- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Luxury is not enough. But it used to be. The Cadillac Fleetwood and Lincoln Town Car were simply luxury barges designed to coddle their owners. Nobody ever accused them of performance pretensions. Even European and Japanese luxury cars such as Mercedes-Benz and Lexus focused on comfort and posh accommodations.

Of course, history is replete with spotty examples of luxury cars that also had reputations for stellar performance. In the 1930s, they had names such as Duesenberg, Packard, Auburn and even Cadillac. In the 1950s and 1960s, Chrysler offered the 300 letter series cars. And some performance cars, such as Bavaria’s BMW, morphed into luxury cars.

Nowadays, however, luxury car manufacturers have arrived at a point where they are almost forced to produce high-performance versions of their expensive transporters.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s a way to distinguish your product from the others, to provide it with an aura that surrounds the lineup. Moreover, even if prospective buyers are the sort who never mash the pedal to the metal, they like the idea that if they do, exciting things will happen.

So in recent years, luxury car builders have offered increasing numbers of high-pizzazz models. AMG, the tuner-car company was so successful in customizing its models that Mercedes-Benz simply bought AMG and incorporated it into the company. Germany’s Audi developed its S models, Britain’s Jaguar offers R versions of its cars, Lexus recently introduced a high-performance hybrid, the GS450h, and even performance-oriented BMW has a series of rapid-transit M models.

Now Cadillac has entered the fray in a big way, with two new cars: the two-seat XLR-V and the midsize STS-V sedan. The V suffix is Cadillac’s answer to BMW’s M, Jaguar’s R, and so on. With the addition of the two models, Cadillac now has V versions of all three of its rear-drive cars. The CTS-V, which competes in the compact class, already was on the market.

The XLR-V is a hot version of Cadillac’s sports car, which features a folding steel convertible top. Its supercharged V-8 engine delivers 443 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode.

It comes in only one version with a flat price of $100,000, including the destination charge. That is nearly $23,000 more than the standard XLR, which has a 320-horsepower V-8.

Like most of these souped-up luxury cars, the XLR-V has the sort of quick responses that produce tingly feelings in the driver’s breast and backbone. It has tight and precise handling, but with a surprisingly compliant ride — as befits its luxury orientation. If you punch the pedal at almost any speed, the XLR-V rears up like a bucking horse and rockets down the road.With the supercharger’s link directly to the engine, there’s no hesitation whatever. Cadillac’s top speed is governed at 155 mph.

The STS-V offers nearly the same performance in a more useful package, with four doors and plush seating for four. Its version of the supercharged Cadillac Northstar V-8 engine is rated at 469 horsepower, which translates into a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 4.8 seconds, according to the company.

Like its XLR-V garage mate, the STS-V comes in only one version. Its sticker price is $77,090, which makes it anywhere from nearly $29,000 to more than $35,000 more expensive than its less-powerful STS siblings.

The only option the buyer has is to delete the motorized glass sunroof, but it doesn’t save any money.

The STS-V’s chassis dynamics were largely developed on race tracks to give it the moves and handling to compete with the likes of BMW’s M5. It also has a feature that automatically matches engine revolutions to the selected gear on downshifts, much as a race driver would do with a clutch and a manual transmission.

No manual gearbox is available on the STS-V, but it does have a manual-shift mode for the six-speed automatic. It’s not as satisfying as a manual would be to the enthusiast driver, but it likely won’t matter to most of the STS-V’s customers.

Along with antilock brakes from Europe’s racetrack-oriented Brembo, the STS-V has traction control, which can be partly disabled for greater driver involvement. Cadillac calls it a “competitive driving mode,” though it’s unlikely many of these cars will be raced. The competition is likely to be whatever is sharing the highway.

To keep the driver and passengers firmly in their seats during spirited driving, the STS-V features leather upholstery with grippy suede inserts.

They did the job, but like most suede seemed destined for terminal soiling at an early age. The surroundings also include all of the expected luxury accouterments of quality materials and luxury conveniences.

Cadillac expects to sell only about 2,000 STS-V models a year. The XLR-V’s sales are projected to be about half that. Though the numbers look small, it’s still an impressive piece of change. You can’t quantify the aura, but it’s there.

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