Blackwings Come Alive in Death Valley

by Andrew Maness

This story originally appeared in Vol.5 “The Photography Issue”

This past November, after years of wanting to visit Death Valley and lay eyes on its surreal vistas in person, I finally found myself standing in Badwater Basin, staring up at a sign indicating that sea level was indeed 282 feet above my location. This was “a real trip,” as they say. A moment like that is powerful in that it reminds you how small you are in the grand scheme of things, that time marches on whether you like it or not and that change is the only constant in the universe. I actually find it all rather comforting, because my takeaway from these sorts of moments is that we’re not here for a long time, so we had better get cracking and have a good time. With that in mind, I turned my back on the salt-laden expanse and got into the Blaze Orange Metallic 2022 Cadillac CT4-V Blackwing stationed in the parking lot among road-weary RVs and tin-can rental cars piloted by tourists eager to geotag their photo of the lowest point in North America before moving on to the next viewpoint. With the push of a button, I brought the twin-turbo 3.6-liter V6 to life, put the clutch in and moved the notchy shift lever over into reverse. Let the good times roll.

The CT4 is the smaller of the two sedans Cadillac offers with the Blackwing name attached, the other being the CT5. (Don’t worry — we’ll get to the ferocious supercharged V8 in a minute.) Both are offered with six-speed manual transmissions should you prefer driver engagement over maximizing performance on a track, but regardless of how you change gears in either car, you’re in for a real treat. Nimble and communicative with heaps of linear power, the CT4 is one of the finest sport sedans I’ve ever driven. From the ground up the engineering team headed by Tony Roma absolutely nailed it with this thing. Micro-adjustments to a chosen line on track are made with ease, and dodging rock debris in the desert is done with confidence, thanks largely to the latest iteration of GM’s superb magnetorheological suspension, Magnetic Ride Control 4.0. Along with new software, MRC 4.0 adds accelerometers at each wheel, improved damper fluid and an inertial measurement unit to the tried-and-true suspension that Cadillac claims to be the world’s fastest-reacting. A quick stint behind the wheel of either car for some spirited driving certainly supports their claim. In addition to the high-tech suspension, Roma’s team of engineers also blessed the CT4 with the most downforce of any Cadillac ever (169 pound-feet at 180 mph), so when I say it handles like it’s on rails, I damn well mean it. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the fact that while the chassis is wildly competent, it’s not unforgiving. My issue with most performance vehicles these days is that they’ve pushed the needle too far in one direction and any semblance of comfort has been sacrificed at the altar of capability. Not the case with the CT4, which remains a 3,900-pound sedan well suited to mundane daily driving despite possessing the kind of agility and poise typically found in cars with two doors and six digits on their price tag. However, there was nothing mundane about my run through the otherworldly environment that is Death Valley National Park. Out there, the CT4 really shined bright.

It being late-Autumn, the sun ducked behind Telescope Peak not long after 4:30 p.m., and I marveled at the landscape beyond the windshield as it shifted from a warm golden hue to cool gray. With miles of open road ahead of me, I rowed through the gears, my right foot meting out frontier justice to the unsuspecting asphalt below. I made use of Cadillac’s trick “no-lift shift,” which allows for gear changes without any pesky interruption to throttle application, and a feeling of great contentment washed over me. This inhospitable corner of the world is also one of its most beautiful, and I felt particularly alive while traversing it. Sync’d up with the CT4, I trusted the big brakes to efficiently bleed off speed and allow me to carry more momentum into corners than one would typically think is wise. I didn’t find the limit of the car out there, nor did I particularly want to; that’s what the following day at Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch would be for. Instead I took the CT4 to my own limit, relenting only when darkness fell across the desert and the fuel gauge indicated that I had in fact really enjoyed myself. I put the windows up, selected “Normal” from the drive modes and put on The Killers’ 2012 tour de force album Battle Born to provide the perfect soundtrack for following the headlights back home.

I had gone to Death Valley for a funeral, but this experience turned out to be more a celebration of life. Cadillac’s send-off for the manual transmission and V8 engine is a grand one that sees a couple of icons going out at the top of their game. Two high-performance sedans with grade-A six-speed gearboxes and one with a supercharged 6.2-liter engine: That’s the automotive equivalent of a 21-gun salute. I can’t say enough good things about the CT4; it’s a revelation for drivers, and I hope many enthusiasts put their money where their mouths are. That being said, the CT5 haunts my dreams and likely will for years to come because it is the fastest Cadillac ever made, and, as Ricky Bobby said, I like to go fast. Given the choice between two vehicles that I need to drive in a particular time frame, I will always go for the more powerful of the two first. Not because I think more power is always better, but because if the lesser of the two can still delight after I’ve experienced the top dog, well, then, I know it’s something special. Such is the case with the CT4, which absolutely stands on its own merits and deserves credit where credit is due. The CT5, however, is on another level entirely. Sometimes I forget how much joy something as simple as shifting from third to fourth gear can bring a person. I’m grateful to have been reminded by the CT5.

I’m not typically a big numbers guy when it comes to reviews, but in this instance I can’t help but call attention to the 668 horsepower and 659 pound-feet of torque produced by this small-block V8 that’s hand-built in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I certainly enjoyed it in the Corvette C7 Z06 and Camaro ZL1, but here, in the CT5-V Blackwing, it’s living its best life. The decision to allow drivers to “row their own” in a rear-wheel-drive torque monster such as this surely wasn’t arrived at lightly, but damn am I glad the suits at GM chose to let Roma and his team of wizards have at it with reckless abandon. We’ll not see another car of this ilk ever again, and before you get misty-eyed, focus on the fact that this thing exists and you can order one, like, right now. If you’ve got the means, you’d be wise to do so.

There is nothing like giving the CT5 the beans. Whether you opt for the manual or not, you’ll be shoved into the seat with a dopey grin plastered on your face. Simply put, it’s the shit. I honestly can’t think of a more eloquent way to convey my point. The 10-speed Hydra-Matic rips off shifts faster than the blood leaves your face when you plant the right pedal. I left it to its own devices both out in Death Valley as well as on the track at Spring Mountain, and let me tell you, it’s wicked smart. Not quite telepathic like Porsche’s PDK or some other supercar gearboxes, but very, very good. If it’s ease of use in the real world and lap-time proficiency that you’re after, the automatic is the way to go, and little is lost in terms of the bond between human and machine. Again, credit is due to Roma and Co. for imbuing this hulking machine with so much feel for the driver to soak up. Hauling ass through tight corners with poor visibility is typically a job for lithe coupes, not muscle-bound sedans, and yet the CT5 executed my commands again and again. Monster 15.67-inch rotors with six piston calipers are standard up front, while 14.7-inch units with four piston calipers bring up the rear. Equally large carbon ceramics (which Cadillac claims shed 62 pounds of rotating mass and 53 pounds of unsprung weight) are optional, while both setups run a brand-new pad utilizing a freshly formulated compound that ditches ever-helpful heat-dissipating copper due to environmental regulations.

The time and energy that went into finding a solution for the new pad is a perfect example of just how dedicated the team behind the CT5 was to not settling for anything that would compromise performance in the slightest. Their efforts are much appreciated by yours truly because when I was deep in the triple digits, I knew I could leave the realm of jail time and get back down to regular ol’ hefty-ticket land with ease. Tapping into the power of a supercharged LT4 is one of life’s great simple pleasures, and to have a slick-shifting manual with which to do so makes it one of the most memorable as well. Accelerate, shift, accelerate, brake hard, shift, accelerate, shift and repeat until you’re completely exhausted or the car is out of gas. Having no more go-go juice to chug is the only way the CT5 is going to throw in the towel. A 46% reduction in air-intake restriction, a more efficient R1740 TVS-series supercharger, a 23% smaller intercooler that improves heat reduction by 10% and titanium intake valves make this application of the LT4 powertrain the most unflappable to date. It’s a safe bet that yes, mechanically it will age quite well, and honestly I can envision a life well lived with the CT5. It would be wonderful to have years to familiarize myself with the subtleties of the main driving modes — Tour, Sport and Track (and “My Mode,” V and Snow/Ice too, I suppose) — while also delving into the five PTM modes that are no longer hidden as they were in the previous generation of CTS-V, but conveniently accessible with the flick of a manettino that has found its way onto the right side of the steering wheel.

That being said, I’ve found that regardless of the manufacturer, the formula I enjoy the most with a performance car is a simple one: soft suspension, maximum throttle response, medium steering weight and all the exhaust noise it can muster. If the underpinnings are legit, then you don’t need a whole lot more. This holds true with the CT5, especially that last bit. For all its innovative technology underneath and inside, it is the infinitely variable sound of the exhaust by way of jagged cuts and welds that has endeared the CT5 to me so much. There is no comparison to the racket generated by a small-block V8, especially when one of the directives for the team tuning the exhaust note it will emit is to “scare small children.” Hyperbole? Not in this instance. Theatrics? Damn right. What a way to go out, bellowing for all to hear. The Germans wish they’d made this car. I just wish they’d made the interior. Still, it’s not a dealbreaker, especially when you consider an enthusiast spec car can be had for less than $90k and one a little more posh will run you just more than $100k. Compared to the competition, well, it’s not much of a comparison. You’re going to spend a whole lot more money no matter who you cross-shop with, and they don’t offer manual transmissions. There aren’t many singular experiences to be had in the sedan segment, but the CT5-V Blackwing is one of them. For that reason alone, I’d say it’s worth buying a ticket. It’s one hell of a ride.