I've spent my entire life observing the auto industry. And in nearly 36 years, I've never been more tired than I am behind the wheel of the 2020 Cadillac CT4-V. This subcompact-targeting compact sedan is the American luxury brand's latest effort to crack the enigma that is Germany's sedan dominance, and much like the last several, this attempt is unsuccessful.
Not only does it suffer from the same ills as the CT5-V I reviewed last month – this is essentially that car, but smaller, cheaper, and with a less powerful four-cylinder engine – but the CT4-V creates entirely new problems for itself. It's an aimless car created by an aimless brand.
It's somehow a compact with a subcompact-sized interior. It has more torque than all the competition and is slower to 60 miles per hour. It will pair one of the world's best semi-autonomous driving systems next model year with a tech suite that feels like a leftover from 2015. And as with the CT5-V, as well as the ATS and CTS that came before it, the CT4-V is a very good driver's car that absolutely no one will consider.
I'm tired, and it's because Cadillac keeps trying to beat German automakers at their own game.
Just be Cadillac.
The CT4-V's $44,495 starting price means it goes toe-to-toe with the Mercedes-AMG A35, the BMW M235i Gran Coupe, and Audi S3, all of which start at around $44,000. At the same time, my test car's $53,000 as-tested price strays perilously close to heavier-hitting performers like the Mercedes-AMG CLA45 and Audi RS3.
So what weapon does the former Standard of the World equip its upstart sedan with to face down a murderers' row of compact performance superstars? A truck engine, obviously.
I wasn't going to describe it as such when Cadillac admitted that the turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder comes from the Chevrolet Silverado pickup, but then I slid behind the wheel and hit the start button. The largest four-cylinder engine on the market starts up with a grumble, like a teenager being dragged out of bed at 5:00 a.m. I'm not kidding, on startup you can feel the torque twist the engine in its mounts, a sensation that reverberates through the car – it's uncouth and unacceptable behavior for a car with a luxury badge. So, yes, this is a truck engine, even if it smooths out at idle.
Cadillac chose the four-cylinder and its dual-volute turbocharger for the “awesome torque response.”
While the 2.7-liter feels like a pickup on start-up, Cadillac did massage it some to produce 325 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque, 10 hp and 21 lb-ft more than in the Silverado . The Caddy retains the three-step sliding camshaft, but engineers tweaked the induction system and mounts. The result is segment-leading torque.
According to the CT4's lead development engineer, Dave Schmidt, Cadillac chose the four-cylinder and its dual-volute turbocharger for the “awesome torque response.” The dual-volute setup, also present on the Silverado, reduces lag and is responsible for delivering peak torque starting at 1,500 rpm. The result in the rear-drive CT4-V is a 4.8-second sprint to 60 miles per hour, slower than the A35, the S3, and the M235i. And the $1,000 all-wheel-drive system doesn't improve matters, taking 5.0 seconds to hit 60, or three tenths down on the AMG and four-tenths down on the Audi and BMW.
Getting Things Right
This isn't a weight or a grip problem. The rear-drive Caddy I drove exhibited faultless grip, and the CT4-V is only a few cases of beer heavier than any of its German counterparts. No, the CT4-V's real issue is that its 10-speed automatic transmission, while quick and smooth when pushed, simply has to shuffle through too many gears on its way to 60.
That doesn't make a bad gearbox by any stretch. Much like in the CT5-V, it's a willing accomplice under hard acceleration with fast shifts in Sport and Track mode. Manual mode is amusing enough, and in automatic and with the drive mode set to Tour, the 10-speed blends neatly into the background, aside from the occasional oddness that I'll chalk up to the early production status of my tester.
The 2.7-liter again betrays its truck-based roots in how it sounds.
Poor stopwatch performance aside, the immediacy of the torque delivery is a joy, as the CT4-V tends to just surge on ahead with the most entertaining punch from 2,500 and 4,500 rpm. Acceleration fades as the big four-cylinder approaches its relatively low 6,000-rpm redline, but the 10-speed is so willing and so overloaded with gears that it's easy and enjoyable to keep the CT4-V on boil.
The 2.7-liter again betrays its truck-based roots in how it sounds, though. There's an agrarian harshness to the exhaust note, which is too prominent in the cabin thanks to the same Bose-backed sound manipulation I complained about in the CT5-V. Moreover, aside from some subtle burps while shifting at the tippy top of the rev range, the four-cylinder lacks all the additional acoustic charms of its big brother – don't drive the CT4-V expecting an enjoyable soundtrack.
As with the CT5-V, the CT4-V's standard magnetic ride control system is a gem. The adaptive dampers use the tried and tested trick of zapping magnetorheological fluid to instantly adjust firmness. When you want your Caddy to feel sporty and agile, Sport and Track firm up the dampers to take maximum advantage of the CT4-V's near-perfect distribution of its 3,600-pound mass. Just trying to survive the freeway commute?
Switch to Tour, where the softened dampers conspire with clever tuning, ample sound-deadening, and restrained 18-inch wheels and 235/40 summer tires to deliver a plush ride. The ride is quiet, too, with little suspension noise. In terms of outright ride/handling balance, the CT4-V might be the best in class.
Like the CT5-V, though, the brake-by-wire system is awful. The pedal is incredibly stiff and very, very difficult to modulate. Engineers opted for brake-by-wire for the Brembo stoppers because it allows owners to adjust brake response via the drive modes. That's fine in theory, but the available settings offer very little variation. I'd undoubtedly adjust to the brake pedal over time, but that doesn't change the fact that the system feels very poorly tuned. But hey, my tester’s blue brake calipers are cool as hell, at least.
So yes, the CT4-V drives well enough, but hop in the cabin and things start to go wrong. The front seats are comfortable – Cadillac insists that the V gets unique seats and a thicker-rimmed steering wheel, but it could stand to go farther on both counts – a meaty set of Recaros would go a long way to matching the cabin to the sporty driving character. There’s ample space in front.
The backseats are borderline useless, of course. Between an abnormally high bench and the aggressive roofline, simply getting into the CT4's rear seats requires an act of contortion. And despite being nearly 8 inches longer than the next closest competitor, along with a nearly 2-inch advantage between the axles, the CT4's second-row legroom lags behind its three major competitors. There's just 33.4 inches – the leader in the segment, the Audi S3, has 35.1.
It feels like Cadillac thinks American drivers associate a vehicle's prestige with its size, as if it's still 1957. The reality is that when there's no tangible benefit in the cabin, there's little point in being wantonly larger than everyone else.
The backseats are borderline useless.
The material quality is more of what I've come to expect of Cadillac. The leather on the seats and the tan piping and stitching looks and feels nice, but spend enough time in these chairs and things start to jump out.
There's an over-reliance on black plastic, a coarseness to the leather on the dash and door panels, and an inelegance to the overall design. The switchgear has a parts bin feel, from the flimsy electronic shift lever to the stalks on the steering column. There isn't a bit of this interior that feels special. A Mercedes A-Class’ cabin feels like it belongs to a much, much more expensive car, but the CT4’s is exactly what you expect of a car that starts at around $33,000.
And don't come to the CT4-V expecting bleeding-edge technology. Aside from the impending arrival of Cadillac's phenomenal SuperCruise system for the 2021 model year, the rest of the CT4's tech suite feels dated and uninteresting at a time when German competitors are attaching Jumbotrons to the dash. The twin 8.0-inch displays – a center touchscreen and gauge cluster – are crisp and clear, and the infotainment is relatively responsive. But anyone that's been in a competitor will find the CT4’s hardware uninteresting. The software, meanwhile, lacks the polish, adjustability, and content offered elsewhere.
This isn't nitpicking. A 2018 study by CarMax lists Cadillac customers as the oldest in the entire industry. The tech suite in the CT4 isn't enough to attract new, younger customers or sway established Audi, BMW, or Mercedes customers to Cadillac showrooms. Then again, that's pretty on-brand for this car.
As someone that grew up in metro Detroit and in a town that relied on a General Motors factory, it pains me to write another negative review of one of the General's products. I want to see Cadillac and the broader GM family succeed. I want all Cadillacs to feel like the pinnacle of what GM is capable of, not just the Escalade. And most of all, I want the Standard of the World to be just that, a force to be reckoned with at every level of the luxury market.
Cadillac has spent far too long relying on the bankrupted value of its badge, arrogantly assuming that the crest is enough to bring people in the door as it repeatedly tries and fails to compete with German automakers that barely acknowledge it as a competitor. But the world has changed, and it's long past time Cadillac changed with it.
Correction: A previous version of this review indicated the CT4-V had 320 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. These were Cadillac's initial estimates at launch. The correct output is 325 hp and 380 lb-ft. The story has been edited to reflect this information.
Gallery: 2020 Cadillac CT4-V: First Drive
2020 Cadillac CT4-V