2016 Cadillac CTS-V First Drive - 640 all-American horses

There's a moment, just after you start up the 2016 Cadillac CTS-V, when the seat belt gently contracts around you, almost like the 640 horsepower super-sedan is giving you a hug. It's a reassuring gesture, though a little at odds with the near-simultaneous gurgle from the engine as the exhaust valves flutter. "Sure, I'm 16.5 feet long, weigh more than four thousand pounds, and will catapult to sixty miles per hour in 3.7 seconds and then run all the way to 200 mph," the Caddy is saying, "but I don't want to kill you in the process."

Palms damp against the microsuede wheel as I prepared to venture out onto the Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, that brief anthropomorphized cuddle was welcome. It's a challenging and complex course, and my confidence hadn't been especially boosted by Cadillac's team pointing out the shiny new stretch of fencing where a recent Ferrari racer demolished the old barrier.

Porsche corner, they continued, is colloquially named because of the various streaks of paint left on the concrete wall, scraped there by the German coupes after their drivers underestimated the turn.

You forget all that when you bury your right foot and the CTS-V surges forward with all the urgency of a rocket ship. The supercharger howls eagerly, the V8 roars like a beast provoked, and suddenly you're hurtling toward the first turn and having to give equal consideration to hitting the brakes hard.

Cadillac had spent a proud hour telling me about the CTS-V's near-prescient handling talents, but I still half-expected to go coasting off the edge of the track like a drifting Titanic. Instead I did a fair impression of someone clipping the apex like they know what they're doing, inwardly marveling and outwardly finally remembering to breathe.

"Stomp on the accelerator again," the CTS-V whispered to me. I stomped. The active exhaust valves – closed for the sake of decency in Tour mode, but staying clear longer in Sport and Track modes for better performance and a far more engaging soundtrack – spat open, releasing a viscous slurry of angry basso hornets, while the Recaro bolsters clung at my ribcage and the next corner surged to the forefront of my attention like the "enhance" gimmick in an episode of CSI.

Audible over the noise of the engine, over the thrum of the huge wheels on the tarmac and the Devil's cornet of the quartet of tailpipes, there's an unholy whoosh as the gaping vents on the front of the car suck in as much air as they can.

You get the sense, talking to Caddy's engineers, that the CTS-V's fascia is practically more holes than it is bodywork: using computational fluid dynamics to figure out the airflow over, under, and through the car, they ended up with 50-percent more nostril at the front than the regular CTS. Special mesh with bigger gaps was used, and even the Cadillac badge was replaced with a shrunken version.

Even with all that, the air is carefully herded around brakes, supercharger, and multiple radiators, each of the systems greedy for more than their allotted share.

I wasn't thinking about 3D modeling, though, not when Road America Straight came into view after turn one. Around 8/10ths of a mile long, it may start out with a hill but the CTS-V's ridiculous power made short work of that, tearing up like a beast possessed.

Eyes flicking anxiously between the speedo and the track, my nerve didn't quite hold until the bright yellow cone marking the ideal brake point – the $1,300 Performance Data Recorder, Cadillac's combined camera and telemetry system that records track performance to an SD card in the glovebox, later told me I just brushed 150 mph – and I focused on trying to shed speed while simultaneously turning into corner two without inadvertently pirouetting off to the fence.

"You run out of guts long before it does when you're out on the track," Dave Leone, Cadillac's chief engineer, insists, and I can believe it.

Like the 2016 ATS-V before it, the CTS-V has been an exercise in brand finagling. "V-Series' job is to change the expectation of what Cadillac is capable of," Hampden Tener, CTS-V product director, explained, producing cars that are "distinctly American and optimistic."

Until the V-Series extended to the ATS earlier this year, the CTS-V had to shoulder that responsibility all on its own. Now in its third-generation – kicking off with 400 HP in 2004, then upgraded to 556 HP in its second incarnation – the new model takes advantage of its more affordable stablemate to raise its game.

Its heart is a 6.2 liter, supercharged V8, mustering a heady (and SAE certified) 640 horsepower and 630 lb-ft of torque. The CTS-V borrowed it from the Corvette Z06, tweaked it a little, and matched it to a Hydra-Matic 8L90 eight-speed automatic, which Cadillac claims is not only equivalent in shift times to the best of the DCTs in rival cars but 12.5kg lighter than the six-speed it replaces.

It sends all of its power to the rear wheels, and on the face of it, that's madness. All-wheel drive might be the obvious way to tame the LT4 V8, but Cadillac argues that it would also add another 200 pounds and, crucially, load it toward the front. In the process you'd spoil the near-perfect 50/50 weight balance and muddy the steering response.

Instead, you get Cadillac's electronic limited split differential (eLSD) which shares a cooling circuit with the transmission oil cooler in the name of space-saving. It can direct the torque to either of the rear wheels, effectively allowing the CTS-V to push power to where it's potentially most of use, rather than – as with brake-bias torque vectoring – slowing you to improve stability.

While it may be ridiculously powerful, not to mention capable, the CTS-V isn't lacking in personality: get it wrong, and it'll bite. I found it all too easy to forget quite how rapidly it accelerated, then find myself carrying too much speed into bends.

Most of the time the prodigious grip from the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, designed especially for the car, carried me through all the same. Still, on one undercarriage-clenching occasion the back-end flicked out, only for the CTS-V's electronics to help me to avoid a spin and instead power into the next corner.

They work in tandem with Cadillac's Magnetic Ride Control – here measuring the road once every inch of travel at 60 mph – with five degrees of electronic Performance Traction Management support in Track mode.

As for the vast Brembo brakes – with 390 mm discs at the front with 6-piston staggered fixed calipers, and 365 mm at the rear with 4-piston calipers – they may not be the carbon ceramics that BMW will gladly charge you $8,100 to add to your M5, but it doesn't seem to matter: they're hugely powerful, and even after a heavy day of track driving showed no inclination to fade.

Stomp on the brake when hauling the CTS-V down from the 150 mph pace you can so easily hit, though, and while there's no diving you do get some slightly squirrelly wriggle from the rear.

That seems a good point to mention the horsepower-blessed rival Cadillac isn't talking about, the Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat. With its 707 HP and $65k price tag it's more powerful and cheaper than the CTS-V, though it lacks the permanently-reassuring brakes and handling abilities. The Hellcat wants to catapult you as quickly as possible to the nearest corner; the Caddy will still be helping once you get there. Honestly, the CTS-V is in another league.

The rivals that are being discussed are the BMW M5, of course, and Mercedes-Benz's E63 S AMG. The V Series car shapes up well, too: 80 HP more than the M5 and 63 HP more than the E 63 S; it has 130 lb-ft more torque than the M5, and 40 lb-ft more than the Mercedes. That's despite actually coming in lighter than both German sedans.

You'll also get away with a lighter hit on your wallet, too. The CTS-V starts from $83,995 (plus $995 destination and the $1,000 gas guzzler tax), though factor in another $5,500 if you want the fancy Carbon Fiber Package that looks so fantastic.

In contrast, BMW wants $93,600 for the M5 (though destination and guzzler tax pushes that to $101k) while Mercedes asks $101,700 for the E63 S AMG (or $102,625 when the extra charges are applied).

Cadillac's big boast with the CTS-V – well, aside from all that horsepower – is its split personality. "When you ask me what I'm most proud about on this car, Cadillac's Leone says, "it's the bimodal personality... with the simple flick of a button and a flick of your foot you can transform it."

Set the drive mode to "Tour" and give the CTS-V some highways to cruise along, or peaceful suburbia to prowl around, and you could almost mistake it for its regular CTS cousin. It can even deactivate half of its cylinders during more frugal driving, turning the V8 into a four-cylinder and delivering what Cadillac is predicting will be 14 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway.

Perhaps you need a lighter foot for those sort of numbers; in my combined non-track driving I saw around 13 mpg, though that reached 20 mpg after spending more time on the freeway.

You'll do it in cosseted luxury. All of the niceties of the regular CTS have been carried over, which means 4G LTE with WiFi hotspot support, wireless charging if your smartphone is compatible, automatic parking, curb-view cameras to avoid scuffing that carbon-fiber trim, real carbon-fiber and aluminum trim, and a gush of active safety systems like lane-keep assist.

The standard seats are leather-clad and 20-way adjustable. However, $2,300 gets you the same, impressive Recaro thrones as used in the ATS-V. They have 18-way adjustment – including bolsters that cinch in tighter than seems to be the norm, welcome if like me you find you still generally slide around even in sports seats – with on-screen graphics to walk you through exactly what you're tweaking.

The magnesium paddles behind the steering wheel are an object lesson in matching materials, design, and action. Somehow both sharp and fluidly curved, icy-cool to the touch, they have just the right snap as you squeeze them.

Crucially, the CTS-V – like every other 2016 Cadillac, bar the SRX – gets a CUE upgrade. A new chipset improves processor speed threefold and quadruples the graphics performance, while touch response from the 8-inch capacitive display in the center stack is swifter. Graphics are rendered faster, navigation calculations are quicker, voice recognition more accurate, and the whole thing loads more rapidly when you first hit the starter button.

Combined with a few UI tweaks, something Cadillac has been doing in each iteration of the controversial infotainment system, it makes a big difference to everyday usability. CUE can still be cluttered at times, but it was always the proclivity toward lag which made it so frustrating: you just weren't sure whether you'd hit the right touch point or not. That, happily, has been addressed.

2016's system also brings with it Apple CarPlay. Plug in your iPhone and you can access Siri, Apple Maps, your music, make calls and dictate messages, and stream internet radio, while CUE's functionality continues in the background. Later in the year it'll be joined by Android Auto, with a software update for existing owners of 2016 model year cars.

If there's a lingering disappointment, it's that the opportunities to actually stretch the big V-Series Caddy's legs are so few and far between. Regular roads simply don't come close to testing its limits: the briefest of playful stabs at the throttle and you're generally beyond the speed limit, while if your foot lingers even just a little more you're well into license-losing pace.

"It's the faster Cadillac we have ever produced," Leone points out, "and the first to hit 200 mph straight off the factory floor."

I can't really blame Caddy for it, but I can recommend that, if you're lucky enough to add a CTS-V to your garage, you budget for a spare set of those fancy Michelin tires or two, then Google up the nearest track. Otherwise it's frankly impossible to appreciate quite what the automaker has put together.

Cadillac's big challenge remains its brand identity: the drivers who wouldn't blink at spending in excess of $100k on one of the Germans, but for whom even the thousands in savings wouldn't tempt them onto the showroom floor to check out the CTS-V. As with the ATS-V before it, Cadillac execs aren't talking sales goals for the car, but they're clearly hoping that the allure of the new sedan's numbers and how well it delivers them on the road will coax a few defectors from the European status-quo.

Oh, and that friendly cuddle at the start? Cadillac tells me that's the CTS-V calibrating to your torso, something which in a different car might feel more like the unwelcome stretch of an undertaker's measuring tape.

For all its power and growl, though, not only did the 640 HP monster never really give the impression it wanted to eat me, after a couple of laps we'd become co-conspirators. I might still have been – sensibly – cautious about the CTS-V's power, but not for its lack of encouragement to stretch its legs. There's a lot to be said for stepping outside your comfort zone.