Amber waves of tire smoke With V8s collectively churning out 894 horsepower, America fights back with the rear-wheel-drive Cadillac STS-V and Chrysler 300C SRT8. By Jason Kavanagh Date posted: 07-06-2006 Like Dave Chappelle in a Comedy Central office, the Big Three's participation in the mega-power luxury sedan segment has been notable by its absence. The Germans' monopoly on horsepower has been famously one-sided over the past decade, with Mercedes-Benz's AMG and BMW's M divisions spitting molten tire bits into the grilles of the world's performance sedans. That all changed earlier this year with the release of the 2006 Cadillac STS-V and Chrysler 300C SRT8. As hopped-up versions of the STS and 300C, these American rocket sleds sit at the pinnacle of their respective manufacturers' sedan hierarchy. They measure within an inch and a half of each other in all dimensions, sport exclusive body trimmings, domestic name plates, interiors outfitted a cut above their more pedestrian counterparts, and fully modernized automatic transmissions. These striking similarities made a standoff between the two flagships undeniably attractive, but the clincher was the storming, rear-wheel-churning V8 engine in the well-tailored nose of each one. Then we considered the small matter of 34 grand separating the base prices of the two, squashing any possibility of cross-shopping or meaningful comparison. While Cadillac has the BMW M5 in its sights, the SRT8 has no true direct rival, making a full-on comparison between the SRT8 and STS-V a fruitless matter, no matter how tempting. To complete the triumvirate, all we needed was an entry from Ford Motor Company, but today they're playing Where's Waldo? in the performance luxury sedan market. We'll get to that. Man the torpedoes At 469 hp, the STS-V's Northstar-based DOHC V8 kicks out virtually twice the power of the gargantuan Cadillac 8.2-liter V8 of the early '70s. In fact, this supercharged and intercooled 32-valve all-aluminum mill is the most powerful engine in Cadillac's history. Major revisions include a new, semi-closed deck and sand-cast block with smaller bores (netting 4.4 liters compared to the normally aspirated version's 4.6) developed to withstand the higher loads of boosting. It carries beefier rods, pistons with larger wristpins, oil squirters and an Extrude Hone-smoothed intake plenum and exhaust ports. Special stuff, and although it doesn't have enough chitlins to trump the M5's 500-hp V10, it gives the Caddy a 56 pound-feet peak torque advantage over the M5. Chrysler's go-fast SRT team adopted the traditional hot-rodder's approach for the SRT8, massaging 425 hp out of the company's ubiquitous iron-blocked "Hemi" pushrod V8. They increased the bore of the already oversquare V8 by 3.5mm to 103.0mm, bringing displacement to 6.1 liters (up from 5.7) and increased the compression ratio from 9.6:1 to 10.3:1. New higher-flowing heads with bigger valves were fitted, along with a new intake manifold, headers, a larger exhaust and a hotter cam. To increase durability, they reinforced the block, added oil squirters and stronger rods, and adopted a forged crank and full-floating wrist pins. It's not fancy, but it's effective. At idle, the reciprocating masses in the SRT8's huge-displacement V8 gently rock the cabin as if to remind you of its latent potential; give it the stick and it woofles deliciously like a big-cube, normally aspirated V8 should. We loved the intuitive, well-calibrated five-speed automatic transmission, which coordinated redline shifts with a pleasing "phwap" sound and downshifted to provide engine braking. Spirited driving revealed a gearing gap between 2nd and 3rd, and there's somewhat jumpy throttle tip-in, but overall, the powertrain gives the impression of meaty competence. If the SRT8 belts it out like Barry White, then the STS-V apes Barry Manilow. Its power plant emits a muted thrum with an overdub of supercharger whine when the throttle opens wide. And while it doesn't wield the jaw-slackening intensity of the explosive V10 from Munich, it remains liquid-smooth at idle or cruise and the tabletop-flat torque curve delivers acceleration in a hydraulic rush. Aside from an occasional tendency for the transmission to downshift overzealously during freeway passing maneuvers, the six-speed autobox is transparent, and its gearing is spot-on. Drop it like a holeshot Badges that mean business: Chrysler's SRT group and Cadillac's V-series infuse additional performance in the vein of Mercedes' AMG and BMW's M. With all that firepower lurking beneath the hoods, we were expecting major thrust, and these are no slouches. Still, they're tanks: The SRT8 creaked our scales at 4,234 pounds and the STS-V at a portly 4,378 pounds. This heft reared its head during quarter-mile sprints. Tripping the lights at 13.6 seconds at 105.8 mph, the Chrysler is in a dead heat with the Cadillac's 13.6 seconds at 104.7 mph. That's a slower trap speed than expected for the STS-V, and a full 1.5 mph slower than the last one we tested, so maybe we tested an underachiever this time. Either way, an M5 makes short work of it, ripping through the quarter in 12.8 seconds at 115.6 mph. Nevertheless, these well-dressed brawlers take to spirited driving better than their weight and girth suggest. Body motions are admirably snubbed in both cars and ultimate grip is respectable, if not neck-straining, with the SRT8 and STS-V generating 0.84 and 0.81 g on the skid pad, respectively. Part of the difference in grip is the Cadillac's run-flat tires, which somehow manage to ride in near silence whereas noticeable road noise found its way into the SRT8's cabin. Serious mass and horsepower need brakes to match, and both sedans pack weapons-grade Brembo calipers and wok-sized rotors. Around town, the SRT8's pedal was positive, but fast driving quickly induced mushiness if not all-out fade. The STS-V's brakes remained consistent during our mountain-road romps, inspiring confidence. We wish we could say the same for its electronic steering, which drew flak for its sometimes-artificial buildup of effort and refusal to communicate when the front tires were breaking traction. Meanwhile, the SRT8's steering exhibited an honest heft at low speeds and adequate precision when trucking along. During two occasions of full throttle followed by a rapid lift, the STS-V kept careening forward for an eye-widening heartbeat longer than expected. This may be due to a combination of the drive-by-wire throttle calibration and supercharger bypass strategy, but in any case, it was difficult to duplicate consistently. Not to be outdone, the SRT8 just up and quit at one point, inexplicably shutting off completely while approaching a traffic light. It restarted, idled lumpily for a few seconds, then carried on as if nothing had happened. Hold me, I'm sensitive Styling of the Cadillac is attractive and understated, flashing 18-inch front and 19-inch rear wheels, crisp creases and a mesh grille. It innocuously oozes "NASDAQ stockbroker," while the SRT8 channels "NASCAR stocker." The big Chrysler ratchets up the baller meter with a quiet swagger, its flared fenders stuffed with striking 20-inch forged wheels. A weightlifter in Armani, the 300C must be the only car out there that actually needs dubs in order to look right. Inside, the Cadillac flaunts high-quality leather everywhere, numerous creature comforts and excellent fit-and-finish save for a glovebox door that needed to be slam-slam-slammed to stay shut. A few ergonomic lowlights include a driving position that never seemed quite right for several editors, and a misplaced lumbar lump in the driver seat. Functionally, GM's always had superb HVAC, and the STS-V is no exception. Want freezer burn? Turn the Caddy's air on full-tilt. In contrast, the SRT8 struggled to keep the cabin cool while idling in 88-degree weather — its well-bolstered front seats are supportive but we'd prefer not sticking to them just the same. While the synthetic suede inserts in the seats of both cars are features we hope manufacturers continue to proliferate, the leather on the rest of the Chrysler's seats might be mistaken for pleather. Strapping soldiers These are very competent offerings from two domestic manufacturers, which occupy different levels of the performance sedan layer cake, albeit with startlingly similar performance. The STS-V may not quite unseat its rivals as an all-conquering driver's car, but it succeeds in being a choice land rocket for cross-country freeway blasts. And while 50 grand isn't chump change, the SRT8 offers strong performance and a striking stance for a reasonable sum. Two name plates out of three ain't bad, but where's Waldo? For starters, Ford would need to compete with a power-to-weight ratio in the ballpark of the SRT8 and STS-V. That spells 9.5 pounds/hp in a rear-drive or all-wheel-drive sedan platform. The Five Hundred can't swallow a V8 and the Crown Vic, is, well, a Crown Vic. Here's how Ford could play in this fire-breathing performance sedan segment: Raid the corporate parts bin. Start by importing the Falcon FPV GT Boss 290 from Australia. Powered by a 5.4-liter "modular" V8 and offered with a six-speed automatic transmission. That's a good start, but at 4,100 pounds and with 390 hp, it needs a diet or more power, or both. Conveniently, the Shelby GT500's supercharged 500-hp engine is on the shelf, but might be too heavy. Dump the iron block and use the Mustang's aluminum block or the beefier block from the Ford GT, firm up the suspension and voilà — instant über-sedan. Of course, Ford would have to convert the Falcon to left-hand drive and tweak it to comply with U.S. crash and emissions standards. Efforts of this degree wouldn't be justified by the low volumes of a flagship performance sedan, but to spread the cost, a base Falcon model could serve duty as sport-sedan competition for workaday CTS and 300C models. Until that day, we'll be spitting tire bits in Chryslers and Cadillacs. No one would have guessed that a few years ago.