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First Drive: 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon


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First Drive: 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon


Instead of getting suckered into the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, a pea green calamity with excessive wood paneling and eight sealed-beam headlamps, a wiser move for Clark Griswold would have been to hold off until the first wave of high-performance station wagons rolled into showrooms. As it happened, just a few years after Clark traded in his Oldsmobile, sedans like the Volvo 740 and BMW E34 spawned the enthusiast-targeted Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon and BMW M5 Touring. Both five-doors would have given Christy Brinkley a serious run in her red Ferrari 308 GTSi.Those early gussied-up family haulers were the predecessors to the Audi RS6 Avant, Dodge SRT8 Wagon, BMW M5 Touring and Mercedes-Benz E63 Sport Wagon. None were intended to be volume models (in fact, two never made it to the States). Instead, each was fabricated to act as a flagship ambassador, a proof-of-concept to the performance capability of the five-door chassis and to deliver unchallenged bragging rights. Automakers didn't build fast wagons because they had to – they built them because they could.

Cadillac, a company no longer content with letting others lead segments it once dominated, wanted to get into the frothy action. The luxury automaker felt an obligation to do "the right thing" and push for its own very unique five-door. The vision was clear – Cadillac wanted to build a CTS-V Wagon – and the concept was simple, making it difficult for management to contest (at the time, the organization was functioning inside circled-wagons). Since the platform and powertrain were already in existence, the ceremonial mating would be accomplished at minimal cost and everything could be completed at breakneck speed. Less than one year later, the all-new CTS-V Wagon is here.

As expected, the all-new 2011 CTS-V Wagon mirrors most of the CTS-V Sedan's characteristics, both cosmetically and mechanically.

On a visual tour of the exterior, the aggressive front fascia is identical, right down to the projection-beam xenon headlights, chrome mesh grille and aluminum power-bulge hood. The V-spoke wheels at all four corners are carbon copies as well. Around back, the similarities wane as the wagon loses its hawkish appearance. Sadly, with the exception of the "V" badging on the bottom-right corner of the rear lift, and only mildly larger stainless steel tailpipes, those riding twenty yards behind the wagon's rear bumper will be hard-pressed to differentiate the CTS-V from its 3.6-liter CTS Sport Wagon sibling.

A quick tour of the interior finds like similarities. The sedan and wagon share the identical cockpit, including LED illumination, perforated suede-like microfiber upholstery and optional 14-way Recaro seats (these are a "must-have" item). Of course, the wagon offers 25.4 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seats (58 cubic feet if the rear seats are folded) equating to double the utility of the sedan. And yes, there's a power-operated rear tailgate.

Cookie-cutting the CTS-V Sedan and CTS-V Coupe, shoehorned under the hood of the 2011 CTS-V Wagon is GM's LSA powerplant. With a displacement of 6.2-liters and an intercooled Eaton Twin Vortices Series supercharger bolted in the bank between the cylinders, the 376 cubic-inch V8 is rated at 556 horsepower and 551 pound-feet of torque. Power is sent through one of two transmissions: a traditional three-pedal six-speed manual (Tremec TR6060) or an old-fashioned wet six-speed automatic (Hydra-Matic 6L90). All CTS-V Wagons are rear-wheel drive with a standard limited-slip differential. Cadillac hasn't provided acceleration figures for its latest creation, but the family hauler likely busts through 60 mph in about four seconds flat. Give it a nice straight, and it will top 185 miles per hour without breaking as much as a sweat.

The underpinnings are also very familiar to CTS-V followers. The front and rear suspension is independent, with Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) electronically-controlled shock absorbers and two-mode driver-selective damping ("Tour" or "Sport"). Braking is accomplished with massive vented iron rotors on all four corners (co-cast iron/aluminum up front, to save unsprung weight), each clamped by an aluminum multi-piston caliper made by Brembo. Wheels are forged aluminum, 19-inches in diameter, wearing specially-developed Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires (255/40ZR19 front and 285/35ZR19 rear).

Cadillac pulled us away from the Los Angeles Auto Show and whisked us up to Monterey to drive its new CTS-V Wagon. The schedule called for a tour along a scenic portion of coastal Highway 1 in the morning, followed by hot laps on the famed Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the afternoon. With the weather dry, skies partly-cloudy and temperatures in the low 60s, conditions were optimized for the new $64,290 station wagon (the base price is identical to the CTS-V Sedan and CTS-V Coupe).

The quest for a picture-perfect burgundy exterior lands me in a wagon equipped with the automatic transmission. While it's certainly not my first choice in gearboxes, I figure it will be nice to spend some time with the volume model. With a twist of the column-mounted "knob," the blown 6.2-liter V8 spins to life.

California's Pacific Coast highway draws enthusiast drivers seeking its near-perfect mix of challenging corners, passing straights and spectacular scenery. In an ideal world, I'd have the road to myself – in reality, my CTS-V Wagon is sharing it with Kia-driving tourists, motor homes and construction equipment.

The CTS-V Wagon doesn't seem at all frustrated with the impediments. Around town, or on the open public highway, the five-door has a very mellow temperament. The automatic transmission moves smoothly through the gears, wind noise doesn't permeate the interior and the exhaust note is muted (excessively) from the passenger seats. Thanks to GM's excellent MRC damping, the ride is comfortable without being harsh. Based purely on cabin noise and ride comfort, blindfolded passengers would have a very difficult time determining whether they are in the standard CTS Wagon models, or the CTS-V Wagon variant.

Add aggression, and the CTS-V Wagon 6AT finally comes out of its shell. When the road starts to follow the contours on the jagged California coast, and the pace is increased, the five-door Cadillac dives into corners and blasts out with utmost confidence (credit the wide contact patches, sticky Michelin tires and the advanced magneto-rheological shock technology). Even the steering feedback and effort, initially too light for my tastes, seems to improve with mild aggression. The CTS-V Wagon drives heavy, but with utmost confidence.

The blown 6.2-liter V8 delivers buckets of torque – all available once the transmission drops a couple gears. Mash the accelerator, wait a few tenths and then hang on. The power delivery is linear, consistent and rewarding. Add impeccable road manners and stability throughout the acceleration, turn-in and braking process, and passing on two-lane roads is completely stress-free. And, as expected, the wagon is an excellent impromptu drag racer.

Back at Laguna Seca, I take the same burgundy wagon for a few hot "laps" (inexplicably, Cadillac would only let us drive seven-tenths of the track so we never had a chance to blast down the front straight or get any times). It doesn't take but a couple turns to realize that something just isn't clicking. The culprit is the automatic transmission.

The Hydra-Matic 6L90 is painfully slow in its response, whether the shift gate is in "D" or the touted "Performance Algorithm Shifting" mode. Cadillac also puts "steering wheel-mounted shift controls" on the CTS-V Wagon, for pure manual control, but there isn't enough clearance between the square buttons (they are not paddles), the wiper stalk and my fingers. Inadvertently hitting the windshield wipers while dropping down the famed corkscrew isn't just distracting. It's embarrassing. And dangerous.

A few years ago, the automatic transmission was at the top of its game. Today, with the proliferation of lightning-fast sequential and dual-clutch transmissions, the old-fashioned wet automatic – while still competent on the street – is outgunned on a race circuit. Thoroughly miffed, I bring the CTS-V Wagon 6AT back to the hot pits.

Several minutes later, I am back out on the track again. This time, I am in a wagon with a proper manual transmission. A few corners later, in the middle of turn five, I've got a big smile on my face. Ahh... so this is what it's all about!

With a three-pedal gearbox, the LSA engine can be kept right in the juicy part of its torque band (that means running third and fourth gear on Laguna Seca). Throttle applications are immediately met with a 551 pound-feet sledgehammer in the backside. Drop the suspension into "Competition Mode," steer with the left hand and row with the right and the CTS-V Wagon is immensely enjoyable to float around a race circuit. It ' hard to believe this has enough room for five people and a weekend's worth of luggage.

But let's not get too carried away. When compared to most svelte sports cars, the CTS-V Wagon handles like a Navy destroyer. It's fast, but it doesn't relish unanticipated changes in direction. There is simply no way to do a sharp mid-corner correction in this 4,390-pound hatch without unsettling the Cadillac's balance. To be more precise, the fastest way around the track requires smooth inputs and nailing each apex. Ignore the noticeable body lean at the limit, and roll gently on and off the throttle. After just a half-dozen laps, the two of us are good friends.

Configured properly, the CTS-V Wagon is damn impressive. Its overall styling is fresh and the engine's strong performance matches the platform's capabilities and aggressive stance. The interior is upscale, very comfortable and squeak-free, even if it is showing its age. The chassis, brakes and Magnetic Ride Control appear tuned to perfection. How can you fault a station wagon that spanks a BMW M3 at a stoplight when it can bring nineteen bags of mulch home from Lowe's minutes later?

A rear-wheel drive, three-pedal, 556 horsepower station wagon comes around only once in a lifetime. This is the real deal – as long as it's with the six-speed manual. The optional Recaro seats, suede steering wheel and shift knob are must-haves, and the addition of throaty, free-flowing exhaust is the only option missing from the ordering sheet. Add it all up and it's the perfect wagon recipe. And I'm confident Clark would have made it to Wally World with time to spare.



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