Don't fancy an M5? Well, worry not, because Maserati, Alpina and Cadillac make sparkling alternatives
Alpina B5 v Cadillac CTS-V v Maserati Quattroporte
Sunrise on Holy Island causeway. A spirit-lifting blush of orange and pink spreads through the flat, grey, pre-dawn sky like ink on blotting paper as we position the cars for their appointment with Gus Gregory's lens.
It's a natural time for reflection, not only because of the peace and quiet of our location, but because it feels like the first time we've paused for breath in the last two days. Cars like this demand nothing less than big mileage and extended wheel-time, but the previous 36 hours have been exceptional, even by our standards.
Let's rewind. Our odyssey begins on a busy Bank Holiday Monday evening, a hellish time to embark on a lengthy northerly drive on Britain's truculent motorway network if ever there was one. But, with our overnight destination entrusted to the magic of satnav, all that stands between us and a restorative pint of beer are a couple of hundred miles of three-lane blacktop.
Our objective is similarly straightforward: to spend the next three days finding the best alternative to BMW's formidable M5. Munich's ultimate 5-series may have upped the ante in spectacular fashion with its seven-speed sequential manual transmission, 5-litre V10 engine and 205mph potential, but though unarguably great, it's still not everyone's pint of Warsteiner. It needs working hard to fully unleash the monster V10's headline-grabbing outputs, and this rev-hungry delivery and the 8250rpm red line mean it burns through a fiver's worth of super-unleaded every ten miles or so when fully stoked-up. While extraordinarily quick, it does sometimes feel like you're sledgehammering walnuts.
So what of our three alternatives? Well, they're an intriguing bunch, not least because they're as different from each other as they are from the M5 itself. First and, in theory at least, closest to the M5 is Alpina's new B5. Packing a 500bhp-plus punch and an equally mighty reserve of torque, the B5 combines the M5's prodigious outputs and straight-line performance (no restrictor means 190mph-plus) with Alpina's cult appeal, bespoke image and a surprisingly competitive £65,000 asking price.
However, when it comes to achieving those bruising figures, Alpina goes delightfully off-message, choosing to supercharge the familiar 5-series 4.4-litre V8 and fire the resulting force-fed fury through a six-speed Switch-Tronic auto 'box. There's no limited-slip differential, and as Alpina feels the M5's extreme nature caters for the real hardcore driver, the B5's suspension, though uprated, is deliberately more pliant. Great in principle, we'll have to wait and see if it translates in practice. Whatever, it certainly tees- up a fascinating in-house tussle.
Bringing a splash of Italian brio to proceedings is Maserati's gorgeous Quattroporte. More super-limo than supersaloon, the naturally aspirated V8-engined 'Four Door' dwarfs the
5-series and its ilk, both in sheer physical bulk and lofty £85,000 price tag (as tested). But, thanks to the Trident's enduring appeal and exotic image, not forgetting the inspirational front-mid-engined chassis, this Maserati lives by its own rules, managing to straddle the luxury and sporting ends of the spectrum in convincing style. With more weight and less muscle than the Alpina or the Cadillac, the Quattroporte is going to rely on the seductive quality of its styling and the dynamic quality of its chassis, rather than brute force, to impress.
Ah yes, the Cadillac. There's been something of a silent revolution going on at GM's premium brand, a complete reinvention kick-started by concepts such as the Cien supercar and made real by seriously sporting products such as this radical-looking CTS-V. With extensive chassis and durability testing carried out at the Nürburgring, and the latest generation 5.7-litre LS6 V8, first seen in the C6 Corvette, delivering an easy 400bhp (see panel, p127), the rear-drive, six-speed manual CTS-V is an enticing prospect for those who still mourn the passing of the V8, 400bhp, six-speed manual M5. And at just £45K it's something of a bargain to boot.
It's the Caddy that Gus Gregory and I opt for to complete the trudge from Northants to North Yorks, with Roger Green following in the B5. Meanwhile, Harry Metcalfe is making his way across from the Cotswolds in the Maserati and will rendezvous with us at our hotel.
It's my first acquaintance with the Caddy, and its angularity and square-edged aggression come as quite a shock. Finished in piano-lacquer black and wearing overseas number-plates, it could have rolled out of the Lockheed Skunk Works. Let the shock subside and it's obvious the CTS-V is very angle-dependent: its ultra-modern, architectural lines almost issue you with a challenge to like it. It's a challenge Gregory is prepared to fail, but I rather enjoy its originality.
Compared with its Stealth Fighter exterior, the interior is pretty conventional: plain analogue instruments and a centre console dominated by the regulation big LCD screen. Unfathomable iDrive-style system aside, it all hangs together well. It's comfortable, too, although it struggles in terms of materials and execution. But then, at just 45 grand, it's entitled to feel a bit like the poor relation.
As ever with an American car, sliding the key into the ignition triggers a chorus of alarms bells and warning chimes the like of which hasn't been heard since someone spiked the fruit punch at the World Campanology Convention. Such nannying is unnecessary and immensely annoying, but then so is George Bush.
Dip the clutch (wouldn't want to start it in gear with your foot flat on the floorboards, now would you?), twist the key and the Caddy shimmies its shoulders as the big LS6 V8 kicks into life. More businesslike than musical, the new-generation motor lacks the rich tickover gurgle of a Mustang, which is a shame. So, too, is the way its heartbeat pulses through the car, jiggling it on its springs in old-school fashion with every blip of the throttle, and hinting that the Caddy is going to trade on redneck charm rather than Germanic refinement.
Cutting across country from evo's Wollaston HQ to the nearby M1 confirms as much, at least in the physical, hefty nature of the clutch and gearshift, which feel similar to those of the Monaro VXR, another of GM's blue-collar heroes. The low-speed ride is disappointingly jagged too, dampers fighting
against every pothole and drain-cover when they should be yielding to take the sting out of impacts. Clumsy ride aside, the CTS-V displays strong grip and steers crisply with reasonable detail, although early impressions are that its alertness is a bit forced and artificial. Perhaps it's one of those cars that just needs time and mileage to get yourself dialled-into. We'll know soon enough.
Harry beats us to the bar, but not by much. It's dark, but there's enough ambient light from the hotel to pick out the Maser's graceful curves. Parking the CTS-V directly behind it makes the Caddy's origami body look even more austere, but I still give it a second glance over my shoulder as we make our way inside for a well-deserved beer.
Day Two gets off to a suitably heavyweight start with a 'Full Yorkshire' breakfast: a mountainous platter of unmitigated protein, including a frankly intimidating slice of black pudding the diameter and thickness of an ice- hockey puck. Overseas readers planning a trip to Yorkshire should take note that this 'pudding' is made from congealed pig's blood and lumps of fat. Nice.
Stomachs groaning under the strain of digesting a farmyard on a plate, a timely flashback to the Cadillac's turbulent ride leads me cunningly to slide my rear into the Maserati, relegating Harry to the Caddy and Roger to the Alpina. We're all set to go, but for some reason the Caddy has drained its battery overnight, and after nearly rupturing ourselves trying to bump- start the beast (the Caddy, not Harry) we enlist the help of a kindly local garage, who jump the V8 into life in no time.
We're heading further north, through the Scottish Borders, on the deserted A- and B-roads that criss-cross the region, from just south of Edinburgh to Duns on the western edge. These are famously the roads where Jim Clark cut his driving teeth, but we're also going to try the A701 from Edinburgh to Dumfries, which former F1 driver, Le Mans winner and current Audi DTM and sports car ace Allan McNish reckons is his favourite road. Before we get there we've got another slice of motorway network to negotiate, but it's enough to highlight the immediate differences between the Cadillac and the Quattroporte.
First and foremost is the sense of style and prestige you get from being in the Maser. Just being close to it sends a shiver through you, it really is that much of an event. The interior reeks of expensive hide and has the look and feel of a truly special machine. Far from thinking it's twice the price of the Caddy, you can't help concluding it's a half-price 612 Scaglietti.
It takes a while for the V8 to spin into life; the whirring starter churning away for a good three seconds before the 4.3-litre engine settles into its busy idle. Dab the brake, pull back on the right-hand paddle, ease into the throttle and the giant Italian saloon slides smoothly from a standstill. The transmission has an auto mode but, to be frank, if you can't summon the enthusiasm to flex your left and right index fingers to change gear you should probably give up and employ a chauffeur.
We were pretty vociferous in our criticism of the Quattroporte's DuoSelect transmission at the car's launch. Rightly so, too, but as is the way with Ferrari and Maserati, the software and consequently the shift quality have a habit of improving as the factory continues to refine the system on the hoof, as it were. That much is true of our test car, which steps-off far more cleanly and quickly and works better in fully auto mode than previous Q'portes we've driven. Suitably improved, the paddle-shift system is also totally appropriate: smooth and effortless when you're not in the mood, crisp and incisive (but still effortless) when you are. After the CTS-V's heavyweight and slightly clunky manual transmission, it feels like the future.
As we peel off the motorway and begin our cross-country dash, the road gets busier, both in character and traffic density, providing plenty of opportunities to sample the devastating overtaking abilities of these three strapping saloons. It's interesting to compare passing techniques, for the Maserati needs revs to come alive, third gear being the favourite ratio. The Caddy also likes to be worked, again preferring third gear. Both make easy work of trucks lumbering along on their 56mph limiters, but the Alpina makes a mockery of them both, punching past slower traffic with savage immediacy, confidently exploiting overtake slots and surging into my rear-view mirror like a superbike.
A refuel provides the opportunity to swap into the B5. Though it looks crushingly normal both inside and out compared with the Quattroporte, the sense of solidity and cohesion is marked. It's an impression that permeates the whole car, from the steering - which trades the Maser's fingertip delicacy for meaty, clenched-fist weight (but no more feel) - to the damping, which is pliant but lethargic compared with the Quattroporte's lithe tiptoe-keenness. All of which fosters a precise but ever-so-slightly lifeless feel to the B5's dynamics.
Signs for the A701 signal the start of McNish's road, and as our pace increases the B5 begins to make sense. It flows seamlessly, speed rising and falling with a tide-like surge as the supercharger goes to work, measured steering response, powerful, linear brakes and neutral balance working together to deliver immense cross-country pace. True, the flowing nature of the road is flattering for a big car, but the surface has enough lumps and bumps to establish that Alpina's decision to make the B5 a little softer and more cosseting than the M5 wasn't folly.
It could do with a limited-slip differential, though, for the V8's abundant torque triggers the DSC all too easily, while switching it off effectively signs a cremation warrant for the inside rear tyre. Oddly, you don't always notice the onset of wheelspin, a grey cloud in your mirrors being the only clue, but sometimes both rear wheels hook-up, provoking a clumsy squirm of oversteer; must be a beast in the rain.
Regardless of the traction issues, it's an addictively explosive experience. While the M5's wailing V10 is never less than impressive, it always feels like it deserves a lighter, sharper car in which to truly shine. That's not the case with Alpina's supercharged V8, for while its 492bhp places even more demands on the deliberately softer, less incisive B5 chassis, its effortless and titanic swell of torque seems totally in keeping with the supersaloon ethos of talking quietly whilst bludgeoning your opponents with a ruddy great stick.
Note the fact that the B5 has hit its torque peak before the M5 has even begun to get into its stride (516lb ft at 4250rpm versus 383lb ft at 6100rpm) and you can appreciate the kind of gut-tightening torque-fest the B5 has on-tap, whatever the gear, revs or road speed. I've also noticed that despite the Alpina's monster pace the Caddy's toothy grin is never far from the rear-view mirror. Time for another change.
Charging along the same stretch of road in the CTS-V, it feels odd having to change gear manually. For the first few miles I find myself resenting the need to make the effort, but soon the sense of increased control and connection returns and the Caddy comes alive. That ragged low-speed damping is gone, replaced by iron-fisted body control and great high-speed composure. The dynamics still feel slightly manufactured, the Caddy attacking corners with a less than flowing style, but there's abundant grip, pointy turn-in and a surprising amount of tolerance to oversteer before the stability control cuts in. In short, you can drive the CTS-V more aggressively than you can either the B5 or the Quattroporte.
In terms of outright pace the Caddy is an extremely rapid machine, but it needs more work from you to extract the speed, both from the chassis and the engine. When the opportunity arises you can really attack the road, but while you're waiting it doesn't have the compliance, refinement or easy delivery to schmooze like the Alpina or glide like the Maser, which, let's face it, is a big part of what these cars spend their time doing. It's either clunky or funky, with nothing in between.
We're deep into Border country now, and things are beginning to fall into place. Even so, it's hard to separate the B5 and the Quattroporte, for each seems to get better with every session behind the wheel. At our next overnight stop, Harry tries to nail the differences.
'It's taken me until now to 'get' the Alpina,' he says. 'Its responses just feel so leaden compared with the Maserati. It's massively quick, though. A really incredible overtaking tool, and it feels extremely well built. The Maser's wonderful in so many ways, but still lacks that Germanic integrity. I think each would continue to feel special long after you'd bought them, the Alpina for its speed and quality, the Maserati for its style, character and fabulous chassis.
'I like the Caddy for its boldness and its simplicity. There's something quite honest about the big engine/rear-drive/manual 'box combination. It's not sophisticated or classy compared with the Europeans but there's no doubt it's entertaining. It's surprisingly hardcore too: it seems to get better the harder you push (especially when the battery's flat - RM), but the ride is pretty awful when you're not going for it. It's cheap for what it is, but it's not really in the same league as the others in terms of overall appeal.'
Day Three and, somewhat miraculously given Gus Gregory's reputation, our first properly early start. A 5am checkout might save us from the horrors of more black pudding, but the Caddy's battery is dead as a doornail again, which means another hernia-inducing bump start. Still, it does mean I get another go in the Maserati as we pile across towards Holy Island for what will hopefully be a spectacular sunrise.
It takes something less than an hour to make the journey, but it's enough to confirm that, despite the Alpina's almighty stonk and slow-burn appeal, the Maserati satisfies on a multitude of levels. It flows with such grace and poise, steers with such precision, adjusts its attitude so finely to minute flexes of foot and hands, and accelerates with such clean, free-revving enthusiasm, you become totally absorbed in the act of driving. It sounds like a cliché, but it shrinks around you, quite something for a car weighing a couple of tons and stretching five metres in length.
And then you climb out and fall in love with it all over again, those indulgent swoops and feminine curves melding to create what must surely be the most beautiful saloon car of the modern era. Beauty is something that never entered BMW's equation with the M5, but once you've driven the Maserati you'll also conclude that delicacy also passed the Bavarians by. The balls-out Beemer may define the supersaloon breed, but the real joy of the Maserati is that it transcends the quest for more power, cylinders, gears and revs.
There's no doubt that when it created the original M5, BMW wrote the supersaloon rulebook. What's more, it then proceeded to re-write it with every subsequent generation of M5. That's why the current M5 is a superior dynamic proposition to the E55, B5, CTS-V, Audi RS6 and Jaguar S-type R.
Trouble is, nobody told the boys at Maserati that they had to play by BMW's rules, which is why the Quattroporte is such a breath of fresh air, beating them all at their own game without ever appearing to demean itself by actually competing against them.