Damn those contemptible Germans! Who won the war, us or them? All I know is that Cadillac has built a 464 horsepower, twin turbo, rear-wheel drive track and street weapon in the 2016 ATS-V, and all anyone’s going to say is “But is it as good as the BMW M3 and M4?”
(Full disclosure: Cadillac needed me to drive the 2016 ATS-V so badly they offered to fly me to sunny Austin, Texas and put me up in the fancy Hotel Saint Cecilia. I said no because I already live in sunny Austin, Texas, but I did eat and drink on Cadillac’s dime, and I’m happy to inform you the Hotel Saint Cecilia bar makes a mean Old Fashioned.)
I’m getting tired of this. “But can Cadillac beat the Germans?” is the laziest auto journalism cliché since “Gosh, Hyundai sure makes nice cars now!” At what point is Cadillac good enough to stand on their own without comparison to anyone else?
Now it’s true that no car exists in a vacuum, and the ATS-V enters a highly competitive market. Every member of this current class of sports sedans and coupes is outstanding. Tough game, building an M3-fighter. One of the toughest games there is.
But after sampling the V-ified ATS at Circuit of the Americas and on public roads, I can tell you it offers fantastic levels of performance in a very complete package. It has the brutal speed, extreme track day competency and a uniquely American brashness to make it a first rate sport sedan and coupe — no matter what you want to pit it against.
Of course, Cadillac invited these comparisons to the Germans, implicitly and explicitly. Modern Cadillac is, for better or worse, BMW as viewed through an American lens. They even benchmarked the ATS-V against the last M3, and priced it similar to the current one: the sedan starts at $60,465, and the coupe starts at $62,665.
Today’s luxury car buyer doesn’t want the cushy, insulated American land yachts of yore; they want performance, even if they’ll never use it. (That Lincoln Continental is for China, not for you.) With the V-series cars, Cadillac has been doing the luxury-performance thing for more than a decade now, and the new ATS-V is their best entry yet.
That’s right: it’s the best V-series car yet. The outgoing CTS-V was a tire-smoking barnstormer, a supercharged V8 beast that fought exotics in drag races and put Cadillac on the performance map. Immensely popular as tuner cars, it’s hard to find a CTS-V that isn’t tracked, modified, drag raced and generally loved to death by its owner, in some ways even more so than the German luxury performance sedans.
An M3 says “I love to go fast but I also need you to know I’m rich.” The CTS-V says “Bite the curb.”
Aside from the lamentable lack of a wagon version, the ATS-V is even better. It’s rowdier, more nimble, better on track and more high-tech in every way. It’s also more fun to drive. The ATS-V came with a lot of doubt because it’s a turbo V6 and not a V8, but those doubts were unfounded.
If you need eight cylinders, an all-new 2016 CTS-V is coming with a 640 horsepower Z06-sourced V8. I’m told it will be a very different car from the ATS-V, with a very different character. That should make for a fun lineup.
What you need to know is that Cadillac engineers didn’t just shove the twin-turbo V6 from the CTS Vsport into the ATS and then go home for an early weekend. Instead, the ATS-V was thoroughly worked over in almost every possible way.
To minimize turbo lag the revised 3.6-liter V6 (known as the LF4 in GM engine parlance) has titanium connecting rods, low-inertia titanium-aluminide turbines and a relatively short air tunnel between the throttle body and the turbos. A new low-volume charge-air cooling system maximizes boost and minimizes heat.
What else? A new electronically controlled limited-slip differential. Wider front and rear footprints. A 50 percent stiffer suspension featuring the harder, better, faster, stronger new generation of Magnetic Ride. New chassis structures to make everything stiffer. A carbon fiber hood. A six-speed manual, previously only available on the four-cylinder ATS, or an eight-speed auto from the Stingray and Z06. Launch control for the manual and auto transmissions. Five levels of traction control. Rev matching. No-lift shift for the manual gearbox, which I never quite mastered out on the track.
I could go on and on. There’s a lot of stuff they added. PERFORMANCE STUFF. The important thing to know is that Cadillac engineers didn’t just take an ATS and make it faster and better-handling — they made it more badass.
It certainly looks that way. The ATS-V has to be one of the meanest sport sedans and coupes out there right now. It looks like what you get when a Z06 runs off with a base ATS for a party-filled weekend that’s heavy on tequila and light on birth control. I think it especially looks sharp in white, or black, where the V-series cars have always been most sinister.
Inside... um, did I mention how cool it looks on the outside? The interior remains the biggest problem with the ATS-V. It has a few tweaks in there, including the Recaros, but the rest of it is pure ATS, which means the materials are still just okay, the infamous CUE panel is still infuriating and the gauges are still parts bin-tacular. It’s not really up to snuff as a $74,000 car. You can tell the interior isn’t where they spent the money on this thing.
Instead, it excels in other ways, most notably its handling. I like to think of the base ATS’ handling as Dancing With The Stars. You’re the fat, schlubby ex-NFL player or washed-up former child actor from Eight Is Enough with no skills, and the car is the pro dancer, graceful and skilled. Except in V form the dancer is Bruce Lee. Still graceful and skilled, just at destroying things, and dancing. (Yes, Bruce Lee was a champion dancer, too. The man was good at a lot of things.)
The new 464 horsepower, 445 pound-foot twin-turbo V6 engine is a brute, too. The CTS Vsport’s turbo V6 is pretty potent on its own, but this reworked version is much quicker, much more ferocious.
Zero to 60 mph happens in a Cadillac-claimed 3.8 seconds, and top speed is 189 mph. It’s an incredible powerplant, good enough to win over even the most hardened “no V8, no care” turbo cynic.
Enough with the numbers and the stats. Let’s talk about how it drives. To do so, Cadillac put us out on extended track sessions at COTA and tossed us the keys so we could drive the cars around Austin’s fine back roads. In neither setting did the ATS-V disappoint.
As I wound the motor out on my way up to Turn 1, I thought something was wrong because the car was lurching at high RPMs. Nope — it’s just that redline comes up on you insanely fast in this thing. Way faster than I expected. I got a nodding “Yup” from Cadillac engineers when I brought this up later.
Around COTA the V6 provided abundant acceleration, never feeling inadequate as I propelled the car to almost 140 mph on the back straight. I’m sure a more skilled driver could get it quicker. Cadillac’s engineers were right, too — they’ve succeeded in killing any turbo lag at all in this thing. If there is any, I couldn’t feel it. Power delivery is immediate and ample starting from low RPMs. It just goes. Angrily.
But like the regular ATS, the best part of the ATS-V may just be its handling. Quick! Somebody get BMW on the phone and tell them how to set up an electric steering rack. The ATS-V actually has the same ZF hardware they use, it’s just tuned differently here, and so much better. This electric rack is very direct with a solid heft to it and respectable levels of communication. It isn’t numb and lifeless like so many of them are. The wheel itself is beefy, with raised grips where your hands go, and it’s a delightful tool to use.
The way the ATS-V tackles corners is phenomenal. With a smaller size and weighing 500 pounds less than the old CTS-V, it’s unquestionably the better handler. It’s flat, agile and composed at high speeds.
More than anything it’s a good partner on a tight, technical track like COTA. Even with the traction and stability control dialed back (I liked it best in Mode 3) the car never felt like it could get away from me. It stuck when I needed it to and slid when I wanted it to, and when it slid it was incredibly easy to sort out.
It’s very hard to screw up in the ATS-V unless you shouldn’t be on a track in the first place.
Loads of credit go to the Brembo brakes, 14.5-inch six pots up front and 13.3-inch four pots in the rear. Cadillac promised they wouldn’t fade and they never did. Tremendous stopping power after that triple-digit back straight, which is what you want so you don’t die.
We had both the manual and automatic cars available for track sessions, so I sampled both. I’m a manual guy at the end of the day so I preferred that one, and I found its rev-matching feature to be surprisingly useful in that setting. On the street it’s a gimmick at best, but it’s great to have on track.
GM’s new eight-speed auto is very good, but in manual shifting mode I found it to be a bit cumbersome, slower on upshifts than its competitors and too quick to override my shifting requests. Eventually I just left it in full automatic mode, and it excelled in this setting because it’s smarter than me anyway and knows what gear it needs to be in.
I’ve driven a lot of fast, good-handling cars on COTA and other tracks. The ATS-V is special because it feels like it truly belongs in that setting, like it’s at home out there.
After track time ended I grabbed the keys to a red manual-equipped ATS-V Coupe and set out for an all-too-brief hour of me time. The track package, 16-way Recaro microfiber and leather seats and a few other options brought this coupe to $74,355.
Out on public roads the ATS-V is shockingly quick, able to hit triple-digits speeds on the nearby Texas 130 toll road (where everybody goes that fast anyway because Texas is amazing) with a shocking immediacy. Once again, that redline comes up real quick if you aren’t prepared. It’s pin you back in your seat, eyes go wide levels of fast.
Even with the fancy magnetic suspension, the ATS-V’s ride falls on the firm side. Cadillac engineers stressed that like any luxury sport sedan, they wanted it to be a comfortable daily driver when hoonage isn’t taking place. They mostly succeeded, but it never lets you forget it’s performance car first and foremost, not a boulevard cruiser.
I’m sad to report that in order to make it more refined Cadillac has opted to do the speaker engine noise thing, and so the car is extremely quiet unless you get on it or it’s in Track Mode, which opens up the exhaust valves. Speaker-fed or not, the V6 has a throaty mid-pitch growl and an even better exhaust note from the outside. It lets people know, if you follow me.
The six-speed manual is a solid unit. The clutch is a bit on the light side and also a bit vague, but the shifter’s throws are crisp and short. The eight-speed auto is good, but the manual is more fun. Duh. It’s the one to get here, especially since the 2016 CTS-V will be auto-only.
Aside from the so-so interior, it’s a total package performance car. Cadillac did everything quite well here.
The verdict is a solid yes for the ATS-V, if you weren’t able to tell from the rest of this. It’s a phenomenal car, one of the crown jewels of GM’s already excellent performance car lineup. I think it’s going to make V-series die-hards, and anybody else curious about it, very happy every time they drive it.
But is it as good as what BMW makes? I kind of have to bring that up, even if it’s exceedingly lazy. (And I’m nothing if not lazy.) The honest truth is that I don’t know. Mainly that’s because I haven’t driven the newest M3 and M4 yet, so I can’t tell you.
What I can tell you is that the ATS-V is the ATS we always wanted, and that it’s good enough that it doesn’t need to be compared to anything else.
Photos credit Cadillac, Patrick George for Jalopnik
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