Ambition gurgles at the core of Cadillac, but it takes more than bold words and marketing promise to make a car that gives the Germans sleepless nights. On the one hand you have the CT6, a smartly designed walk through what “American luxury” means to the modern driver, while on the other you have this, the 2016 ATS-V Sedan, a fire-breathing assault on contemporary classics like the BMW M3.
The regular ATS is a handsome place to start, another of Cadillac’s angular designs that borders on the Art Deco. It wears its V Series costume well, with minimal chrome in favor of mesh and carbon fiber; the hood bulges and extra vents are the most obvious indication that this is the performance version.
The most obvious sign, that is, when the car is standing still. The ATS-V shares the core of its 3.6-liter V6 with other cars in Cadillac’s line-up, but here it’s equipped with twin turbos and is good for 464 HP and 445 lb-ft. of torque. Magnetic Ride Control suspension is fitted as standard, as is Caddy’s four driving mode system – Tour, Sport, Track, and Snow/Ice – and five-stage traction management. As well as the choice of sedan or coupe body styles, you can have either an automatic or a manual gearbox.
No surprise, the automatic transmission is faster: Cadillac says 3.8 seconds 0-60 mph, in fact, and all the way on to a top speed of 189 mph. I drove that car at launch and it’s a ridiculously simple way to get to a stupidly high pace, either snapping at the paddles or letting Caddy’s excellent eight-speed do its own thing.
The six-speed manual is, though, a relative rarity in the segment. BMW will let you stir your own gears in the M3, but Mercedes-AMG won’t in the C63 AMG. Thanks to some practical gearing ratio decisions on the part of Cadillac’s engineers, while it’s a little slower when the stopwatch is out, it’s a lot more fun on the road.
Cadillac’s stubby, sueded microfiber-clad shifter nestles in the palm sweetly, while the clutch hits the Goldilocks spot of being “just right” for resistance. Having sprained my foot a couple of weeks before the ATS-V arrived on my drive, I feared a week of general agony was ahead of me, but in reality the clutch is superbly forgiving.
Incongruously, the manual ATS-V still has paddles, though they’ve been repurposed. Here, they toggle the Active Rev Matching which blips the engine to save you from heel-toe downshifting. Purists will be glad they can turn it off – indeed, it’s off by default – but it’s good fun aurally and on the tarmac if you find the right road.
The gearbox’s other trick is No Lift Shift which, as the name suggests, allows you to change gear without easing off on the gas pedal. Right foot still slammed, you can crack in the clutch and whip through to the next gear, with the transmission’s smarts automatically doing what’s necessary to keep you moving your fastest.
While Cadillac has done everything it can to make shifting easy, the ATS-V is ironically highly drivable without much in the way of gear changes.
Peak torque arrives at 3,500 rpm with a red line at 6,500 rpm, and there’s minimal turbo lag. Faced with some entertainingly twisty mountain roads the ATS-V chomped through in third and fourth gears, its butt showing just the right amount of twitchiness in Sport mode to make things fun but not frightening.
That’s not to say the ATS-V can’t shock. True, it’s down a couple hundred on the monstrous CTS-V’s 650 HP but it’ll still do a damned good job at peeling the skin on your face back in a straight line, and should you dare to scale back the more track-intended traction control while on public roads there’s enough skittishness to loosen the bowels of your passengers.
Happily, you needn’t put down plastic sheeting just to enjoy the soundtrack. Cadillac’s quartet of tailpipes and 3.6L V6 aren’t quite as vocal as the M3 or C63 AMG, but they have a song of their own all the same, a growl and a whoosh and a roar that’s pleasingly reprobate. Yet, switch into Tour mode, and you should escape your driveway without too much side-eye from the neighbors.
Don’t mistake the ATS-V as a straight-line solo performance, mind. The combination of sticky 18-inch 275/35ZR-18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport summer tires and that clever magnetic ride mean incredible amounts of grip, even though it’s RWD not AWD, and predictability when it eventually runs out.
The electric steering system has the feel of a hydraulic setup. Meanwhile the stock Brembo brakes – six piston at the front and four at the rear – were good enough for my ATS-V track time last year and are more than sufficient on the road.
Inside, there’s not much changed from the regular ATS. The thick-rimmed wheel with its “V” logo is grippy and the upgrade from the standard seats to the Recaro Performance option is welcome, the latter complete with adjustable side-bolsters. They’re massively comfortable not to mention supportive, though their bowed backs do eat into rear legroom. Indeed, the ATS-V’s interior feels a little more snug than some rivals in the segment overall, something noticed not so much in the front but probably voiced by those in the back after extended periods on the road.
Ride quality in Tour isn’t quite up to the smoothness of Cadillac’s normal cars, but it’s eminently livable all the same. Similarly, trunk space gets cut some thanks to the suspension system, but it’s still fair.
Cadillac’s favored gloss black plastic and touch-sensitive buttons make their expected reappearance on the dashboard, as does CUE on an 8-inch touchscreen. It’s no great exaggeration to say that CUE has been one of the more poorly-received infotainment systems out there – something Caddy apparently intends to address in due course, if its latest Escala concept is any indication – and it feels more sluggish on the ATS-V than in the newer CT6.
Unlike the full LCD binnacle in the CTS-V, the ATS-V driver has to make do with traditional analog gages and a small, 5.7-inch display that feels oddly old-fashioned.
Neither CarPlay nor Android Auto are supported, though you do get wireless charging for your smartphone, front and rear park assist, a reversing camera, and Bose audio with active noise cancellation. As with other GM vehicles, OnStar 4G LTE is fitted as standard and can be used as a WiFi hotspot for up to eight devices; you can either pay Cadillac direct for your LTE data, or add the ATS-V to an existing AT&T Mobile Share plan.
With a starting price of $60,465 (plus $995 destination) the ATS-V sedan feels like something of a bargain. Admittedly, it’s easy to get that up into the mid-$70k’s: the carbon fiber package looks great but I’d save the $5k myself, and I could do without the $2.5k luxury package with its navigation, Bose surround sound, and fancier lighting.
The $1,300 Performance Data Recorder is handy for track fans, but really I’d stick to the $2,300 Recaro seats and that grippy $300 sueded microfiber for shifter and wheel were the order my own.
One thing you can’t really avoid is the gas station, at least if you want to enjoy the ATS-V as Cadillac intends it. The car’s rated for 17 mpg in the city, 23 mpg on the highway, and 19 mpg combined; I saw 16 mpg in my own mixed driving.
Much as I love the CTS-V, there’s no denying that the ATS-V is the more usable everyday car. The bigger Caddy is a throbbing, gurgling shortcut to excess, a silverback gorilla in a Saville Row suit who only stops roaring at you so as to berate you for not driving fast enough. Yes, the ATS-V is down in power comparatively, but it has more than is sufficient to rocket you toward the horizon and keep you in the game against any of the German competition you might come across at the lights.
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In the M3 and C63 AMG’s favor are their more cohesive cabins and general level of polish. Against them is price: the BMW has less power than the Cadillac but starts at $3.5k more than it, while the Mercedes carries almost a $5k premium. That’s before you even glance at the options list.
Badge kudos will undoubtedly lead many buyers in the segment to make the more obvious choices, but there’s plenty to love about the 2016 ATS-V. With a little restraint on the order form it’s a bonafide bargain, but the cheaper price needn’t mean any dilution of excitement on the road. Cadillac isn’t just attempting to compete in the performance sedan segment, it’s already causing casualties.