Cadillac aims to take on the world’s best entry-level luxury saloons with the new ATS. Are the Germans in for sleepless nights? wheels finds out
Once upon a time Cadillac was unequivocally known for making some of the best luxury cars on the planet; the name was synonymous not just with prestige and quality, but with finery on a plus-size scale — Cadillacs were gorgeous, and full figured. But the world has moved on and, while the Escalade still has a place at the mantle, the small car is the automotive battleground du jour. For propulsion, which needless to say is an absolute imperative in this product category, Cadillac is offering two different four-cylinders and a V6 for the initial North American launch.
While the all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-banger, with its 272bhp is one of the most power-dense engines around, alas we won’t be seeing it in the UAE, at least not initially. Hopefully they’ll bring it over eventually, because I did drive a 2.0, and it did not disappoint. There’s also a 202bhp 2.5-litre base model, which is not coming to our region. I spent the bulk of my day in the V6, which sports a robust 321bhp, pairing well with the ATS’s slender frame.
I had the opportunity to slalom around the brand-new Atlanta Motorsports Park track several times with the 3.6 growling in my ear pleasantly, and bore signs of a good track day afterwards; a sore face from grinning and a slight wobble to my gait incurred by adrenaline overdose. It’s good that I started out with the turbo, because by the time I applied the V6’s 373Nm of torque to the track, I’d grown to know the blind corners much better. Reaching 100kph in 5.4 seconds, the 3.6 gives the ATS the kind of acceleration that is essential to any 3 Series contender.
The ATS design team has worked hard to keep the weight down in the ATS. In fact, Cadillac set out to make the ATS one of the segment’s lightest cars, weighing in lighter than the A4, C-Class and the 3 series, and it shows in the excellent power-to-weight ratio and handling. With power comes responsibility, and that’s why the ATS offers ample technological refinements in ride control, handling and stability. Cadillac has applied a very serious technology package to uplift the driving experience offered by the ATS, including Cadillac’s first five-link independent rear suspension, using high-strength steel and straight link designs.
The car also features a multi-link, double-pivot MacPherson-strut front suspension with direct-acting stabiliser bar, driver-adjustable FE3 sport suspension with Magnetic Ride Control real-time damping, premium electric variable-effort steering gear by ZF Steering Systems, and four-channel ABS with available Brembo performance brakes. In normal driving conditions, the ATS was much as expected; ask the car to sprint ahead of some laggard, and there’s plenty of muscle to overtake, mitigated by a pleasing throttle response that is just ever-so-slightly stiff at the top of its throw.
I noticed this in stop and go traffic — I would often press just a tad too hard to re-engage the throttle, causing the engine to rev just a bit more than I would have liked. Naturally it’s a non-issue with the manual tranny, where starting and stopping relies more on the clutch, but we’ll have to wait for the turbo in order to get the six-speed manual here. On the winding back roads of Georgia, the ATS handled curves aggressively. It was obvious that you could ask a lot more from the car and, once I got on the track, ask I did.
The answer there, was always yes, but with a provision; in sport mode the ATS’s stability control does what all well implemented stability control systems do, making hack drivers like me much faster than we have any right to be on the track. But there’s a difference. Combined with the V6, the ATS offers a much more seat-of-the-pants ride than any other luxury vehicle I’ve sampled. Push hard in a long winding turn and you’ll feel traction start to slip, just. The harder I pushed, the closer to the edge of stability I was able to get the ATS, making the track experience exceedingly rewarding.
There’s just something a little bit wilder, perhaps a hint of Detroit ethos in the ATS’s handling that, far from an impediment to great laps, gives it a personality that is different from any German car I’ve driven. But then all you have to do is look at the ATS and you know it speaks another language — one that is, frankly, quite musical. Despite aiming for first-time luxury buyers, this car’s no toy, and luring younger buyers is an important strategy at GM.
So keep in mind Caddy’s old-school vibe when you consider that the ATS will offer both manual and auto ’boxes, in what is surely a nod to the curmudgeonly sort of drivers who lament the advent of stability control. In fact, this might be just the implementation of modern handling and stability systems to woo the OG petrolheads; the ATS is an incredibly safe and lithe car that, at the same time, offers an altogether thrilling ride at extremes.
There’s a message that’s encoded in the Cadillac ATS and it’s loud and clear; Caddy is proud of its heritage, but unencumbered by expectations based on past success. The future is still out there, undefined by today’s brand loyalties, waiting for someone to build the next must-have luxury vehicle. Driving the ATS is something I’d recommend to anyone keeping tabs on the smaller luxury cars and, once you do, you’ll be wondering the same thing as I am: When’s the ATS-V coming out and which track should we bring it to?