There was once a time, just after the turn of the Millennium, when Cadillac’s performance credentials were buried so far in its past that the chance of its core group of customers listing ‘driving thrills’ as the reason why they bought their car was next to zero.
That was all about to change, however, as Cadillac prepared to embark on a product blitz that would include not just the Art & Science design language that would define its next decade, but also birth the very first sports sedan bearing the V Series badge. The 2004 Cadillac CTS-V would introduce the world, not to a ‘Caddy that zigs,’ like the ill-fated 90s-era Catera, but rather one that made a legitimate claim to smoking its alphanumeric German competition on the Nurburgring.
15 years and three generations later, the fate of the CTS-V is uncertain. Having evolved into one of the fastest and most brutally powerful luxury sedans on the planet, the much more capable car delivers a very different character than its ancestor but also faces down a future where the CTS platform may no longer have a starring role at the company.
I bought in early on the CTS-V, having owned my first-year example for 10 years now, enjoying it as both a daily driver and a track day warrior. I’ve also spent significant time behind the wheel of the latest iteration of the car, having taken it on days-long road trips, hammered it at Road America, and used it as a learning tool at the V Performance Academy in Spring Mountain, Nevada.
How do these two potential bookends in the V Series story compare when driven back to back? I set out to discover the proceeds, and the price, of progress in the years between the birth of V and its ultimate evolution.
Shakin’ All Over
At first blush, what stands out most about the 2004 CTS-V is just how raw it feels in comparison with modern performance cars. There are several reasons for this, with the first being that Cadillac, having no real hot rod engines of its own sitting in the warehouse, borrowed the 5.7-liter LS6 V8 from the recently-introduced Chevrolet Corvette Z06. In fact, the LS6 was only ever offered in the Z06 (from 2001-2005) and the ’04-’05 V before it was replaced by the LS2 in the latter for the 2006 model year (fewer than 9,000 of the first-generation cars were sold across its four years of production).
Outfitted with a rumbling, lumpy idle, the first CTS-V came with a warning in its owner’s manual to genteel Cadillac fans that some ‘shaking’ of the drivetrain and shifter was to be expected due to the ‘performance cam.’ That unkempt attitude would be enhanced by a set of liquid-filled engine mounts that were originally intended to quell vibration but which typically dried out and cracked, spilling their contents, due to exhaust heat. I replaced mine with polyurethane units as soon as I could.
The LS6’s relatively high-revving 400 horsepower and 395 lb-ft of torque held their head high alongside the same-era BMW M5 (down on torque) and Mercedes-Benz E55 AMG (which offered roughly 40 horses less). Matched exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission, the car features defeatable traction control and three Stabilitrak (stability control) programs: one for street driving, a ‘Competition Mode’ that allows for more yaw before any intervention, and of course ‘off.’ Up front, a set of four-piston Brembo brakes clamp down on 14-inch discs.
For $50,000 (which translates into roughly $69,000 in today’s dollars), owners were blessed with a 0-60 mph time of 4.9 seconds, a quarter mile in the low 13s, and an ungoverned, drag-limited top speed of 168 mph.
In actual practice, acceleration from a standing start is a challenge in the CTS-V, due to a differential design that wasn’t up to the rigors of the wheel-hop that accompanied every clutch drop. GM went through four different designs before finding one that would resist the urge to implode at the drag strip, and that’s the one under my car, but even still I avoid the strip and have enjoyed the V on road courses instead (the car’s one other major mechanical liability, a numb-feeling shifter for the T56 gearbox, is more easily remedied by any of the several aftermarket options available).
It’s here, where the asphalt turns curvy, that the first-edition CTS-V reveals what it was designed to do. My example is largely stock (save for an LS7 clutch upgrade for better heat management, and a set of Hotchkiss swaybars), and yet it parses almost any ribbon of tarmac with a level of communication through its hydraulic steering and factory shocks and springs that never fails to put a surprise on my face. The car is a willing accomplice, and while you’ll need to respect it once its limited nannies are out of the picture, the visceral pleasure that it offers is a reminder of a brief era when modern chassis tech had yet to be curated by ones and zeros.
It’s such a joy to drive at full throttle, singing eight cylinders of fury out of its dual exhaust pipes that frankly it’s enough for me to forgive the plastic-heavy interior panels (although there’s no need to make excuses for the comfortable and grippy suede leather seats). A fold-down rear seat keeps the car practical and capable of hauling its own race rubber to the track, and fuel mileage is a respectable 24-mpg in highway cruising.
Slipping behind the wheel of the 2018 Cadillac CTS-V after a session in the ’04 reveals much about the career trajectory of this particular four-door autobahn assassin. For starters, it’s moved into a much pricier zip code – $86,000 is now the starting price – and it feels every inch of it in the cabin, which is lined with animal hides and updated with the kind of feel-good features and advanced infotainment and gauge cluster fireworks that are a significant departure from the simpler instrumentation of the original vehicle.
Hit the ‘start’ button – another novelty – and you’ll be greeted by a muted, but infinitely more powerful iteration of the LS engine’s evolution, a 640 horsepower, 6.2-liter LT4 that has been supercharged to deliver its 630 lb-ft of torque at a remarkably low rpm. An eight-speed automatic and no fewer than four driving modes are now standard with the car (no matter how much you might desire a clutch pedal), and despite its puffed-up dimensions and 300 lbs of extra curb weight, the latest CTS-V is more than a full second faster to 60-mph (and boasts a legitimate 200-mph as its terminal velocity).
In terms of straight-line speed, there is no competition whatsoever between the two cars. While the 2004 feels boisterous, the 2018 is at times frightening to unleash on public roads, not for its lack of control – this is an exceptionally smooth and sure-footed machine, thanks largely to its magnetically-adjustable suspension system – but rather due to its complete disdain for Newtonian physics. Sub-orbital speeds are accessible via the softest of throttle squeezes in Sport mode, and thanks to the car’s Performance Traction Management system a sizzling mid-11 second quarter mile is available at the touch of a button with no danger of destroying anything bolted to the car.
Much of this is to be expected. The latest V features the kind of performance numbers that wouldn’t have been out of place on a supercar brochure in the early 2000s, and the democratization of performance has allowed its similarly-gifted sedan cohort to lay claim to usable power and glue-like handling that was unthinkable to the engineers who designed its predecessor.
There’s one other point of divergence, however, that works in the 2004’s favor, and that’s driver engagement. The interaction between human and machine offered by the presence of a manual shifter is not to be overstated, and this combines with the car’s far less-insulated drive experience to add an extra dimension of fun in the first-year car that’s not always present when turning in ultra-quick lap times in the latest model.
Two Roads Diverged In Detroit
In many ways, driving the two back-to-back reveals both what has been gained and what has been lost as the automotive industry has pushed ever-closer to parking a cruise missile in your driveway. In the race to build a 640-horsepower sedan that won’t kill you at full throttle – and that won’t make you look longingly over at your neighbor’s comfy SUV when you leave on your morning commute – automakers like Cadillac have had to take some of the venom out of the sting.
See Also: 2019 Cadillac XT4 Review – Video
The end result remains impressive, but the experience itself has transformed into something more civilized than you’d expect from a car featuring a 240 horsepower bump over its grandfather. Although the current CTS-V’s chassis is better than many of its direct competitors at preserving some aspects of the drive, when contrasted against a car that had only vaguely similar concerns regarding spilling your coffee, implemented by a team who knew this was probably their only shot to snag the attention of Euro-focused performance shoppers, there’s a ruthlessness about the 2004 model that simply can’t be replicated on today’s showroom floors.