Cadillac's V division celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2019. If the high-performance V hardware has been largely successful, and it has, Cadillac's repositioning away from a desirable brand for generations of Americans who've been brought up to think of German automotive performance as the holy grail has been less so.
Which is why it’s bittersweet to be behind the wheel of the Cadillac CT6-V, which we photographed in downtown Detroit not far from the factory in the Motor City hamlet of Hamtramck where the flagship Cadillac sedan is built. But this is not the car’s natural habitat.
The CT6-V is a high-tech, aluminum-intensive sedan hot-rodded with a new, state-of-the-art, Cadillac-exclusive twin-turbocharged V-8 known as the Blackwing. This 4.2-liter DOHC engine—with its twin-scroll turbos stuffed inside the V of the engine—is lovingly hand-built at the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky, then installed under the hood of the CT6 in Hamtramck, mated to a 10-speed automatic.
This is Cadillac’s latest salvo in its longstanding attempts to equal the prestige and panache of the hot-dog sedans from Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi. Yet, as you might have heard, the car is basically dead on arrival. Cadillac has moved back to Detroit after its study-abroad years in Manhattan, none the wiser nor more cultured, and is belatedly hurrying crossovers to dealerships like every other automaker clawing for sales. Its finely executed sedans and coupes of the past decade, including the CT6, are drawing little interest. In fact, the CT6, introduced only four years ago with considerable fanfare, is currently slated to end production in early 2020. So this Blackwing-powered V machine, positioned above the 500-hp Platinum trim and 550-hp V-Sport, is essentially a flash in the pan.
A shame, because as we depart Detroit and point north on the interstate toward Traverse City (a resort town that also happens to be the location of Hagerty’s corporate offices), we find a lot to like. The CT6 doesn’t wear its engine on its sleeve the way previous supercharged V-8s in the CTS-V lineup (coupe, sedan, wagon; those were the days!) did. In touring mode, you’ll barely know what the car is capable of, with only muffled sounds reaching the cockpit. Given the quality of the CT6’s body structure and chassis, which of course were engineered for a luxury sedan’s quietness and isolation, this is not a surprise.
Toggle the driving mode switch in the center console to Sport and the display turns white and gray, as if to indicate that it, like the engine, is waking up. Mash the gas and the gearbox downshifts instantly, smoothly, and there’s a phenomenal rush of power. Grasp the shift paddles—big, nicely finished, attached to the steering column—to toggle through the 10-speed transmission, just for fun. Because the gearbox shifts so smoothly and quickly on its own, the paddles are largely extraneous.
Toggle to track mode to hear a satisfying exhaust note thanks to valves in the exhaust exclusive to the CT6-V. (The CT6 Platinum has no exhaust valves but, unlike the CT6-V, is offered with Cadillac’s highly praised Super Cruise, a hands-free, semi-autonomous driver-assist system). Cadillac amplifies the engine sounds through the car’s sound system. “We really worked on the in-cabin sound enhancement,” notes Chad Christensen, the CT6’s lead development engineer, CT6. It was all part of tuning the car to be both luxury grand tourer and sports sedan. “We wanted a quiet, crafted ride in tour mode, and a car that’s capable of tearing up the canyons in Track mode, with Sport mode being in the middle of that,” he says.
The desire for refinement to go along with the performance explains why there’s not a small-block, pushrod V-8 here, as in the old CTS-V. “We wanted a refined, high-tech engine that packages easily,” explains Christensen. “It’s the first time we’ve done a hot-V, reverse-flow design. We had a lot of talent from GM Powertrain working on that.” The mill produces 640 lb-ft of torque and up to 20 psi of boost. Serious hardware, indeed.
As impressive as the Blackwing engine is, if Cadillac really wants the match the Germans, it might have saved all that money from developing a new engine and spent it on the CT6’s interior, which falls far short in materials and execution compared with both the Germans and with Cadillac’s traditional cross-town rival, Lincoln. In fact, although the automotive journalism establishment has spent the past 15 years cheerleading Cadillac’s V efforts, with particular love for the CTS-V wagon with manual gearbox, Lincoln chose not to worry about Nürburgring lap times and instead decided to make fast, pretty vehicles with exquisite interiors. It didn’t hurt that they had a huge head start on crossover development over Cadillac.
All that said, the CT6-V is an alluring vehicle, an opportunity to own something rare and special, although for the privilege you’ll spend close to $100,000. You can take it to any cars-and-coffee event, open the hood to reveal one of the more attractively packaged engines from GM this side of the new mid-engine Corvette, and point out the signed plate from the dedicated engine builder in Bowling Green, just like an AMG Mercedes mill. Because Cadillac is still chasing the Germans, even if it should go back to chasing Lincoln.