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The Cadillac CTS-V Completely Redefined American Performance Cars

If you were asked to pick the most influential American car of the past 15 years, you would be hard-pressed to find a vehicle as important as the Cadillac CTS-V. In fact, not only did the CTS-V completely change the way almost every American car brand thought about performance vehicles, it actually changed their entire theory of how a car should drive — and how that impacts the driver’s experience. That sounds like a bold claim, but hear me out.

First, a little background.

Back in the early 2000s, Cadillac was struggling mightily to beat the Germans in the luxury car game — and it’s no surprise why. The competition was incredibly good, with offerings like BMW’s E46 M3 and the E39 M5. On the other hand, Cadillac was more or less still living in the 1980s, offering mediocre, uninspiring products like the Catera and the Eldorado. If you take a look at the broader American market at the time, you’d find that the Mustang still had a solid rear axle, the Camaro was still based on the F-Body chassis, the Mercury Marauder was the best American performance sedan, and the only car that could possibly compete with the Europeans at that point was the Corvette — and even that wasn’t on par in terms of quality. The old paradigm that American cars were only fast in a straight line was actually pretty accurate back then.

So when Cadillac debuted the regular CTS in 2004 with an independent rear suspension, rear-wheel drive and the option of a manual transmission, it signaled a real shift in the wind. While the CTS was novel, however, it wasn’t exactly what changed the American automotive landscape.

Instead, it was the CTS-V that made everyone take notice. Cadillac, the brand of car that Jerry Seinfeld bought for his elderly snowbird father on his TV show, was now selling a sedan to the American people that was developed at the Nurburgring. It had a big 400-horsepower V8 sourced from the Corvette and a 6-speed manual transmission, and it managed to turn corners as well as any German performance coupe or sedan at the time, with super sticky tires and an upgraded suspension. Yes, the interior was still pretty cheap feeling, but it was like nothing else on the American market at the time — and Cadillac completely rebuilt its image around it to become a luxury performance brand. Chevrolet even started their craze of making an SS version of almost every car in their line up after this, no doubt building off of the lessons learned in building the CTS-V.

The CTS-V barely survived the government’s bailout of GM in 2008, but it came out on the other side stronger than ever, finally with an interior befitting of a luxury car, a new chassis, more power, magnetic suspension and bigger brakes. This version posted a lap time of the Nurburgring of just 7:59.32 in 2009, the fastest time for any sedan at the circuit. This car proved that Americans can build a competitive performance sedan to not only consumers and European companies, but other American companies as well.

Just a few years after this, Ford debuted its "One Ford" vision that focused on bringing their European division together with their American division, and the Europeans were given the lead. This led to the Focus the, Fiesta and the Fusion, all of which were full of European DNA. Additionally, the Mustang was rebranded as a purebred sports car with an independent rear suspension and a focus on overall performance as opposed to mostly power. Chrysler, too, began injecting big power into its vehicles, with most "SRT" models following the arrival of the CTS-V — and while handling wasn’t quite as much of a focus for cars like the Dodge Magnum SRT-8 and the Grand Cherokee SRT-8, performance and excitement were certainly improved compared to the brand’s offerings from just a few years earlier.

Indeed, whether or not the CTS-V played a major role, it seems it came at the beginning of some big changes to the American car market. The CTS-V proved to American companies that they could build a performance car like the Europeans were selling and that it could be popular — and that a true "performance line" was worth a shot. Now, every car released has to be at least somewhat engaging to drive, and even the Camry is advertised as sporty. For those reasons, I think it’s pretty easy to say that the CTS-V was a watershed moment for American cars.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Oh come on, the Catera was a German sedan, built in Germany for Germans! How did that fail to compete? Oh except for the part they had German reliability problems without the dealerships who knew how to work on them. 

    RIP Catera. My mom’s 1997 Catera is somewhere in car heaven after bursting into flames back in 2000. Ironically it did so after a string of overheatings that the Cadillac dealer told us they didn’t know how to fix so they traded it in on a Mazda. The next day is when it blew up. No joke, GM would mail us every year for 10 years apologizing for the car and offering to buy it back if we still owned it. 

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