Payne: Cadillac goes big with CT5-V, its sexiest, fastest, techiest compact ever

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When I was a kid, I imagined a button on my bike's handlebars that would transform my two-wheeler into an asphalt-scorching race car. You, too?

Say hello to V-Mode in the 2020 Cadillac CT5-V.

I took the alluring sedan to my favorite Hell, Michigan,playground to play (and practice social-distancing). I luffed along comfortably through Livingston County, but as I approached the twisted curves of Hell, my heavy right foot began to itch. There, right out of my childhood dreams, was the V-Mode button on the steering wheel.

The 2020 Cadillac CT5-V is a compact, performance sedan that competes against the BMW M340i and Audi S4.

With a single press, the steering tightened in my paws, the 10-speed transmission dropped a gear and fangs seem to grow from the Cadillac's front grille.

I buried the throttle and the beast leapt forward. WAAAUUUGGHHHH! roared the 360 ponies under the hood. BRAP-BRAP! spat the quick-shifting tranny. WHOOOOSH! went the scenery past my window.

The CT5-V lives up to Caddy’s mantra to go big in the compact sedan class.

Kicking its small ATS (now renamed CT4) down market to compete in the subcompact class against the BMW 2-series, GM’s luxe brand has tagged ATS’ big brother, CTS, to do battle against the likes of BMW 3-series, Audi A4, Mercedes C-class, Alfa Romeo Giulia and Tesla Model 3.

The 2020 Cadillac CT5-V has an optional nav system that features colorful graphics.

Rebadged the Cadillac CT5 and re-sculpted with a handsome fastback, the 2020 Caddy brings the CTS’ mid-size proportions to the compact class. It even expands its wheelbase 1.5 inches to claim biggest class specs: biggest front seat, biggest back seat, biggest wheelbase.

Then CT5 goes bigger on value. Starting at just $37,900 with a turbo-4 under the hood, the CT5 not only undercuts the ol’ $45,000 CTS by a whopping 7 grand, it’s also 5 grand cheaper than the BMW 3-series. With those big headlines and Cadillac’s sculpted bod, CT5 should turn heads.

But proportions and price aside, the standard 237-horse CT5 is an average meal. I flogged it around Ann Arbor last fall as part of the North American Car of the Year competition where its average power and interior didn’t stand out.

Not so the four-star CT5-V. V for va-va-voom.

The 2020 Cadillac CT5-V's interior ergonomics are excellent, though its displays lag class competitors.

It’s aimed at the up-market BMW M340i, Audi S4 and Mercedes AMG C 43. Just as the 382-horse BMW M340i offers buyers a taste of its mouth-watering, full-Monty, 444-horse M3 performance steak — but without the eye-watering, $80,000 sticker price — so does the Cadillac split the difference between the standard CT5 and its M3-fighter.

I wish I could tell you the name of the CT5’s tippy-top performance model (replacing my old favorite ATS-V), but Cadillac is leaving that fine cut of beef for later.

Suffice to say that the CT5-V offers plenty to chew on for now. This is a sleek, roomy, high-tech machine that will quietly deliver your guests to the club, then raucously entertain your inner child on twisty country roads to the cabin up north.

Let’s talk tech. Unlike the standard CT5, the V throws everything and the kitchen sink at the competition. Consider the V-mode that set Hell’s roads on fire.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne took the 2020 Cadillac CT5-V to Hell, Michigan's twisty roads for a workout.

It’s made possible by GM’s Performance Traction Management system — PTM, for short — that CT5-V shares with its mid-engine Corvette stablemate. The ’Vette’s button is called Z-mode. Personalize Z and V modes in Settings in the infotainment screen. My choices: Track setting engine sound, Track or steering, Track for powertrain, Sport for suspension, Sport for brakes.

The option instantly transformed my steed. I barreled through Hell’s empty ess-curves, the weighted steering anchored to the road, the four-barrel exhaust howling. Over roller-coaster brows, the stiffened magnetic shocks kept the 3,975-pound missile flat to the road. Entering a 90-degree turn, I stomped 4-piston Brembo brakes, then ... stopped.

Launch control time. This is where PTM really shines. The computer-managed slip in my rear-wheel drive Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires while the 10-speed tranny — exclusive in the segment — barked off rapid upshifts.

This Corvette-like performance bandwidth intrigued my pal Jamie, who just gave back his 2017 CTS-V off lease for an $85,000 mid-engine C8 with Z51 performance package.

The CT5-V packs many of the same elements — PTM plus e-diff and magnetic shocks — but with a $30,000 less sticker price and roomy rear seats.

“Boy, this thing is good!” exclaimed Jamie as he flung the V through some Oakland County curves. I’m betting his Vette will soon have a CT5-V garage-mate.

V is faithful to the standard CT5’s promise (which also comes as a Sport and Premium Luxury model) of being at least $5,000 cheaper than the German competition. My $56,875 tester was considerably less than comparable the $62,000 Audi S4 and BMW M340i I’ve tested.

The sexy V is more fun than the conservative Audi and holds its own against Bimmer’s terrific inline-6.

Like the standard CT5, the sacrifice the V-buyer will make to BMW — and Mercedes and Audi — is in the dash displays, where the Yankee lags a generation behind. Visit a BMW’s interior and you’ll walk away drooling over its graphics displays, remote-controller wizardry and intuitive voice control.

“Go to Uncle Joe’s Chicken in Southfield, Michigan” I commanded the Bimmer, and it obeyed beautifully. The Caddy? Not so much. The CT5-V’s door handles tantalize with their soft-squeeze entry, but old-school analog gauges and an antiquated rotary screen controller lag the German’s state of the art.

Still, even the Germans feel a step behind Tesla in the electronics game. The electric Model 3 remains a unique experience and its comparable Performance version is priced at $57,000 with the CT5-V while offering head-exploding 2.9-second zero-60 acceleration, standard all-wheel drive (a $2,600 option on the Caddy), and an optional, class-best, $7,000 Autopilot.

That uniqueness won’t last long.

The 2020 Cadillac CT5-V is nicely sculpted inside and out.

Later this year, Cadillac will introduce its own Super Cruise autonomous system to the 2021 CT5 which is Tesla’s match (assuming Cadillac is serious about maintaining over-the-air updates). No one can match this pair in the self-driving field.

Super Cruise offers Cadillac another value-play if it can compete with Tesla’s $7,000 Autopilot price.

Cadillac has followed GM’s brand-wide policy of nickel-and-diming customers for safety features like adaptive cruise-control and blind-spot detection at a time when even compact cars like the Nissan Sentra make such systems standard for $25,000. Cadillac could go bigger by making those features standard on the V, too — a no-brainer for a badge that is doing so much right in this segment.

With its sexiest, fastest, techiest compact car player ever, Caddy’s gotta continue to go big.

2020 Cadillac CT5-V

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or all-wheel drive, 5-passenger performance sedan

Price: $48,690, including $995 destination charge ($56,875 RWD model as tested)

Powerplant: 3.0-liter twin-turbo V-6

Power: 360 horsepower, 405 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed: 168 mph

Weight: 3,975 lbs. as tested

Fuel economy: EPA 21 city/26 highway/21 combined

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; brilliant drivetrain tech

Lows: Dated rotary controller; standard safety features, please

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.