“You’re going to Germany... to drive a Cadillac?” I lost count of how many people offered that response when I told them about my upcoming plans, but I can assure you, they were all equally confused. Why would I go all the way to Europe to get behind the wheel of a car that’s easily accessible at home?
Insatiable curiosity, plain and simple.
Since the Cadillac renaissance began in earnest, the brand has been perfectly clear about wanting to be a global player in the luxury market—it’s the only way it could be taken seriously by consumers and competition alike. I wanted to find out firsthand if Cadillac was making headway, and if it even makes sense for them to be heading down that path. Now more than ever, a brand has to possess a defining characteristic, something that makes them particularly noteworthy compared to the rest of the market.. Anyone paying attention knows there’s a lot of noise out there, but is anything worthwhile being said?
In order to determine if what Cadillac is putting down is really worth picking up, there was only one logical thing to do: line up an ATS-V in Germany, and head to some of the best driving roads in the world. If it attracted the attention of the locals, and wasn’t out of its element on the European roads, then I’d have an answer.
To make sure I didn’t end up face down in a ditch somewhere, I invited expert lensman and man with a very European sounding name, Raz Krog along for the ride. Raz had been on the continent much more recently than I had, so his knowledge of certain cultural idiosyncrasies would be most welcome, although he speaks the same amount of foreign languages I do, which is zero. As it so happens, that’s also the number of times the language barrier really got in our way.
I felt pretty damn stupid pointing to the subject line of an email when picking up the car, only to have the woman helping me responded in clear English “Ah yes, the ATS-V, we have it for you.” If you’re in a city in Europe, never assume people don’t speak English, because they probably do, at least enough to get you fed, tell you where to find a gas station is, or to give you an ATS-V coupe.
Having filled out all the necessary documents digitally beforehand, it was only a matter of minutes, (insert German efficiency joke here) before we were on our way out of Frankfurt and bound for Zurich. As soon as we were on the street I could feel all eyes were on us, which we anticipated, but not quite this much.
Heads were turning left and right to catch a glimpse of the ATS-V’s muscular frame wearing Red Obsession Tintcoat paint that shone brightly in the morning sun. The humor of the situation wasn’t lost on us, two young Americans, neither of whom speak a word of German, driving a sporty Cadillac around Europe, all for the purpose of finding out how it fits in with the international crowd, and if it’s up for the challenge of handling a few of Europe’s most entertaining roads.
The familiarity of the ATS-V was more than welcome during the early going as it eased the shock on our poor sleep deprived bodies and minds. If you’ve been in a post-Great Recession Cadillac, then you know their interior design is pretty close to being right up there with the German competitors, and surpass the Asian ones. Sure, the gauge cluster feels like ‘90s Pontiac parts-bin junk, but at least in Germany it gets to display an icon in the color info screen which all automotive enthusiasts long to lay eyes on, two parallel lines angled from right to left in a white circle.
With Frank Ocean’s Blonde pumping out of the BOSE system, I asked the 3.6-liter twin-turbo V6 for all 464 horses and 445 pound feet of torque. Without a moment’s hesitation, the 8-speed autobox kicked down, and off we went, shoved back into the Recaros with big ‘ol smiles on our faces as we flew south past Hockenheim.
The 180 km/h mark came with ease, and 220 km/h was quickly approaching when I had to back off because of construction up ahead. Ah, road construction, the great equalizer. If it’s summer and you’re enjoying a spirited drive, some road construction materialize to ruin your fun. Doesn’t matter if you’re on the ‘bahn or I-90, if the mercury is up, you’re going to get stuck.
Upon reaching Zurich that afternoon, both Raz and myself were running on fumes. The initial high of being abroad, and driving the ATS-V on the autobahn had totally worn off, so we agreed that naps were needed, then we’d go out to explore the city a bit. The naps turned into light comas, and all I can tell you about Zurich is they have a nice Opera house and you can find decent pizza at 11 p.m.
I’ve always found planning ahead to be a highly overrated practice. Our technology-filled world allows us to form an outline for something we want to do, and then easily make adjustments as necessary. If you’re enthralled by the unknown as I am, then you know how welcome it is to be able to do this. No need to book hotels months or weeks in advance, just see where you end up after a day doing what you need to do. With that strategy in mind, we set our sights on two of Switzerland’s best roads, Klausenpass and Furkapass. The idea was to cross over Klausen to warm up, then get to Furka in the late afternoon when the light would be better.
Nothing can really prepare you for the Swiss Alps. I’ve spent more time on, in, and around large mountain ranges than most people, and I was still speechless when the Alps filled the windshield. Although it never had to intervene, I’m glad the ATS-V was equipped with forward collision warning because my head was on a constant swivel. Crossing through an idyllic valley, we passed through village after village, stopping only for the finest of photo opportunities, such as a C3 Corvette wearing an era- appropriate airbrushed paint job. I could have stayed in Glarus for a couple days, but the mission was to drive, so drive I did.
Even when you’re on nobody’s schedule but your own, time management is still crucial, and we were determined to not get caught up in one spot too long. The thing about the unknown is there could always be something more incredible right around the bend, especially when you’re in the Alps.
This became painfully apparent as I chased an Audi R8 down the southern section of Gotthardpass as sunlight quickly faded from the sky. Half an hour earlier and we would have been in position to utilize the backdrop at its peak. Instead, I got to see how much of an edge the mid-engined Audi had on the ATS- V, and on the two-laner with big sweeping turns the answer was, not much.
I got the feeling that the ATS-V was a car that really does rise above its class in terms of performance the first time I drove it at Willow Springs in 100 degree-plus heat. Now having wrung it out on a couple of Europe’s most demanding roads, I’m confident in saying that it’s a bargain, so long as you go easy on the options you can choose from.
Still, there’s one option that Cadillac has to start offering ASAP, for all V-Series cars, if they want to truly be in the “M” and “AMG” conversation. The ATS-V deserves an active sport exhaust like the one in the Jaguar F-Type, a button that cranks the volume when screaming noise is called for. It’s way too quiet for a car that has so much character. It’d be one thing if Cadillac was going the sleeper route, but there’s nothing remotely sleepy about the look of the ATS-V. It’s a angry-looking car, so it should have an angry-sounding exhaust to match.
Raz and I had been discussing this at length during the first day of driving, and were completely vindicated by some Austrians on the second.
Following a heart-pounding assault on the western side of Passo dello Stelvio that involved driving through some of the thickest fog I’ve ever encountered, then subsequently punching through it to be bathed in golden evening light, we spotted a 964 Porsche 911 Cabrio and a Ferrari 308 GTS.
When we pulled into the parking lot at 9,045 ft above sea level, the group of three immediately approached to get a look at what we were driving. All of them admired the design, were impressed by the seats and the paint, and then they asked us what it sounded like. There is no look of disappointment like that of an Austrian automotive enthusiast listening to an ATS-V revving hard.
With the sky turning crazy shades of purple and pink, and a ways still to go to our hotel in Bolzano, we bid our new friends adieu and headed east, only to find that we’d done it again.
We had gotten so caught up in shooting the incredible sunset to the west that we didn’t think about what was on the other side of the hill. What awaited us was a gorgeous view towards the Italian/Austrian border, and all 48 switchbacks of Stelvio Pass east. We lingered but a moment to take in the view, and then it was time to take on the road that Clarkson and Co. famously called “the best in the world”. The timing of our departure couldn’t have been better, as the lights of the 911 appeared in my rearview after the first three turns. The last little reserve of adrenaline surged through my body, and with the assistance of Magnetic Ride Control and the six piston Brembos, I had the confidence to attack the road.
Drive down Stelvio Pass, in the dark, with luggage buckled into the rear seat, and a 964 911S on your tail—I can check that one off the ‘ol bucket list.
Italy had taken a lot out of us, between scrambling to get shots around Lake Como, and the whole Stelvio experience, I was mentally exhausted and Raz wasn’t doing so hot either. Still, we had one more road to tackle, the highest paved road in Austria: “The Grossglockner.”
Construction of a road to link the state of Salzburg and Carinthia was first proposed in 1924, but with Austria in economic ruin following World War One the project never found legs. Then after the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929, and the ripple effects further plunged Austria into economic ruin, their government revived the project to get people working again.
Borrowing its name from the highest peak in Austria, Grossglockner High Alpine Road was completed in August 1935, and hosted a hill climb race for motorcycles and automobiles the very next day. Two more races would be held on the road, one in 1938 and in 1939, before WWII broke out.
I have to go on record and say that Austria is the most beautiful place I’ve been in my entire life. Driving this road is a must for anyone who is remotely passionate about cars. The transition from farmland, to forest, to high alpine forest, to remnants of glaciers is nothing short of astounding. Switzerland is a close second, but the valley leading to the western entrance of High Tauren National Park is straight out of a fairy tale, which makes sense since Austria is where fairy tales were invented.
Since it was the weekend the road was a bit more crowded than either of us would have liked, but we were content to hang around until early evening in hopes that things would quiet down. While we hung out and shot photos, the parade of admirers never stopped.
Not a single motorcyclist went by that didn’t turn their head to gawk at the shiny red Caddy. Thumbs up, nods of approval, waves—we got ‘em all.
Once the crowds had thinned, I hopped in the car and Raz set up shop on an outcropping of rocks. One of the trickiest parts about shooting photos on any road is finding spots to turn around, let alone a mountain pass swarming with motorcyclists who seem to have little concern for their own safety. Luckily for us, the turnouts are plentiful on the Grossglockner, so even with the turning radius of the ATS-V being just OK, I was able to quickly whip around for multiple runs.
That evening was by far the most fun I had behind the wheel during the whole trip. I’ll take perfect high speed sweepers with views of the Alps, mixed with sets of switchbacks, over legally doing 250 km/h any day, although the latter does have its merits. With such deft handling characteristics, the ATS-V seemed to share my sentiment, although it will happily rocket down the Autobahn when you need to make time.
The light was done before we were, but that was okay, because up there on Austria’s highest road, we agreed that this had to be an annual trip. We’d packed a lot into just four days, but there was so much more to delve into in all these places, we knew damn well that we’d just scratched the surface. As for the ATS-V, I believe we plumbed the depths of it, and found that overall it is indeed a true global competitor. What it lacks in fit and finish it makes up for in character and capability—just like the country where it’s made.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the ATS-V has massaging seats, but it doesn’t; chalk that up to jet lag. Also, it’s been updated to clarify the nature of its active exhaust.