I promised myself I would not begin any review of a contemporary Cadillac by ladling out the tired tropes around the brand, the ones about funeral directors and suspensions tuned by Serta and a demographic defined by actuaries and the all-you-can-eat-buffet coupons that come with every vehicle purchase. So I won’t.
I also promised myself that when I inevitably got around to writing about a vehicle from the company named for the French explorer who founded Detroit in 1701, Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, I would work in my list of the five greatest songs ever written with “Cadillac” in their titles: “Cadillac Ranch” by Bruce Springsteen; “Cadillac Assembly Line” by Albert King; “Voodoo Cadillac” by Southern Culture on the Skids; “Long White Cadillac” by The Blasters; and my personal favorite, “Brand New Cadillac” by The Clash. Your playlist can thank me later.
What I didn’t promise myself was to fully set aside my bias towards high-horsepower German cars, because bias is a funny thing. You see, I’m the proud owner of a long string of Audi and BMW burners and subconsciously wear the subtle smirk of arrogance admittedly (and sadly) endemic to drivers of those brands. I'm not proud of this, you understand, but it is what it is. I've been known to raise an eyebrow and chuckle when I see an Infiniti. When I talk to Lexus drivers, I generally say stuff like “Man, really nice car. No, really.” But Cadillacs? Um, no.
But it’s impossible to ignore what GM has been doing with the brand over the last decade, to not only bring it back to respectability but make it a legit competitor to the Teutonic marques, and the thundering sound of the racing CTS-V.R racecars ripping up the pavement (and claiming victory after victory) over the past few years in the Pirelli World Challenge series certainly got my notice. Cadillac seems to have cooked up some sort of secret sauce.
My personal history with Cadillac did not begin auspiciously. To wit: The first Cadillac I ever drove was a Cimarron. Let that sink in for a moment. A Cimarron. This did not endear me to Cadillacs. (Contrast this with how my personal history began with BMWs, when my oldest brother picked me up from high school one day in his new 1980 318i, blasting Van Halen’s “Running with The Devil” on the Blaupunkt. I was smitten.)
The second Cadillac I ever drove was the 2016 ATS-V you see here. It’s about as different and far removed from the Cimarron as Screaming Eagle is from brown-bag malt liquor.
(Thanks to the fine folks at Van Cadillac in Kansas City, Missouri, for the extended test drive.)
Cadillac’s new design direction first rolled out to the world with the CLR in 2003, a low-volume and expensive roadster based on the Chevrolet Corvette’s platform that arrived on the scene with a power-folding aluminum hardtop, Cadillac’s 4.6-liter Northstar engine tuned for 320-hp, and enough sharp design angles to open an Office Depot’s worth of envelopes. It was a looker, and most importantly looked like no other prior Cadillac. A line in the sand if you will. The XLR ushered in what I call Cadillac’s “metallic origami” design vocabulary and to its credit they’ve stuck with and refined that design language over the past decade-plus.
The ATS-V is the latest model to embrace the look, and the current generation of Cadillacs all feature sharp creases and angles in a way that imparts an unmistakable familial resemblance: From the hulking Escalade hip-hop bus; to the regal CT6 full-sized sedan; to the insane CTS-V rocketship (and big brother to the ATS-V); to the butch XT5 and SRX crossovers found at Target shopping centers everywhere. I’m a big fan of the overall family of designs. The vocabulary is all sharp edges and points and lines, which nicely plays off the updated Cadillac brand emblem. Dreamy Wife, always a harsh critic, was a little less convinced at the ATS-V’s front-end design. “Whoa, it’s pretty grilly.” Thus beauty proves itself again to be in the eye of the beholder.
The ATS-V is the hopped-up version of the ATS, and like it’s less potent sibling is available in both sedan and coupe form. (The latter model is the format on which the Pratt & Miller-prepared ATS-V.R race car is based.) The car I drove was painted a deep Black Raven finish, with the interior done up in Jet Black. It was a serious and austere combination, intermixed with carbon fiber bits and black Alcantara complimenting the beautifully finished leather and quality-touch plastics. One interior knock are the various small but noticeable strips of chrome adornment that harken back to a cheesier time in Cadillac’s history. Why all American cars still insist on random bits of chrome escapes me, and if there was some sort of “black out” package available for this car I’d jump on it quickly. No, I'm not a huge fan of chrome on modern cars.
The quality of the materials and assembly will be a surprise to anyone who hasn’t sampled GM’s finest in a few years. Fit-and-finish were superb, leather surfaces were beautifully stitched, and plastic surfaces were springy (and expensive-feeling) to the touch. I’d go so far as to call the quality virtually Japanese; this Caddy was every bit as lovely as the last Lexus I was in. Nice stuff, and absolutely worthy of a car in this price-point (as tested: $70,965).
My car was also outfitted with the optional RECARO performance seats and for $2300 I can’t recommend them enough. They managed the difficult balance of being both supportive and comfortable, with electric adjustability that let me easily find a perfect fit. They’re stunners to boot, gripped well under all my hooligan maneuvers, and had none of the overly rigid aspects of similar seats installed in German competitors. They may be the best seats of any car I’ve been in ages. Goldilocks seats: They’re just right.
I can’t say the same about Cadillac’s CUE (“Cadillac User Experience") system and its touch-screen display. To the good, the display is bright and brilliant and attractive, and the user interface is fairly intuitive and responsive. To the bad, I’m just not a fan of the button-less control systems found in several manufacturers' products of late. Regardless of responsiveness, stabbing at a screen while on the move is never as intuitive or fluid as turning a knob, and having to slide your finger along a slider bar to adjust the volume of the stereo while underway is always an exercise in frustration. (And don’t get me started on the inevitable and ubiquitous fingerprints.) Like all user interfaces, I’m sure competence comes with repetition, but in my time with the car I didn’t get comfortable interacting with either CUE or the HVAC system, which also relies on sliding and pressing small spots of shiny black plastic located above shiny chrome (more chrome!) separators on the plastic (and plastic-looking) piano-black main panel (which was the only quality letdown in the entire interior). CUE looks and works better than the system on modern Jaguars (like the F-Type R with which I recently spent a week) but it’s still not as useful as the wrist-and-finger twist controllers found on other cars in this segment. For what it’s worth, the Bose audio system sounded spectacular.
Another spectacular sound arrived when I pressed the Start/Stop button. The ATS-V starts with a bark, then immediately settles down into a purposeful rumble. Thankfully, Cadillac’s engineers decided to omit most of the “hey, look at me!” startup theatrics currently in vogue with so many performance GTs and sedans (I’m talking to you, BMW), which are fun for the first few times then become a source of awkwardness and social embarrassment thereafter.
Exhaust tuning is no mean feat in a car with this much juice. The ATS-V has muscle-sedan power in spades, with its 3.6-liter, twin-turbo V6 that makes 464-hp and 445-lb/ft of torque. It’s sledgehammer fast, exceedingly linear, with little perceptible forced-induction lag below 2000rpm and none above. Off the line, the car plants and just goes and goes, those lovely RECAROs gripping and supporting while the car does it’s best to push you into the rear seats, a great roaring, ripping sound pulsing while the tachometer in the Heads-Up Display spins easily towards the 7000rpm redline. Maximum power is made at 5850rpm so anything north of that is just making noise, but what a glorious noise it is, with none of the piped-in falseness so annoyingly favored by German engineers. The ATS-V makes it to 60mph in only 3.8 seconds; it’s quick. But it doesn’t feel that quick
I attribute that to the car’s Achilles' Heel, it’s transmission. True auto-boxes rarely have the same sense of immediacy and snap as the best of current-generation dual-clutch transmissions, but some (like the aforementioned Jaguar) do a yeoman’s job of tuning responsiveness and aggression into a reasonable facsimile. Not so the ATS-V’s 8-speed automatic, which always felt a step behind the eager powerplant, regardless of which set-up program the car was in. Even Track mode, which firmed up all other dampers nicely, delivered muted, behind-the-curve shifts. At one point, I got frustrated enough at my paddle-commands being lazily executed that I put the car in Drive, thinking the Sport- or Track programs would hold revs and downshift aggressively. Not so. It’s almost like Cadillac is begging buyers in this segment to choose the optional 6-speed manual while Caddy works on cutting a deal with ZF for the latest dual-clutch model to install. The 8-speed automatic is not this car’s friend.
The suspension, though, is more than up to the challenge of reigning in the motor’s grunt. With struts in the front and a lovely multi-link setup in the rear, the car’s handling is great, with reasonable feedback in all three program settings. Sport is the mode to leave it in, as there’s not much difference in tactile feel between Sport and Track, and Track is more heavily weighted all around than is comfy on anything but perfect roads. The car is beautifully balanced and weighted and turns in and bites with confidence, the electrical nannies allowing a fair amount of rear-wheel slip before asserting themselves (and this car has more than enough juice to light up its rear tires at virtually any point if you can convince the transmission to help a brother out). While this is certainly no Lotus, the trick magnetic dampers nicely mask the car's rather chunky 3812-lb curb weight.
And the brakes are more than up to the job, the red Brembo’s ratcheting the car down from, er, extra-legal speeds with ease and balance and utter confidence. They’re great. Overall the ATS-V’s suspension is tuned to true GT-car standards, and doesn’t feel the need to assert itself as a pure teeth-jarring track weapon like some of its German competitors. It's a performance car that's both easy to live with and enjoy every day.
So how to sum up the ATS-V? I’ll admit to wanting to like this car; the Germans badly need some new competition, and the marketplace needs some additional variety. Plus I'm the sentimental sort and who doesn't love the thought of a Cadillac? On the plus side, the ATS-V has a superb engine, great suspension tuning, distinctive looks, and fabulous seats. It’s even priced as somewhat of a bargain in this class. On the negative side, it’s a car let down by an overmatched transmission and a frustrating suite of on-board electronics, as well as some reminders of parts-bin cost-cutting (if those turn signal stalks aren’t shared with a Chevy Cruze, they could be).
In the end, the ATS-V is a really good car; full stop. It's not quite yet a C43 Coupe or M4 but that's okay. All due credit to Cadillac for building a legitimate competitor to the field of BMW M, Mercedes AMG, Lexus F, Audi S and RS, and Jaguar R cars. (And let’s welcome Alfa Romeo to the party with its upcoming Giulia Quadrifoglio.) Those marques’ performance reputations have been built over years and generations of vehicles, proving themselves in the marketplace and racetracks of the world with decades of engineering experimentation and brand-building behind them. Cadillac comes to the party with a shallower pool of performance history, and it’ll take several generations of development to gain both true credibility and market share. I applaud the effort and commend them on the obvious quality steps they’ve taken with the ATS-V. For anyone wanting to sample the pinnacle of refined American GT-car engineering, your Cadillac dealer is the place to start. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the ATS-V. Now, about those chrome strips and touch-screen fingerprint smudges…