The Last Waltz: 2014 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon
Man, It's Incredibly Hard to Go Home Again
My original title for the story you're reading was "Steal This Car." The tagline was going to be "I Don't Think Cadillac is Going to Prosecute." However, there's always a gulf between expectations and reality, and sometimes the chasm is much larger than you could have imagined. This particular tale begins with an invitation from Cadillac. The 2014 model marks the last year of the current, aka second-generation, CTS-V. To celebrate five years of producing the 556-horsepower beast, Caddy decided to throw a last hurrah bash in Austin, Texas, at -- you guessed it -- the local F1 track, better known as the Circuit of the Americas, or COTA. On top of that, Cadillac's winning World Challenge drivers Andy Pilgrim and (my buddy -- keep reading) Johnny O'Connell would both be on hand to show participants the fast way around the 3.4-mile, 20-turn track, as well as freak 'em out with a few laps in last season's winning CTS-V.R race car. That all certainly sounds fun, no?
Oh yeah, one more little thing was tacked on at the end of the invitation. If we wanted, Cadillac would allow us to drive away from COTA with a V. I've rarely replied to an email as quickly. "Is there a CTS-V Wagon with a manual that I can drive back to Los Angeles and hang on to for awhile?" After the four longest minutes of my life, Cadillac PR (finally) replied, "Yep." Hot dog!!! It's a long story (see here and here), but I love station wagons, I love massively powerful cars, and I love row-your-own transmissions. All three together? Perfect. And I basically hit the lottery when I got to steward our long-term CTS-V Wagon with a manual around for a year.
When I close my eyes and meditate on my favorite driving moments, two pop into my head. One is when I was chasing down Scott Evans and the Corvette Z06 Z07 with a Porsche 997 GT3 RS on California's incomparable Highway 198. The other is simply shifting from sixth to third in that old CTS-V Wagon and burying the throttle. The eruption of power, the forward thrust, the unadulterated, chaotic evilness of the bass boat black paint, matching wheels, and yellow calipers, the incongruous mix of demon-throated speed and wagon practicality -- I loved every moment I spent in that car. I maintain a list of cars I must own before I leave planet Earth. The CTS-V wagon is top three. All that said, I was obviously thrilled with the chance to have one more fling with my old flame.
I arrived at the hotel in Austin, checked in, and realized I'd left my wallet in the drug trap of the Escalade I'd driven out from L.A. I hurried down to valet, and they weren't quite sure where it got parked. I started running around various parking lots trying to find the big black 'Slade when I stumbled upon two CTS-V Wagons parked side by side. Cool, as obviously one of 'em was mine. The first car was black with silver wheels and gray calipers; the other plum/periwinkle with black wheels and yellow calipers. I'm not sure which one I liked best. Then I peeked through the glass and learned that both were automatics. Hmmm. Maybe my car was at the track.
The next morning we headed off to COTA. I snagged the black CTS-V Wagon because I'm a greedy jerk, or at least that's the vibe I'm getting off the Canadian writer who wanted to drive it. First come, first serve, eh? After an uneventful 25-minute drive through urban and exurban Austin we reached COTA, and I was excited to go find the wagon with the manual. Only I never found it. Because it wasn't there. I ran and grabbed the Cadillac PR guy. "I thought you said I was getting a manual wagon?" He smiled, shrugged, and walked away. I'd been tricked! Lied to! How dare they!? In fact, there was only one manual CTS-V at the track -- a coupe -- and it was being sequestered for someone to drive it back to Portland. I was not thrilled. Curious note about CTS-Vs and manual transmissions. Approximately 15 percent of the sedans and coupes sold have three pedals. However, 30 percent of the wagons -- around 450 out of about 1,400 -- are manuals. Makes perfect sense to me. I just wonder what's wrong with the 70 percent who went for the auto.
I'll be quick about the cars on the track. I drove all three -- the sedan, coupe, and wagon. To reiterate, all three had Cadillac's six-speed automatic transmission, which when you put it in Sport mode is pretty much OK. In terms of on-track performance and fun, the sedan was definitely a distant third, the wagon was second, and just ahead was the coupe. You might think that weight had something to do with my ranking of the three V's, but remember the coupe with the slushbox weighs 4,254 pounds, and the wagon is "only" 196 pounds more (4,450 pounds). On the track, the sedan is honestly a bit of a mess because of how the suspension is set up, specifically the rearend. Things are much looser out back than with the others, and the four-door also seems to have more understeer. Also, the only sedan I drove had the standard seats, not the optional Recaros like all the coupe and wagon Vs present. The wagon and the coupe are much better track weapons, and they look worlds better, too. The coupe is slightly easier to hustle. Especially after Johnny Red showed me around the track.
There were only about a dozen journalists at COTA, and as typically happens after a lapping session or two, half the pack had had their fun and started in on a long lunch. The result of this entropy is that the track becomes essentially wide open, offering up nearly unlimited lapping until the tires give out/fuel runs out. I'd only driven COTA once before -- in the BMW M6 Gran Coupe -- and although 75 percent of it made sense, I was having a hard time with the esses after Turn 1. Enter Johnny O'Connell. I met Johnny in Germany when we brought our long term CTS-V Wagon to the Nurburgring for him to set a fast lap. We've remained friends every since. Aside from his other racing accomplishments, Johnny Red (as he's known) is the 2012, 2013, and 2014 World Challenge champion driving -- yup -- Cadillacs. Johnny's method of dealing with the esses is just to turn them into straights. Turns out that smashing over the red curbing is the faster way around the Texan F1 circuit. Makes sense. Luckily the CTS-V's magnetic shocks are well-suited to dealing with such violent impacts. Mini sidebar: Johnny gave a fast lap in the 2014 season-winning CTS-V.R. All I can say is: concussive. Promptly at 3 p.m. Caddy and crew cleared out of COTA like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Suddenly there was nothing but me, a CTS-V Wagon, and 1,400 miles back to Los Angeles. Thing is, I decided to go to Houston.
As I stated up top, the original name for this story was to be "Steal This Car." That was based on my assumption that I'd be taking a manual wagon home. Off the track with 175 miles between me and MSR (a country club track outside of Houston where that weekend's 24 Hours of LeMons was taking place), I began to realize that this CTS-V Wagon wasn't the car I'd been dreaming about. Losing the third pedal transforms and lessens the character of the V Wagon. The result is -- to be blunt -- far less special. Sure, you've still got 556 horsepower and 553 lb-ft of torque (and we have reason to believe these final cars are juiced up to the Camaro ZL1's 580-horse output) under your right foot. But unless you have the transmission in Sport mode, the throttle response is pretty spongy. In other words, the power's there (this particular wagon is the quickest CTS-V coupe, sedan, or wagon we've ever tested.), but it's hidden. One of the things that made ye olde long-termer so special was that car's complete lack of hesitation. Its brutality was on its sleeve.
I'd also forgotten how utterly primitive the navigation system in the CTS-V is. Not only was entering the address 10 times more complex than need be, but to save me from Friday night Houston traffic, the CTS-V's nav system routed me onto two different toll roads -- with no warning whatsoever -- that didn't take cash or credit. Meaning I have two tickets coming my way. The worst part was when the nav system routed me onto a pitch-black tertiary farm road in the middle of I don't know where. As the thought "I should flip on the brights" went through my mind, I was suddenly airborne. I'd launched off a railroad crossing. And by airborne I mean I was in the air for a full one, one thousand, if not a tick longer. The landing was hard. The car's horn broke. I pulled off into some poor farmer's field to look for damage. Using the flashlight on my iPhone, I frantically looked to see if I'd torn the front end off. Nothing. Nada. I couldn't see any damage. Not even scratches. Lucky. But still, bad nav system.
The next morning at the track my friend grabbed me and asked, "What's hanging down under the back of your car?" Oh, dear. Yup, the jump had done some actual physical damage. There are two aluminum lines that serve as send and return for the differential cooler. Not only are the they lowest point of the undercarriage, but two of the three (shockingly cheap) plastic clips that hold them in place had popped open. Worse, one of the lines had been smashed flat, and the rubber line it fed into was flayed. A nice racer named Frank helped me out, and after borrowing some jack stands we cut the damaged line and the ruined rubber hose down an inch and tied the repair off with a hose clamp. This changed the geometry of the lines, so even if the clips hadn't broke they wouldn't have worked. In very traditional LeMons fashion, I pieced the whole thing back together with hose clamps and zip ties. Would this repair hold up? Would the black wagon make it 1,600 miles back to Los Angeles? What happens when a rear end seizes up at 88 mph in the middle of nowhere, Texas? There's only one way to find out. Late on Saturday, I started heading due west.
You can't write a review of a Cadillac CTS-V without mentioning the fuel economy, especially the lack thereof. I'll never forget when I was in charge of the long-term Caddy wagon, my colleague and keeper of the fuel logs Rory Jurnecka said to me, "I don't know what it means, but you've spent over $10,000 in gas. I don't think it's a problem, but it's the first time any car's done this." Mind you, that was at about the nine-month point of our yearlong loan. After 36,097 miles, that Caddy averaged 14.8 mpg, required 181 trips to the gas station, and had cost us $12,588 -- just for gasoline!
What's great about Texas is the new speed limit: 80 mph in many places. With the cruise control set to between 85 and 88 mph, I began the two-day trip home and averaged 13.6 mpg across four states. I know it's an apples-to-alligators comparison, but when I drove the 9,081-pound Ford F-450 Super Duty Platinum back from Arizona with more than 4,000 pounds of rubber horse mats in the bed, we cruised at about 75-80 and averaged 13.8 mpg. I should have mentioned earlier, but after eight laps of COTA, all the CTS-V tanks were on empty. Now if you truly love the car you're driving, constant trips to the gas station are no big deal. She's high maintenance, but she's worth it. But if you don't love it, massive inefficiency turns annoying. My drive back felt akin to frequent nighttime urination. Necessary, but totally annoying. Especially in the hinterlands of Arizona where you see signs like "Last Gas 63 Miles." Those make you sweat.
Does it sounds like I hate the CTS-Wagon with the auto? I assure you I don't. I am, however, disappointed. This Caddy Wagon simply didn't live up to the hype of my own memory. I imagine it's like getting back together with a former lover. You've changed, they're different, and the world has moved on. In the case of this Cadillac, a pasty six-speed automatic transmission is just not the answer in 2015, one of the many reasons why the next CTS-V will arrive with GM's fast-shifting eight-speed auto. Five years back, 556 horsepower used to be an insane amount of gumption. These days you can get a Hellcat that makes more than 700 horsepower for less coin. Zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds is real quick, but a BMW M3 is just as fleet. Am I a man without dreams? Is my memory of the long-term CTS-V Wagon romanticized, glorified, overhyped, and inaccurate? I hope not, and I like to think that had this particular black wagon come with a manual transmission I would have figured out a way to steal it. At the very least, when the Cadillac man came calling and asked for her back, I would have put up a fight.