Thursday, October 25, 2012

Track Test - 2013 Cadillac CTS-V

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Lineup

Zeus having a serious fight with Hera on Mount Olympus.

Or God emitting a seriously long burp after having a six course meal.

That's how otherworldly the Cadillac CTS-V's 556hp/551lb-ft of torque, supercharged LSA V8 sounds at full boil. And this is from inside the car.

It's hard to imagine that this is a toned-down version of the same 638hp nuclear reactor that makes the Corvette ZR1 such an American terror on the track. The pull from standstill is immense, the power at speed unrelenting and if it sounds this good from the cockpit, imagine standing next to Palm Beach International Raceway's long straight when one of these things comes flying down at full throttle. The sound will be instantly baked into your memory eons. That and you'll be unable to wipe that silly Joker-like grin off your face. Or calm down the hairs on your neck.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's wind the clock back to a few hours earlier when I woke up, sleepy-eyed and wondering why I didn't schedule myself for the late afternoon track session. I had been anticipating this day for weeks on end and, despite this, I seriously wanted to fall back into bed and wrap myself up. It was only after remembering my first meeting with the Cadillac CTS-V, a Black Diamond Edition in Fort Lauderdale the previous year that I came to my enthusiast senses. I drove all the other Cadillac models except that one but one of the reps was kind enough to start it up for me. The sound of that big 6.2 liter lump growling to life was intoxicating. Despite my incessant pleas for a supervised drive around the block, the rep declined citing "insurance and liability" reasons...whatever that means. Remembering how I utterly failed at climbing behind the wheel then and now, being fully unleashed in all coupe, sedan and wagon versions of Cadillac's M/AMG slayer I immediately jumped out of bed and into the shower. I was going to savor this day.

The Lineup

Palm Beach International Raceway is located, rather curiously, in the middle of nowhere. Getting off at the Bee Line Highway exit off Florida's Turnpike, you're greeted with a four lane road. Maybe it was still really early in the morning, but cars were conspicuously few in number and the scenery was similar to that of swamplands and thick brush. This was also exacerbated by the steady decline of cellphone reception. Four bars...three bars...two bars...switch to 2G. Four bars...three bars...okay, holding at three bars. But then getting to the venue you're amazed at the size of the place. These high power cars need a lot of acreage to run and with the plethora of noise these machines will make (music to the ears or not) the choice of venue is a smart one. Wouldn't want to disturb the neighbors now.

After a light breakfast and introductions of the staff, it was time to head out to the cars. Lined up neatly from nose to tail were about 12 or so CTS-Vs of various versions: coupe, sedan and wagon. It was our job to schlep them from the meeting area to the pits so we could have our first of three driving module introductions, this one concerning vehicle dynamics. After a roughly 20 minute briefing (which involved short grin-inducing moments of hearing that riotous V8 echo off the pit walls) it was time to grab a helmet and head out to meet our driving instructors by the waiting cars. I'd love to say I picked mine perfectly but in all honesty, he picked me. Mr. Schmidt (or R.J.) would be my chaperone for the day and, according him anyway, knew right away that I had a smooth driving style just from eyeing me up and down. Walking up to the vehicles, I decided on a black CTS-V wagon because, well, if you know me you know that stupid-fast wagons intrigue me. Hearing my reasoning, R.J. immediately laughed and confided in me that the wagon was his favorite as well. Something about a 556hp grocery getter just stands the hairs on end. Anyway, the first of two laps would be for demonstration purposes with him at the helm, showing the turns, entry points, acceleration and braking areas as well as the manner in which I was to drive. In a nutshell, he pretty much said, "Try not to stuff it...or worse, take me with you."

Well said.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon

After the first lap, we headed to the pits where I took the helm and R.J rode shot gun. Exiting the pit area and ensuring there was no traffic we played follow the leader, though R.J., ever the wise instructor, allowed the car in front a bigger lead in order to give us some adequate room to hustle the 5 door wagon and not get slowed up, just in case the lead car's pilot was a granny behind the wheel. Heading on the track I immediately mashed the throttle and reveled in the intoxicating sound of the LSA motor clearing its voice but all too quickly the first corner came up and it was hard on the brakes. Hit the apex and ever so slightly ease into the power and deep torque reserves will power the car out and on to the next corner. The extra weight over the rear wheels gives the wagon a smidge more traction and a more even front/rear weight balance. Through another series of turns, I could sense the levels of grip on the front end and what the tires were doing through the steering wheel. So effective is the communication that I'm sure I would've sensed a pebble at the apex had the tires ran over it. Getting on to the back straight at speed, R.J. barked an order to mash the throttle and in two or three seconds we were teasing 120mph (we weren't allowed to go faster...bummer). Roughly three quarters of the way down came the braking zone and, abruptly lifting off the throttle produced a series of wonderful pops and burbles from the exhaust. Stomping on the massive brakes, the big wagon quickly shrugged off speed in preparation for another turn. Smoothly positioning the car to hit the apex, the big 19" tires gripped the tarmac with such tenacity that, by my butt-o-meter, it felt like we had just pulled over 1g of cornering force. The sophisticated magnetic dampers fitted at all four corners effectively stifled body roll, enabling me to once again lean into the throttle to squirt the car onto the front straight.where we hit 90mph before braking again for the turn one and another lap. All the while, oblivious to huge grin on my face. Color R.J. amused.

#8 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe race car

#8 Cadillac CTS-V race car

View of the huge wheel/tire and massive slotted/vented brake.
6.2L race engine (note the narrowness of the intake tube just in front of the motor)

After a cool down lap, it was back to the pits to go over the our the first module and how I did. My track experience is severely limited but, according to R.J., I was perhaps the best he'd seen after three days of hot laps with amateur drivers. My driving style encouraged smoothness over outright speed and when power was called for, I engaged it at all the right points. My one nagging flaw was that in some corners I tended to drift wide, a sign that indicated I was training my vision on the corner itself instead of looking through the corner and where I ultimately wanted the car to be after the corner. While another group took its turn, Robert and I engaged professional race driver Andy Pilgrim in some conversation regarding Cadillac's racing program, the company itself and what the V cars mean to consumers.The #8 race car is an impressive sight to behold. Powered by a naturally aspirated and massively massaged 6.2L V8, Andy indicates that the motor actually had to have its throat (throttle body) stifled so as not to, in his words, "wipe the floor with the other cars." The production CTS-V platform makes for a rather excellent basis to create a full on LeMans racer. Hunkered down on its adjustable racing springs, widened carbon fiber bodied fender flares barely containing fat racing slicks and the completely gutted interior which contains a full racing safety cage and special steering wheel (which by itself costs an eye-watering $25,000...or about the price of a fully loaded Chevy Cruze compact), the car looks absolutely mean. I asked Andy if he'd take me for a spin it and, of course, he politely declined citing the same "insurance and liability" reasons. Now where have I heard that before...

Cut out of the powerful 6.2L supercharged LSA V8

6L30 six speed automatic transmission

After checking out the DTS-replacing XTS full sized sedan (first impressions of that coming shortly), it was time for another module and one more 20 minute presentation, this time detailing the stonkin' 6.2L LSA motor. Based on the same LS9 motor that powers the Corvette ZR1 (up the ante by 24hp and you get the Camaro ZL1 motor), the LSA features a smaller 1.9L capacity supercharger (2.3L on the LS9), a single heat exchanger to the LS9's two, cast instead of forged pistons and a slightly lower compression ratio. Having digested this it was time for three more laps, this time in the CTS-V Coupe and myself at the helm for all three. Again R.J. was my instructor and as you can see in the video below, I had quite a grand time.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe

Differences between the wagon and the coupe? Very slight. The coupe is a tad lighter than the wagon and the rear track is two inches wider, which gives it better stability. However, the coupe's lighter rear end and slightly worse weight balance front/rear makes powering out of corners a bit dicey if you're not careful. That being said, the nose will push when entering a corner too hot so getting the corner entry right is absolutely critical. Try to power out too early and the lighter rear end will come around. That said, the CTS-V has an amazing stability and traction control system that, when set to the Sport setting, backs off just enough to allow some sliding and tail happiness (besides, we weren't allowed to turn it off anyway). Remember what I said earlier about the engine sounding God-like? Don't forget, this is still a luxury car so while the engine does make itself clearly known its not raucous or unrefined in nature. At lower speeds (like idling around in the pits) the big V8 is barely audible. But lay into the throttle and it clears its throat before freely revving up to its 6300rpm redline, sounding every bit like the American pushrod motor it is and emitting just the faintest hint of supercharger whine. Credit should also go to the six speed 6L30 automatic transmission which, in its Sport setting, was more often than not in the right gear.There were times when I did catch it a gear too low when coming out of corners but it produced crisp upshifts right up to the rev limiter. I wanted to give the shift paddles behind the steering wheel a go but honestly, I doubt I would've been much faster. Steering was also very direct and telegraphic in the way it communicated information through the hands. It didn't come off as overly light, but was reasonably quick.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe Black Diamond Edition

If the base CTS makes such a great driver's car then the V models are the proverbial icing on the cake. The relationship between the controls is so harmonious that, at least in the wagon, you'll almost forget what you're driving. Having piloted the wagon, I got out shaking my head and laughing at myself. A 4200lb five door wagon that will scare the bejezuss out of any Camaro or Mustang driver at a stoplight (the ultimate sleeper in my eye and my personal favorite of the three body styles). A two door coupe that will bully a BMW M3 up and down a racetrack. A four door sedan that mopped the floor with the last generation E60 BMW M5 and is the equal to the new F10 model. I believe Cadillac has truly established its V Series performance vehicles right up there with the German blue bloods. The impressiveness of the cars' on track manners, the deep wells of power from the huge V8 and the sophistication of its suspension (technology that even Ferrari has borrowed for its road cars, yes really) imbue the CTS-V with a personality that is becoming of a luxury sport sedan. Only this time, you can have your cake in three flavors.

I'll take the sleeper five door wagon. In Black Diamond Edition please.

2013 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon Black Diamond Edition

I'd like to once again thank Cadillac for the opportunity to test their various V models on the beautiful track that is Palm Beach International Raceway. Special thanks for Lauren, Jenna, Mr Schmidt (you're still R.J. by the way) and Andy Pilgrim for their friendliness, knowledge and courteousness in answering all my questions and putting up with my annoying child-in-a-candystore-like behavior. 

Sidenote: you may have noticed that I did not report on the CTS-V sedan. It was my understanding that the three modules would've included track testing all three models, followed by testing the CTS-V's little brother ATS but I was mistaken. In any case, based on the performance of the wagon and the coupe, you can place the sedan somewhere in between the two, though to be frank the performance differences were barely discernible and can only be accurately told with a stop watch and more sophisticated test equipment that are far more accurate than my butt-o-meter. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Track Test - 2013 Cadillac ATS

2013 Cadillac ATS

The 2013 Cadillac ATS is probably one of the most anticipated vehicles to hit the market this year. Tasked with providing perhaps the most directed American assault to the compact luxury sedan segment, it's no secret how much Cadillac has toiled and invested to get to this point. With the segment king BMW 3 Series seemingly dismissing every contender to the crown, the ATS certainly has its work cut out for it. I recently had the chance to attend a track event hosted by Cadillac where the ATS and CTS-V models were on hand to be thrashed...I mean tested to their limits at the Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter, Florida. What follows is my review of the Cadillac ATS (a separate post on the CTS-V models will arrive later).

This was my first time seeing the ATS in the flesh and if you've read my earlier First Impressions article on Cadillac's new compact sedan, you should have a pretty good idea how important this car is to Cadillac's goals.The Art & Science theme readily applies itself to this smaller footprint and the ATS strikes quite a handsome stance. Vertical themes are present on the front, where LED fog and accent lighting direct the eyes up the sides of the front fascia to the aluminum hood. Cues from the earlier Cien and Sixteen concept cars are sprinkled about, from the wide lower intake to the grille where the Cadillac wreath and crest badge sits prominently in the center. The windshield is steeply raked and the roof line follows a lower character line that begins where the headlight fixture stops and continues to the tail light fixtures. Again, the vertical themes are present but not so much as the make the rear end appear chunky. In fact, the rear is nipped and truncates quite nicely into the LED HMBL (high mounted brake light) on the trunk lid that also doubles as a subtle lip spoiler. The lower rear valance has aero diffuser effects and twin exhaust pipes peek out from underneath. All ATS models on display were of the top trip range and come standard with General Motors' well regarded 3.6 liter direct injected V6 which provides 321hp and 275lb-ft of torque through a 6 speed automatic transmission.

Built on a completely new platform designated "Alpha", the ATS is both compact and light. Cadillac used the E46 BMW 3 Series as a benchmark for both weight, handling and ride and as a result, the ATS is among the lightest in its segment. The chassis features aluminum, magnesium and ultra high strength steel for maximum stiffness and rigidity. Suspension pieces consists of struts up front and a new five link independent system anchoring the rear, all made of aluminum and magnesium materials. On 3.6 models, 18 inch wheels are equipped front and rear with performance summer tires (all seasons on AWD models) while four piston Brembo brakes provide stopping power. Also featured is Cadillac's impressive MagneRide electronic damper system (click here for more details on this technology) that enables the ATS to quickly react to changing road conditions. Compared to the benchmark BMW 3 Series, the ATS comes within an inch in virtually all exterior and interior dimensions.With extensive testing on Germany's infamous Nurburgring circuit and in various corners of the world (as Cadillac has been hard pressed to market), the ATS does have the potential on paper to either equal or beat the Bavarian competition at its own game. But does it really?

Sit inside and you're greeted by a plethora of premium materials that lend an airy feeling to the cabin, although, to my eyes anyway, the cabin seemed just a tad smaller than the 328i I tested a few months back. Either way, the driver's perch felt tailor fit to my frame with all major controls easily reached. The gauges were legible and easy to read while the center stack...well, I'll circle back to that in a bit. The dash features hand stitched leather and the front seats offer multi-way adjustments for maximum comfort whether holding the occupants in place during spirited driving or providing support for long highway stints. Rear seat legroom is, well, compact. There's not a whole lot of leg space back there but not enough that occupants will riot. My cohort Robert Mullings is a pretty large guy and with him seated in the driver's seat set for his comfort and myself seated behind him, my legs were splayed to either side of the seat. This was exaggerated by the area where the carpet meets the seat bottom. Usually, rear seats have a bit of overhang to them but I noticed there was none to speak of in the ATS...or maybe my posture is bad. Regardless, two can sit back there in relative comfort while three across is tight. Trunk space is also good, though the rear wheel well intrusions are noticeably visible and do make storage a bit tricky in some instances.

 Taking the ATS for a short spin from one side of the track to the other for some dynamic testing, the car's feel and suspension poise were immediate. The steering has good heft and weighting to it, but assist was great and transmitted ample information through the hands. Not many EPAS (electronic power assist steering) systems can do this and Cadillac must be applauded for sweating this sporty detail. .After a short presentation regarding the tire choices for the ATS as well as details regarding the suspension, safety and electronic damper controls, we were let loose on the cars (instructors riding shotgun of course).

The test would consist of three sections: Emergency braking from speed into a turn (to demonstrate the ATS' stability and powerful brakes), acceleration testing (more of a fun event that not only showcases the impressive pulling power of the 3.6 V6, but also tests our reaction times) and finally the slalom (showcasing the impressive magnetic shocks, the ATS' agility and directional control). We would tackle the entire course over three laps, every one of them with the Sport mode engaged. This mode changes the throttle mapping to a more aggressive setting, primes the magneto-rheological dampers and adds increased heft to the steering. 

For the emergency braking, the intention was to simulate coming into a corner at speed and braking hard to a stop in order to avoid an obstruction (imagine a dark, blind corner then suddenly coming up on a boulder...or a deer...or roadkill). This involved nailing the throttle out of the stops and then immediately hitting the binders after reaching 40 - 50mph, while turning. We did this a few times and the ATS' four piston Brembos hauled us down every time with minimal fuss, the suspension remaining flat and level. I must also add that Cadillac seems to have quelled the high rpm graininess that plagued earlier versions of its 3.6 V6. As a matter of fact, the intake roar at full throttle was quite pleasing. From the outside I was reminded of Nissan's big bore VQ V6, but without its coarse note. Circling around to perform the acceleration test, our car and another ATS lined up at the strip to see not only who was the faster, but who's reaction time was quicker. Since no Christmas tree lights were available, we settled on one of the instructors counting down from three via radio. All three times, our car won (pops collar) although I do feel obligated to insert a disclaimer here. The final two laps had me lined up against my Robert (who outweighs me by at least 50lbs) so I had an ever so slight advantage compounded by, according to him (which I only found out later) an electronic problem with his test car that never allowed him to gain full access of the engine's 321hp, handing me the win each time.

Sure Rob, sure.

The next test involved the slalom and, goaded by my instructor (let's call him R.J. Schmidt), I was able to thread the cones nicely and with good speed. Each subsequent pass garnered an even faster time and, with it, inspired more confidence. The ATS never surprises with its responses and goes exactly where you point the nose, giving adequate feedback to the driver. When it comes to sporty driving, a car that breeds confidence in the driver is exactly what you want in challenging conditions. In this regard, the ATS is every bit the 3 Series competitor that Cadillac envisions it to be. The car remained flat through the cones, grip from the tires was very impressive and the feedback from the steering wheel enabled me to assess the levels of grip I had to get on the power quicker. After the track session, I came away having a new perspective of Cadillac and its aspirations of being  the American equivalent to the established German players of the luxury segment. What started with the CTS has been effectively transferred to the smaller ATS, and with it, the means to directly challenge the compact luxury segment.

There's just a tiny chink in the armor that I've neglected to mention until now: CUE.

The chink

CUE? What's CUE? It stands for Cadillac User Experience and is Cadillac's much ballyhooed answer to Ford's Microsoft-based SYNC and MyFord Touch system. On the center console, there are no buttons and knobs to speak of. An 8" touchscreen dominates the top half and below that, a black, nicely finished acrylic touch capacitive surface to control most of the car's systems. As far as the digital presentation, think of how you'd use a tablet and you get the idea. Icons can be moved around the 'home page' and a list of often used systems are represented in the lower portion of the screen. In navigation mode, you can change the size of the display by squeezing or pinching the screen the same way you would on a tablet or smartphone. CUE also enables destinations to be directly uploaded from your paired smartphone, eliminating the need to enter an address from scratch. Unlike the Ford system which in my experience was infuriating to use for its non responsive touch surfaces and slowness of operation, CUE attempts to circumvent this by using haptic feedback of the touch surface to acknowledge the user's selection. Say you want to access the navigation system, touching the icon on the screen induces a slight vibration felt through the finger, acknowledging your selection. The lower touch surface operates in much the same way with all controls for volume, radio station selection, climate and entertainment accessed via touch sensitive surfaces. It takes some practice to master and with time, I don't doubt the user will be used to it. The problem I see with this system, much like the Ford version, is that too often you have to look down from the road to make sure your input was received and you touched the right area. CUE does lessen this to a certain extent but personally, I much prefer knobs that are more intuitive to use and don't force me to take my eyes off the road to ensure I made the correct selection. Call me old fashioned.

You can largely get around all this by using the excellent voice control system that will recognize almost any vocal command you give it, unlike Ford's system which requires you speak in a very specific way for it to acknowledge your wishes (and relentlessly coaches you on how to do it, even when you'd just wish the annoying lady would shut up). Press the steering wheel mounted button, say a command (like FM Station 105.1 or climate 70 degrees) and the system simply does what it's told. And quickly. While driving, the touch surface fades to black to minimize distraction. Wave your hand over it and a proximity sensor immediately lights up the surface in anticipation of your selection.. Touch the bottom of the panel and it flips up to reveal a padded storage area that also includes a USB port. I was a bit perplexed by this, especially when finding the CD/DVD drive in the glovebox. Why not have the port in the lower area behind the shift lever and the optic drive in the dash? After some thought it dawned on me: no one really uses CDs anymore (well besides me anyway) as all media is electronic in nature nowadays, so it does make sense to have that kind of feature front and center. Once your phone is paired to the car's system (via Bluetooth or USB), you can store in the dash storage cubby and leave it there, the car's system handling most everything from that point.

The 2013 Cadillac ATS is definitely a sedan that's poised to take on all comers and with other body styles in the pipeline, as well as a much anticipated V model (twin turbo V6 anyone?) Cadillac is certainly pulling all the stops and leaving no stones unturned in fighting for its slice of the compact luxury segment.

Many thanks to Cadillac for inviting me to this exhilarating event and to my instructor whom I've dubbed R.J. Schimdt for his vast knowledge and patience with me (yes you picked the right driver buddy!). Also, special thanks to Andy Pilgrim who drives the #8 Cadillac CTS-V race car for taking the time out to talk shop about Cadillac's venture into the world of racing and its plans for the future as well as the vehicles themselves. On behalf of Robert Mullings and myself, again, thank you.