With the ATS-V Coupe, Cadillac Finally Finds Its New Identity

This is the best car they've got.

Last year I wrote that the Cadillac ATS coupe was “a crucial step forward” for Cadillac but that it lacked a kind of emotional hook that would help define what it means to drive a Cadillac.

Stay with me on this—I’m going somewhere with it.

Consumers needed to be able to recognize and articulate what it feels like to drive a Cadillac car in order to take the brand to the next level; so far, I wrote, we all were a little unclear.

Then came the Cadillac CT6 earlier this year—a nimble, if big, sedan that inched the needle closer to some sort of new identity for the 114-year-old brand. It’s a “slow burn toward relevant luxury," I wrote.

Now we have the $62,665 2016 ATS-V Coupe. Available now (it’s the one in the premier spot in Cadillac’s new, cool "House." It’s really good. If the CT6 is a slow burn toward relevance, the ATS-V is more like a bonfire. Drive it for a week, and you will start to feel a little of what owning a Cadillac is supposed to be.

The ATS-V test-driven by Elliott.
The ATS-V test-driven by Elliott.
Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

A Modern Cadillac

While Cadillac makes a sedan version of the ATS-V, for a good time, buy the coupe. It has the same 3.6-liter, twin-turbo V6 engine and six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic on rear-wheel-drive, but it stays slim and mean without the extra doors. It may be only nine pounds lighter and no shorter than the sedan; but somehow, shaving off those extraneous doors makes it easier to whip and spin and slay everything in sight. (Psychologically speaking, I mean.)

You’ll certainly be able to challenge the $65,700 BMW M4 Coupe and $66,900 Mercedes CLS400 Coupe. (If you opt for the sedan, compare it against the M3 sedan and the C63AMG sedan.) For looks I prefer both the BMW and Merc; both have a better-made, better-looking interior than the ATS-V. But when it comes to sheer performance, precision, and track-worthy handling, it’s a near dead heat.

The 464-horsepower ATS-V coupe can hit 60 miles per hour in 3.8 seconds—faster than the Merc’s 5.3 seconds and faster than the Bimmer’s 4.1 seconds—and the Cadillac has a top speed of 189mph. Press the gas and you get that blush of turbo pause—but then it bursts forward with a guttural roar that will strike fear into the uninitiated. The 445 pounds-feet of torque push you back into your seat like a force field; the feeling is as strong as in any comparable car I’ve driven.

The Cadillac ATS-V Coupe arrives track-capable from the factory next spring, powered by the first-ever twin-turbocharged engine in a V-Series. Rated at an estimated 455 horsepower (339 kW) and 445 lb-ft of torque (603 Nm), the 3.6L V-6 is the segments highest-output six-cylinder and enables 0-60 performance of less than 4 seconds and a top speed of more than 185 mph.
The Cadillac ATS-V Coupe arrives track-capable from the factory next spring, powered by the first-ever twin-turbocharged engine in a V-Series. Rated at an estimated 455 horsepower (339 kW) and 445 lb-ft of torque (603 Nm), the 3.6L V-6 is the segments highest-output six-cylinder and enables 0-60 performance of less than 4 seconds and a top speed of more than 185 mph.

This, in fact, will be the first moment you start to realize that the ATS-V is (finally) a Cadillac you can buy simply because it’s great, not because of some sense of patriotic duty. I know some of you will hate me for saying that (and I love you for it), but for the majority of buyers under the age of 40, it’s a new and crucial statement to make.

The strength of this car shows when you move it out of a straight line. You need to get into something technical to feel how precise the steering is, how purposeful the brakes are, how balanced and direct the chassis is. The word tenacity applies.

Cadillac has developed its third-generation magnetic ride-control suspension into something superior to anything else you can buy for the price. It’s matched with five different options of traction management and a system that radically cools the car’s components when driven to its highest capacity. That means it can run longer, smoother, and fiercer on the track. The paddle shifters move quickly and well; if you choose the optional manual, the gear box with auto rev matching on downshifts is direct and efficient.

What does it feel like to drive? Like a machine operating to its fullest potential, as precise as a scalpel and as potent as an asp. Push it around town or on the track. It never takes a false step. It doesn’t coddle you like a Mercedes; it doesn’t wrap you in a road-eating vice like a BMW. It’s straightforward and sure in the most direct American way you can imagine.

The Interior (Still) Needs Work

The interior is where I have a problem. It could be a lot better, with higher-quality materials and more space in the rear seat, which exists as a direct affront to knee-caps. Cadillac has also included the five-year-old CUE entertainment system, which critics and drivers alike continue to despise—despite a recent “upgrade”—for its lumbering speed, ineffective touch-screen capability, and confusing orientation. It takes a few days to get used to its mapping and performance-tracking capabilities, advanced as they are, and the whole thing takes what seems like ages (10 seconds or so) to even activate, once you turn on the car. Combined with the hyper-vigilant side-warning alert system, it can become an annoying environment.

The Cadillac ATS-V Coupe arrives track-capable from the factory next spring, powered by the first-ever twin-turbocharged engine in a V-Series. Rated at an estimated 455 horsepower (339 kW) and 445 lb-ft of torque (603 Nm), the 3.6L V-6 is the segments highest-output six-cylinder and enables 0-60 performance of less than 4 seconds and a top speed of more than 185 mph.
The Cadillac ATS-V Coupe arrives track-capable from the factory next spring, powered by the first-ever twin-turbocharged engine in a V-Series. Rated at an estimated 455 horsepower (339 kW) and 445 lb-ft of torque (603 Nm), the 3.6L V-6 is the segments highest-output six-cylinder and enables 0-60 performance of less than 4 seconds and a top speed of more than 185 mph.

I did like how stubby the steering wheel feels—it matches the compact feel of the car, in general, as you drive—as well as the secret hidden and cooled compartment and charging dock under the dash that opens at the push of a button.

The car I drove cost nearly $79,000 after upgrades; if you want a real luxury sports car, the $2,100 Luxury Package (sport alloy wheels, Navigation, Bose surround sound, among other things) and $1,300 Data Performance Recorder won’t cut it alone. If you can, choose the Recaro sport seats ($2,300), power sunroof ($1,050) and full carbon fiber package ($5,000). Those help mitigate the crisis.

The Exterior Styling Looks Good (Finally)

The exterior, on the other hand, looks surprisingly palatable, which is why I’ve left it for last. We are using to seeing things that are formless and void-like from Cadillac. No more. This is the first Caddy that I’ve heard more than one young creative say they would at least consider as a respectable ride. No, they didn’t say they’d buy it, but they could. Baby steps.

Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

Cadillac has made a form here that is distinctive without being over-styled. Every line, from the chiseled carbon-fiber hood to the sharp rear, looks deliberate and functional. It’s a little square, but some people like that. I drove one painted in “Velocity Red” to match the successful race car; its quad tailpipes, 18-inch aluminum wheels, and gnarly aero splitter gave it just enough verve to be taken seriously on a track. The grille is big: Some people will like it, some won’t. I like how the daytime running lights pull straight back along the hood as the fins on old Cadillacs did years ago. Thank goodness the sides and roofline are smooth and understated; otherwise it would be too much.

That balance, in fact, captures the total nature of the ATS-V (which, by the way, has a near-perfect front-rear weight distribution of 51/49). It’s fast but has finesse under that hood. It’s sleek but singular to look at. It’s an American sports car that can take on European standards. For an American, driving the ATS-V feels like coming home.

If you are looking for a road-to-Damascus style conversion to something made by Detroit, this is it.

(Corrects model name of the comparable Mercedes in the seventh paragraph. It is the CLS400 Coupe, not the AMG CLS63 Coupe.)
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