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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

2009 Cadillac CTS V vs. BMW M5 SMG at Monticello race club

Monticello, New York — Un-precedented. That is the only way to describe this showdown between BMW's legendary M5 and Cadillac's all-new CTS-V. That Cadillac and BMW accepted our invitation to pick the drivers and pit their cars against each other at a neutral site for hot laps and winner-takes-all bragging rights speaks volumes to where these companies are in the sports-sedan hierarchy.

Cadillac is the hungry challenger, making no secret that it has benchmarked the M5 in producing its new 556-bhp CTS-V, right down to specifying the same Michelin PS2 tires. So hungry, in fact, that it agreed to the face­off three weeks before it would allow any journalists (including us) to drive the car.

BMW knows it builds a car all others seek to emulate. It also knows it has a new M5 in the works. Still, the company is game to put its 3-year-old M5 to the test, bringing two versions, a 6-speed manual and 7-speed SMG model piloted by veteran BMW racing ace, Bill Auberlen. Cadillac shows up with a single, jet-black CTS-V with Performance Vehicle Operations Director John Heinricy as the designated hotshoe.

It's dawn and we're at the Monticello Motor Club, 90 miles northwest of Manhattan. The club's grand opening is in two days. Outside the main gate is a throng of more than 100 workers who are being held up — by us. "We've got a little over an hour to do hot laps before I have to let them in to finish up the track," says Jason Bannerman, the track director. For not being finished, the track looks far prettier than most I've seen finished. When it's done it'll be an extraordinary place.

The 3.4-mile loop we used is incredibly smooth and very green. So new, no one has yet done timed laps on it. Bill and John are eager to learn the track and begin circling in borrowed rental cars. A rolling chicane consisting of track staff and a street-sweeper keep them from playing out that scene from Days of Thunder. They're flagged in before the rental cars give out.

The massive construction around the grounds has left a lot of dirt on the track. It's a new surface and will take a few race days to become seasoned. John and Bill are a little apprehensive about some water on the back side of the track that's in shade and also the ever-present dust that seems to be embedded in the surface. They don't seem to worry much as they reach just shy of 150 mph down the main straight on their first run. The first session goes for 20 minutes and the first overall track record is appropriately set by the CTS-V at 2 minutes, 47.55 seconds. Heinricy has countless hours behind the wheel of the car and is right at home; he's also an experienced racer — it shows. The glossy black and chrome of Lord Vader's ride taunts Auberlen into action. He has been racing BMWs for years, but hasn't been in an M5 for four years, yet gets situated quickly. He switches cars from the 6-speed manual to the 7-speed SMG-equipped car and rips out a 2:45.96 and the Cadillac crew cringes. Team BMW is suppressing grins.

Heinricy is confident his 6-speed manual V can run with the ultra-racy paddle-shifted M5. Looking at the stats, the V has a big advantage with 56 more horsepower, 168 lb.-ft. more torque and only a 150-lb. weight penalty. He puts the power to good use and stretches the legs of his V to 149.18 mph and runs a 2:45.55. Our Vbox GPS data shows that both drivers and cars are performing nearly identical laps. With the water patch drying and the sun warming the track surface, both drivers start running cool-down laps between fast laps. It's the last session and it's too close to call yet. Auberlen runs two hard laps and comes in first with a smile. His timing beacon says he did a 2:44.70 and the GPS data agrees. Heinricy is still out and Kevin Smith of Cadillac's communications is perspiring. The V is flagged in, Smith's stopwatch says it's close. The V ran three fast laps, each one faster than the previous by a tenth of a second. The final one is a 2:44.23, just under a half-second faster than the BMW. Could the M5 go quicker? Maybe. But for now we'll have to let the track get back to its construction.

Cadillac won by the skin of its teeth and all the participants walked away happy. Cadillac has made a CTS-V that can best the BMW M5 for likely the cost difference of a Chevy Malibu, while BMW knows its 3-year-old M5 is still close competition for the newest CTS-V. I'm sure BMW will be glad to raise the bar again with the next M5, but for now the V is king.