The Cadillac ATS sedan is dying at the end of 2018, and that’s sad. So to commemorate the dear Cadillac sports sedan’s passing, some of us are going to write about our experiences with Cadillac’s attempt to fight BMW’s 3 Series.
When Cadillac debuted the new ATS sedan at the Detroit Auto Show in early 2012, it was clear what the brand’s intention was: it was gunning for the Germans. “Germany’s famed Nürburgring,” Cadillac’s press release boasted, “served as one of the key testing grounds, along with additional roads, race tracks and laboratories around the globe[...]”
The release touted the car’s fancy suspension and its all-new platform, which offered “one of the lowest curb weights in the segment” at under 3,400 pounds. All of that was meant to bring the ATS on the same playing field as cars like BMW’s E46, which Cadillac allegedly used as one of the dynamic benchmarks during development.
And while it’d be tough to say Cadillac quite got the ATS to the level of a 3 Series, some of us would say that it sure as hell got close.
I haven’t driven the standard ATS, but I have gotten behind the wheel of the ATS-V sedan, and let me just say: it is special. The first time I ever drove a Cadillac ATS-V was on a camping trip from the Detroit area up to the Upper Peninsula, a four-hour drive on which I fell head-over-heels in love. In part, because I ripped awesome hard launches on the empty roads up north over and over until fatigue forced me to pull over:
I slept inside the ATS-V, which sounds like an unpleasant place to camp, but it wasn’t thanks to the car’s incredible Recaro 16-way adjustable seats.
The ATS-V handled well, its brakes could stop an Australian road train, the steering was next-level good, and acceleration was a riot thanks to the 3.6-liter twin-turbo V6, which I actually took on a dyno. It made lots of power. All of the power.
It takes only one drive in the ATS-V to know that it was engineered superbly, but even without driving it, and just looking at the technical cleverness, it’s clear that there was some real nerdiness put into this car. I learned that when checking out the ATS-V’s cooling system, which I called “a masterpiece of engineering.” I’m sad to see this wonderful sedan go.
I first drove an ATS sedan at the Cadillac V-Performance Academy at Circuit of The Americas, and it was great. I only got to drive the ATS-V. It made me feel like I could push my limits to the point of discomfort while still feeling like I had solid handling and brakes under me in case I got overambitious.
But I’ve already written about that.
Instead of talking about how much I enjoyed the ATS-V that day, I want to talk about the regular ATS sedan. Some background, first: My husband and I made a deal that we would not buy any vehicles until we pay off our house. So, for now and the next few years, I must sadly browse Craigslist and other sales websites, planning how I’m going to spend my freedom once I have it.
That planning sometimes becomes obsessive. Once upon a time, I set out to find a relatively recent, manual vehicle with decent power that takes regular gas and isn’t front-wheel drive as a daily driver. (My husband has a thing against FWD and I don’t want to listen to him complain forever if I buy one.) A dealbreaker for me is a requirement for premium gasoline, because I’m ultra cheap and I’ve put premium in a 707-horsepower Dodge Challenger Hellcat. I’m not paying for premium unless I get that kind of power.
Do you know how hard it is to find a manual, non-FWD, recent vehicle with a decent HP rating in this country? Do you? Let me tell you how hard it is. The first few model years of the ATS were the only cars I found that fit my criteria. Manual, rear-wheel drive, recent model year, 272 HP, a version with four doors and the option for a red—yes, red—interior. The other colors are beautiful, too.
I haven’t driven a regular ATS sedan yet, but I look longingly at all of the sale listings online. It’s a lovely car that won’t make me cry every time I have to get gas, and it didn’t deserve this fate. We live amongst monsters, who have pushed out the sedan in favor of high-riding, plastic-cladded crossovers.
Monsters, I tell you.
I’ve driven one and a half ATSes. I drove an ATS-V coupe, which was genuinely as fun on a twisty road as much as it was fast. That’s a rare quality for a performance car in the modern era.
I also couldn’t remember if I drove an early Cadillac ATS sedan with the 2.0-liter turbo. (I double checked—I didn’t drive it.) But I did ride in it and watch it drift through a snow storm that came through NYC all those years ago. I might’ve had the chance to get behind the wheel of the ATS, but I had my old VW Baja Bug there. Compared to that, the Cadillac was about as exciting to drive as a riding mower. Wait, no, that would have been awesome.
What I do remember about that ATS sedan was that the interior looked nice but felt remarkably cheap and the back seat was real cramped. My coworkers might have enjoyed powersliding it (in brief spurts, as it clogged its wheel wells with snow ever few minutes), but I understood why nobody would buy it. A quick test drive would show you everything not to like about it, unless the dealership was located right in the middle of Laguna Seca.
We spend a lot of time talking about the idea of “slow car fast,” meaning that you can have a lot of fun and get a strong sensation of speed driving a plucky car hard rather than holding back a lot of horsepower.
But I enjoyed the ATS-V so much because it felt like uniquely balanced in that sense. Serious, real speed but delivered in a way that felt accessible. This car gave me a lot of confidence and was a genuine joy to drive.
Given that the industry trend seems to be pro-four-door (Jeep Wrangler, Civic Type R, any pickup truck) I’m surprised the big one is the first to go and frankly I think the ATS design works better as a sedan. But alas. I couldn’t afford one anyway.