What we learned driving the Cadillac ATS-V Coupe

  by Ronan Glon

What we learned driving the Cadillac ATS-V Coupe

When the original Cadillac CTS launched in 2003, it took the brand in a new, more Teutonic direction. It was an Americanized version of the BMW 3 Series, and it was precisely the kind of car the brand needed as it fought off an unprecedented offensive from the Germans. In hindsight, it's not too far-fetched to say Cadillac's survival was at stake.

Fast forward three generations of cars later and Cadillac now offers two well-rounded sedans named ATS and CTS, respectively. Somewhat confusingly, the ATS occupies the same entry-level slot as the original CTS. Cadillac learned enough about the ins and outs of developing a compact model to make the ATS more than merely an Americanized 3 Series; it’s now America’s proud answer to the 3 Series. And, in Cadillac-speak, V means M.

We drove a 2017 Cadillac ATS-V Coupe from New York City (the brand’s adopted home town) to Washington D.C. to get a feel for what living with the brand’s smallest sports car is like. Here’s what we learned.

Photography by Ronan Glon.

It handles superbly

The ATS-V is fast, loud, and a real hoot to drive. We can say that about any of its competitors, though. You’d be hard-pressed to find a bad car in this segment. Handling is what makes it stand out from the pack. It’s a road-hugger that feels nimbler on its feet than its 3,800-pound weight suggests. The near-perfect 51/49 weight balance helps in that department.

Starting with the Chevrolet Camaro’s bones, engineers baked in a delightfully direct steering that provides plenty of feedback, and they reined in body roll by using a magnetic suspension system. We’re glad Cadillac took the time to turn the ATS into a proper sports car that’s engaging to drive instead of taking the half-you-know-what route of merely making it look like one.

The engine isn't bad, either

Pop the hood and you’ll find the corporate 3.6-liter V6 used in, well, every recent General Motors product with a “3.6” emblem on the back. Its roots go back quite far – we’re talking way back. Do the names Saturn and Pontiac ring a bell? Both brands offered a version of the 3.6-liter. Cadillac updated the six in several important ways before adopting it and stuffing it under the ATS-V’s hood.

In this application, it makes 464 horsepower at 5,850 rpm and 445 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm. It shifts through either an eight-speed automatic transmission (which we tested) or a six-speed manual.

Press the throttle and the engine overcomes a short lapse of turbo lag before racing forward with brutish force. This six-cylinder likes to rev. We found the most satisfying way to drive it on a back road was to manually shift the eight-speed transmission to ensure the engine stays in the upper echelons of the rev range. Turn the pace down a notch, bump the shift lever back into automatic mode, and the ATS-V is perfectly content to cruise on the turnpike for hours on end. We noted the suspension remains stiff even in the softest available mode.

The interior is a mixed bag

Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system is fine. It’s not great or cutting-edge, but it’s not bad. It does everything you expect it to. We found the touch-sensitive panel directly below the center console needlessly complicated, though. It took quite a few tries to figure out how much input the panel needs to execute a command. And, call us old-school but we wish Cadillac had retained a volume knob.

We liked the trick in-car safe behind the panel. Press down on the long, V-shaped piece of chrome-look trim below the buttons and it swings open to reveal a small storage area passengers can use to hide valuable items out of sight. It contains a wireless charging pad for mobile devices, too. It’s certainly not the ideal location for it, but at least it’s there.

The materials used in the cabin aren’t as top-notch as the ones you’d find in an Audi, for example. Some of the trim is harder than it ought to be, though it's hidden in places passengers won't regularly touch, like the bottom parts of the cabin. Cadillac still has progress to make in that area.

Note: the newest ATS benefits from an overhauled infotainment system, which we haven't tested yet.

It stands out

We drove from New York City to Washington D.C. via Philadelphia without seeing another ATS-V. The M3/M4 and the C63 aren’t common by any means of measurement, but we spotted a few examples of each during our trip. We even saw a Giulia Quadrifoglio.

And, you know what? Folks like the Cadillac. We were genuinely surprised by how many people ogled the ATS-V as we drove by. Odds are many of our fellow motorists wouldn’t have been able to name the car or recite the specifications sheet, but most recognized the badge and, hopefully, the styling. People take comfort in seeing the firm still represents American in the luxury car Olympics.

It looks more purposeful than the non-V version of the ATS, especially when viewed from the front. That’s due to the sharper, smaller grille with mesh inserts, the model-specific bumper, and the power dome hood. If we ran Cadillac's design department, we'd stick the V's grille on every ATS regardless of engine. Out back, the changes include four exhaust pipes integrated in to a carbon fiber diffuser and a spoiler on the trunk lid. All told, it's just different enough to stand out in a crowd without going over the top and falling into tuner territory.

It's a car with character

Speaking strictly from a driving perspective, the Cadillac ATS-V is a car with a large serving of character, that amorphous-yet-important quality that powers cars beyond the point of appliance. It doesn’t feel artificial or neutered in any way. It’s not perfect, but it’s an honest performance car that tilts more towards analog than digital. That’s praiseworthy in an era where automotive charisma too often gets buried under layers of electronics and look-at-me sport packages.

Some drivers will inevitably prefer BMW’s decades-long heritage, Mercedes’ burbling V8, Audi’s winter-beating quattro system, or Alfa’s oozing Italian-ness. The Cadillac is an acquired taste, sure, but it’s a damn good one if that’s what you’re into.