ANN ARBOR -- Over pizza and pop one night in the late '90s, John Smith, Cadillac's then-general manager, shared his vision for the brand: A new and distinctive family look that would tie Cadillac's disparate product portfolio closer together, topped by an exclusive series of limited-edition performance models that would rival Europe's best.
The culmination of that dream is the 2006 Cadillac STS-V, one of the most powerful American-built sedans ever and the first serious challenger to BMW's M-series cars and the AMG range from Mercedes-Benz.
The new STS-V is just reaching U.S. dealers and eventually will head across the Atlantic to tackle the German supercars on their home turf. It is the second of Cadillac's high-performance V-series cars, following the fast, but flawed 2005 CTS-V. The $77,090 STS-V (the price includes shipping and a $2,100 gas guzzler tax) is not the most expensive Cadillac ever. That honor is reserved for the third entry in the series, the new 2006 XLR-V, which retails for a cool $100,000.
The V-series Cadillacs have generated lots of buzz for the division, nearly all of it positive. In fact, nearly a decade later, Smith's long-range strategy has played out so successfully for General Motors Corp. and its prestige marque that Cadillac's current leadership already is plotting an even more potent "Super V" range later in the decade.
For the time being, however, the STS-V more than holds its own against the M5 and the E55 AMG.
The exterior lines of the standard STS are sharply chiseled, in the modern-day Cadillac design idiom first established by the CTS, albeit in a more subdued execution. The V edition doesn't look radically different, adding a modest deck spoiler in the rear and a garish wire-mesh grille -- you've seen it before on aftermarket dress-up kits for the Chrysler 300C -- to distinguish the go-fast variant from its garden-variety sibling.
The stance looks more aggressive, in part because Cadillac engineers have fitted low-profile Pirelli EMT tires on unique alloy wheels -- 18s in front, 19s in the rear. But in basic black (or "black raven," as the marketing department has dubbed it), this is as close to a stealth sport sedan as you're liable to find in this price/performance class.
Inside, the STS-V's two-tone cabin is much warmer than the stark, metallic look of the M5 we recently tested.
It may be a little bland, but the cockpit is pleasantly trimmed in rich leather and a smoky, grayish polished ash.
The electroluminescent gauges are clean and simple, although the red needles aren't nearly as cool and tasteful as the blue needles on the new Escalade.
The STS-V comes with no options; all the amenities -- and there are many -- are standard. (If you don't like the sunroof, you can delete it when you order the car.) Features include keyless access with remote start, heated front and rear seats, power tilt/telescope steering column, DVD navigation, XM satellite radio and a Bose 5.1 premium audio system.
The standard safety equipment is also top drawer, consisting of stability and traction control, antilock brakes with electronic brake assist, side air bags and side curtains, ultrasonic rear park assist, rain-sensing wipers and tire pressure monitor.
Our gripes are few: A rather austere rear compartment that doesn't provide enough leg or knee room, massive rear pillars and a tall rear parcel shelf that reduce rearward visibility, and a nav system that is not as intuitive as those offered by some competitors.
And now we get down to the nitty-gritty, the STS-V's raison d'etre -- the superb chassis and driveline.
The heart of this M-fighter is a new supercharged 4.4-liter variant of GM's great Northstar V-8, packing 469 horsepower and 439 pounds-feet of torque. One of the most powerful American-built engines, it is coupled with a six-speed automatic gearbox with manual shift capability (although it lacks fingertip shift controls). The engineers have tuned the exhaust note so it's throaty, but not raucous, while the engine itself sounds amazingly silky and civilized, considering its race-track breeding.
Performance, needless to say, is exceptional. Acceleration is smooth and controlled; thanks to the extra wallop from the supercharger, the STS-V is capable of galloping from zero to 60 m.p.h. in just under five seconds, which is nearly as quick as the rocket-like V-10 in the M5. The Cadillac's six-speed box shifts much more smoothly than the herky-jerky SMG in the BMW. On the downside, the EPA ratings are pretty dismal -- 14 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway, which earns the STS-V the aforementioned guzzler penalty.
But a hot motor isn't much fun without the right accoutrements -- wheels, tires, brakes, steering and suspension. In this case, we can't say enough good things about the STS-V chassis, which is world-class. Cadillac has upgraded the critical suspension bits, increasing both roll and ride stiffness to give the STS-V a firm, yet controlled ride that is surprisingly compliant, despite the harder sidewalls on the Pirelli run-flat tires. A quicker ZF steering gear bestows a razor-sharp precision, while oversize Brembo brakes dramatically reduce the stopping distance.
As good as the STS-V is right out of the box -- and it is truly a joy to drive -- we'd love to see just a few improvements. Our wish list would start with all-wheel drive, larger wheels and tires (at least 20s), shift paddles or fingertip controls for the gearbox, a more tasteful and distinctive front end, some richer matte-finish wood in the cabin and a roomier, more luxurious rear seating compartment.
Perhaps Cadillac will address some of those issues on the next iteration -- the so-called Super V, or whatever it will be branded. Until then, the 2006 Cadillac STS-V is pretty awesome and a worthy competitor to the M5 and the E55 AMG.
Indeed, this Cadillac is simply the best American luxury/sport sedan ever.