Heinricy says of the ‘Ring. 

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To really experience how the technology works, we had to thrash the CTS-V Sedan through a 600-foot slalom course, comparing between the Touring and Track modes.

Both modes were comfortable, but the Track setting obliterated the body roll that’s inherent to a big four-door. For good measure, we peeled off a few 0-70 mph runs to check the suspension under launch and hard braking. It checked out.  

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Remarking on the 556 horsepower is a fairly obvious takeaway from driving the CTS-V Coupe in anger: it’s astonishing. The way it delivers it is less obvious: I was expecting raw, savage grunt at the touch of the throttle, with the power dropping off as the RPMs built up.

Clearly my preconceptions were formed around the fantasies of 1960s muscle cars. No, what you get is a refined, thoroughly smooth engine that builds power the deeper you go towards redline. It just surges forward, effortlessly, and it seems its appetite for velocity increases the longer you keep your foot down.

The supercharger serves up the torque through the entire rev range, and seems to thrive gobbling up air at speeds over 85 mph. 

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But just an engine won’t do you much good on a technical road course like MSR Houston, which is why the brakes, suspension, wheels and tires were designed to complement this engine as a cohesive package. I felt very little roll and dive with the car in Sport mode, and none of the brake fade you’d expect in a car weighing over four thousand pounds.

In slow, side-to-side transitions you could feel the undeniable heft and even hear a bit of tire squeal, but on sustained, faster corners it grips and stays unbelievably planted. The idea is simple: in a car that stays settled, you can get on the power earlier and come out of corners faster.

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The weakest part of the CTS-V is the transmission. On track, the six-speed automatic felt, at best, hesitant to respond and at worst, confused.

It’s the only part of the package that didn’t feel up to the task. The six-speed manual I drove around at more restrained speeds felt precise and satisfying.

I applaud Cadillac for offering a manual but it might not be the right choice for buyers who use the car every day or are worried about valets.

I think a more sophisticated dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters (true paddle-shifting — not an automatic with “shift buttons”) would strike the perfect balance of gearchange precision and day-to-day comfort expected in a luxury vehicle. 

 
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Intense testing at Germany’s Nürburgring and the Autobahn paid off, and the resulting CTS is a match for its German-built competition in on-road performance and comfort.

Esquire named the Cadillac CTS-V Coupe its domestic car of the year.

"The near-silent supercharged V-8 under the hood is a kissing cousin to the monster in Chevrolet's Corvette ZR1, and it sends the CTS-V storming down the road in a seamless, snarling charge," Esquire notes. "You are reminded of Packards and Duesenbergs, of streamlined locomotives and Pullman cars. It's bold as hell. In other words, everything American luxury — and a Cadillac — should be."

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A few other car manufacturers have noticed Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control suspension technology. Now Ferrari and Audi buy this technology from GM for use on their highest-performance models. 

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The Brembo brakes on the V Series models were designed to be able to stop the car from its stop speed — a staggering 191mph — back down to zero … a hundred times in a row. 

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CTS Coupes line up next to CTS-V sedans. Much of the technology and chassis development from the high-performance V-Series model benefits the rest of the range.

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The 2011 CTS-V Sport Wagon goes on sale late this year. Maybe Cadillac will have us back out to the track when those are ready? Please?

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So what's the final verdict on our laps around MSR Houston in the CTS-V Coupe? Flawless. Smooth, precise, and very quick. Either that, or the car made it very, very easy for us to look like we knew what we were doing the whole time.

I wonder which is more likely?