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This is Cadillac's M5 - a 400bhp, V8, rear-drive saloon, and it's surprisingly good. No, really

Cadillac. Not a name that conjures up thoughts of sportiness. Bloated luxury barges, yes. Compact and finely honed sporty cars, no. All that is changing, though, because Cadillac sees European-style driving dynamics as a valuable asset, not only for its current push into European markets, but also for enhancing the appeal of its cars in the US. It appears to be working over there, and the key car is the CTS.

Launched in 2002, the CTS introduced the edgy 'art and science' styling that is now shared with the majority of the range. It was also built on a new rear-drive platform and introduced Cadillac's first manual gearbox for 50 years.

The revised range coming to Europe includes this model, the CTS-V. Powered by a 400bhp version of the Corvette's LS6 5.7-litre V8, hooked up to a six-speed manual, it's apparently the most powerful Cadillac ever. It's also the first product of GM's recently established Performance Division and is underpinned by the 'Sigma' chassis - a rear-drive platform with double- wishbone front suspension and a fully independent five-link rear with a limited slip diff. This has been honed under the guidance of a 'spiritual leader' from GM Europe's chassis engineering department, Michael Harder, whose benchmark cars for the CTS-V included the M3 and last- generation (E39) M5, AMG Mercedes and RS Audis.

The Cadillac is, in fact, slightly smaller than a 5-series BMW and the development programme included hundreds of laps of the old Nürburgring, which the CTS-V is said to have lapped in a highly respectable 8min 18sec.

It seems that this might not be the last word from Cadillac, either, as a CTS with Lotus Carlton-style flared arches, side skirts and a neat rear wing has been spotted testing at the Nürburgring. Speculation is that it has the new 6-litre Corvette V8 and approaching 500bhp.

In the flesh, the current fastest CTS is pleasingly understated. There are mesh grilles at the front and the lower body-line is dropped about 40mm by a new front spoiler, sills and a fuller rear apron punctuated by twin oval tailpipes. The simple, 18in rims, shod with 245/45 run-flat Goodyear Eagle F1s, fill out the standard arches purposefully and skulking behind the four sets of seven-spokes are silver-painted Brembo brake callipers.

Inside, the wood trim carried by lesser models is replaced by matt black and satin chrome finishers. The instruments have chrome rings and carry the 'V' logo also visible on the front wings. The chunky leather seats have suede inserts and feel instantly supportive, while the pedal layout is perfect for heel-and-toe downshifts. The only flaw in the driving position is the tilt-only steering wheel adjustment.

With just 16 pushrod-operated valves, the LS6 V8 might not be as technically sophisticated as those built in Europe, but it sounds fabulous. It suffuses the cockpit with a low, mean rumble at idle and works its way towards the red line with a smooth, tight, purposeful beat. Peak power arrives at 6000rpm and peak torque of 393lb ft at 4800rpm, but there's more than enough urge from low revs to test the chassis' ability.

And it is not found wanting, demonstrating a fine ride/handling compromise. It has keen responses, with suppleness and poise in depth. If you were told it had been fine-tuned by BMW, you'd believe it. There's a hint of deadness around the straight-ahead but once you're in the groove on a winding road this is forgotten. The brakes feel well up to the job of containing the CTS's not insubstantial bulk (1746kg), the gearshift of the Tremec six-speeder is reasonably weighty yet slick and accurate, and the 'StabiliTrak' stability and traction control system, based on that of the Corvette, is subtle, but keen to prevent any excesses.

Four levels of stability control are offered, including completely off and 'Competition', which allows the car to slide before intervening. With this mode engaged, the system was surprisingly busy on the Greek roads where the CTS launch was held. It's not possible to say for sure whether it was the surface or the CTS-V's lack of traction, but with StabiliTrak off it was very easy to hang the tail out. Encouragingly, the CTS-V is beautifully composed when you do get the rear out there and very simple to gather up. In fact, it's one of the easiest cars to oversteer I've ever come across.

It will be interesting to see how the car behaves in the UK but I'm confident the chassis tuning will work. The interior falls a little short and the styling is very 'American', but otherwise the CTS-V is a car very much in the mould of the V8-engined M5. I suspect its appeal in the UK will be more limited than it could be because no right-hand drive version is planned and it's no bargain at an expected price of around £45K. However, if Cadillac's aim was to make a sports saloon that feels like it was developed in Europe for European drivers, it has succeeded brilliantly.

Words/Pictures: John Barker/Walter Tillman

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