Comparison Test: 2012 BMW X5M vs. 2012 Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon

By John Beltz Snyder, Brandon Turkus

January 05, 2012

(photo credit: Chris Amos)
—Ypsilanti, Michigan
When we got the 2012 BMW X5M and the 2012 Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon into the Winding Road office at the same time, the idea to put them head to head in a comparison wasn’t an obvious one. The two are very different in a lot of ways. The BMW is much bigger than the Cadillac. The CTS-V is powered by the rear wheels, while the X5M puts power to all four. The German offering’s MSRP begins at $87,250, while the American car starts at a mere $64,515. At first glance then, the comparison seems a bit unfair.
We couldn’t help but notice the similarities in these two functional vehicles, though. Both sport forced-induction V-8 engines offering at least half-a-thousand horsepower. Either one of them could ferry several friends comfortably, or haul home a load from the local hardware store. They each have a special letter attached to their name, denoting a high level of performance. Honestly, any shopper looking for an ultra-high-performance luxury vehicle with some capacity for functionality (a subset of people that we’d like to hang out with more) is going to take a gander at one of these hell-for-leather haulers.
Most importantly, while we had them, we had trouble deciding which car we wanted to drive away with at the end of the workday. So let’s ignore price for a while, and judge these two vehicles in the best way we know how. The important question here is which of these two five-door performance vehicles is the best choice for drivers?
Cadillac’s CTS-V Sport Wagon is a monster. Its 6.2-liter, supercharged V-8 churns out 556 horsepower and 551 pound-feet of torque (51 more pound-feet than the much heavier BMW X5M). So yeah, it’s blisteringly fast. It also boasts a low curb weight (relative to the Bimmer) of 4431 pounds. That means weight-to-power and weight-to-torque ratios that sit around eight pounds per horsepower/pound-foot of torque.
More impressive than the actual numbers is the way the Caddy goes about delivering its power. With all that fury sent to the rear wheels, it’s far more sports-car-like in its accelerative behavior than the BMW, whose four-wheel grip and less-communicative suspension make runs through the gears less of a thrill. Once its big, twenty-inch Michelin’s hook up, the V Wagon rockets towards the horizon. There’s power all over the rev range, low, middle, and high, making the Caddy a blast whenever power is called for; simply plant your right foot, and away you go. The delivery of the power is also nearly instantaneous (as that of the BMW also feels, until compared to the demonic Cadillac).
The X5M, though, is a bit more discrete, if only in comparison to the V Wagon. It offers quite a lot in terms of performance. The X5M’s biturbocharged 4.4-liter V-8 puts down 555 horsepower and 500 pound-feet of torque, which pushes all 5368 pounds of the vehicle to 60 miles per hour in just 4.5 seconds. For comparison, this is a twitch faster than a Porsche 911’s 4.6 seconds to 60 (but still not as riotous as the CTS-V Sport Wagon’s 4.0-second 0-60 figure). There’s torque available everywhere throughout the rev range, and, like the Cadillac, the motor never feels like it needs time to build up—just step on it and go, whether you’re at a standstill or passing other cars on the highway at 80 miles per hour. And with power going to all four wheels, stability isn’t an issue either.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the orchestra that is the Caddy’s engine note. Whereas the BMW sounds good, its exhaust lacks the depth and character of the V’s 6.2-liter supercharged V-8. You get a taste of supercharger whine in the lower part of the rev range, before a bassy crescendo comes on higher up, giving the V a dose of real Detroit V-8 sound. It’s a much more inspiring soundtrack than that of the X5M, which, while pleasant when available, is toned down, more austere, and more like a traditional luxury vehicle. We’ll take the Cadillac’s adrenaline-triggering roar for our day-to-day soundtrack; it makes us feel so heroic.
While a six-speed manual comes standard in the CTS-V, our tester made use of a six-speed autobox. Regardless of automatic or manual mode, you’ll get quick upshifts and well-timed downshifts from this thing. What’s most surprising is just how unobtrusive this tranny is. It doesn’t deliver jerky shifts disguised as “sportiness,” instead doing its best to deliver the effortless power that the blown V-8 produces in spades.
We do have issue with the CTS-V’s automatic transmission’s driver interface, though, as it doesn’t deliver the sort of involvement that a 556-horsepower station wagon should possess. For one, the floor-mounted setup required us to slot the shift lever to the right, and then push forward for upshifts and pull back for downshifts. We’ll ignore the philosophical debate about the forward and backward mechanics, and instead focus on the annoyance of pushing the stick away from you. It’s simply not an intuitive setup, forcing you to reach awkwardly to work the manual mode. Secondly, we’re confident there are bacteria that are larger than the shift paddles that sit behind the V’s steering wheel. The tiny little clickers are completely hidden behind the steering wheel’s spokes, making it difficult to tell whether you are upshifting or downshifting if the wheel is anything but centered.
These problems were exacerbated after climbing out of the BMW, which does things properly: slide to the left, pull back for upshifts, push forward for downshifts. It also has a nice, big set of metallic shifters that actually encourage the driver to use manual mode. It’s fun, something that the V setup never manages to be, despite the inherently fantastic lump of aluminum and fire sitting in front of you.
The V features a Magnetic Ride Control system that does a great job of managing the car’s handling characteristics. In Sport, feedback is at its best, with the progressiveness of the body motions treating the driver to a rich driving experience that you don’t often get in a car that could be considered a utility vehicle. Switching to Tour softens things up without compromising innate handling ability. Body motions were more noticeable, but still came on progressively and never disrupted the driving experience.
Besides the all-wheel drive, we have the BMW’s ride to thank for its feeling of stability at various speeds. Unwanted movements are kept in check, and even the roughest roads can’t really upset the X5M, despite its somewhat firmer suspension for a utility vehicle. At the same time, though, it mitigates some of the thrills that can be had, because as you dial out the harshness, you also end up killing some of the communication in the ride. Thus, the feeling of speed, in most driving situations, is restrained, and the experience is generally less visceral than it could be. It’s definitely involving, especially for a utility vehicle, but the volume is turned down, both literally and figuratively.
That ease and stability in straight-line acceleration doesn’t translate to the X5M’s handling prowess as a whole. This is a big, heavy machine. The motor is strong enough and brakes grabby enough to very easily alter the Bimmer’s forward momentum, but changing its direction is entirely a different story. With a relatively high center of gravity, and over two tons of mass, we could feel the weight of the vehicle fight against us in the corners. The car is capable, with good steering, all-wheel power, and plenty of electronic smarts in its corner, but physics trumps all that when you want to get this ute to rotate.
That’s not to say it is uncomfortable in the corners (or in general). Body roll is kept in control, and we never felt like we were getting flung from side to side within the vehicle, even when riding in the back seat. Up front, adjustable bolsters helped keep us firmly in place as we muscled the big BMW through transitioning curves. What it gives up in agility it makes up for in overall comfort.
As the more expensive and larger vehicle, the interior is quite roomy. Materials are of the quality that you’d expect from a performance BMW, with nice leather everywhere you look. The X5M, with its higher ride and bigger windows, offers a bit better visibility than the lower, more angular CTS-V Sport Wagon. It also makes it an easier task to get in and out of the BMW.
The V Wagon, on the other hand, can feel a bit cramped in terms of headroom and rear legroom. We like the Cadillac’s rear seats, though, which carry the sporty feeling into the back of the car with chairs that keep us in place while it out-handles the Bimmer on road of tight curves. The Cadillac, while the smaller vehicle, still offers plenty of cargo volume (25 cubic feet with the second row up, and 58 cubic feet when folded in the Caddy, and 35.8 cubic feet with the second row of the Bimmer up, and 75.2 when folded down).
There are a lot of things that make these cars match up well, in spite of the price. The BMW X5M and Cadillac CTS-V Sport Wagon are very powerful. They both represent their respective brands’ ultimate fusion of performance and utility. Each is impressive in its ability to get our heart pounding and put a smile on our face. But one of these haulers is clearly the more engaging, more thrilling driver’s vehicle.
The CTS-V Sport Wagon, with its brutal acceleration, beautifully symphonic engine, eager handling, and driver-focused man/machine interface, takes home the pizza trophy. As impressive as the more expensive BMW is, Cadillac’s offering is quite simply the better car for drivers.
2012 Cadillac CTS-V Wagon
Engine: Supercharged V-8, 6.2 liters, 16v
Output: 556 hp/551 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.0 sec
Weight: 4431 lb
Cargo Capacity: 25.0 cu ft
Base Price: $64,515
2012 BMW X5M
Engine: Biturbocharged V-8, 4.4 liters, 32v
Output: 555 hp/500 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.5 sec
Weight: 5368 lb
Cargo Capacity: 35.8 cu ft
Base Price: $87,250