Car and Driver came down to the land of milk, honey, hipsters, and money, Austin, TX, to test the all-new V variant of the ATS. They spent some time carving up the asphalt that makes up the fabled "Three Sisters" in the hill country.
They had a lot of good things to say about the new car, so without further adieu, I present you with the review:
Finally armed with the power to match its chassis, Cadillac's coupe shines.
The eccentric tenor of Austin, Texas, goes so far beyond the stereotypes that it could pass for parody. In the city’s South Congress neighborhood, for example, you get your kale juice, fried chicken, and breakfast tacos not from a food truck, but from food Airstreams and food shipping containers. The local thrift shop shares a wall with American Apparel, and everybody pretends not to notice that the hipster counterculture is funded by Range Rover drivers quaffing $20 cocktails.
The off-kilter atmosphere is so pervasive here that it’s normal. What is truly strange in Austin is brash, unashamed indulgence and capitalism without the pretense of keeping Austin weird. Like a $63,660 sports coupe from a brand so tragically unhip that it’s relocating people to New York City with the hope that speeding taxis will splash them with trendiness and relevance.
If you place more stock in what’s good than what’s trending, though, you need to know about the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V, a 464-hp BMW challenger that finally captures what Cadillac has chased for 13 years with varying success. With the ATS-V coupe and sedan, Cadillac has mastered the complete package of performance, style, and driving bliss. To arrive at that conclusion, we pointed the ATS-V coupe into the heart of Texas Hill Country, 180 miles southwest of the state capital by way of Sabinal, population 1695, where we missed the annual Wild Hog Festival and Craft Fair by just one day. The billboard showing a grown man midflight as he’s bucked from a hirsute swine was a reminder that the truly weird parts of Texas exist well outside of city limits.
You arrive in Hill Country by roads both flat and fast. There’s a freeway with an 85-mph posted limit, plus 75-mph two-lanes with curves that could roll a pickup doing legal speeds. Other bends are so long and gentle that we safely blasted through at triple-digit velocities. The main attraction is a network of tighter bends and roller-coaster undulations carved by the state of Texas into the limestone-and-granite moonscape. You have to work to find a boring road here, though there are few more fun than routes 335, 336, and 337, cunningly branded so that local gas stations can sell T-shirts declaring “I rode the Three Sisters.”
The ATS-V is the product of a small team with speed encoded in its members’ genes. On weekends, you can find several development engineers racing third- and fourth-generation Chevrolet Camaros against each other in local SCCA competition. Chief engineer Tony Roma previously served as program manager for the Camaro ZL1. It’s no surprise then that the ATS-V borrows a handful of tricks (and parts) from GM’s Corvette and Camaro speed shops, including an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, magnetorheological dampers, and the Performance Traction Management system.
Tour, sport, and track modes massage steering calibration, throttle mapping, and damper behavior. There are more settings for the stability control than there are cylinders in the engine. Launch control, no-lift shift, and rev-matching logic give the six-speed manual a fighting chance against flappy paddles with shift times measured in milliseconds.
Top right: V-specific gauges are an improvement that leaves room for improvement.
Left: Optional Recaro seats grip as well as the Michelin tires.
For all the computer-controlled possibilities, though, the ATS-V makes a single impression no matter the settings. Instantaneous turn-in, balanced cornering, and palpable steering feel are virtues of the car, not the electronics. Here, the performance aids only enhance the inherent goodness of the car rather than compensate for bad behavior as many “torque vectoring” systems do. Where most automakers speed up throttle tip-in to fake the feeling of a quicker car in sport mode, Cadillac slows the throttle progression in the track setting to make modulation easier. Thanks to the Magnetic Ride Control dampers that adjust quicker and with more bandwidth than traditional adaptive shocks, a single compression and rebound quells every body movement.
Hill Country’s world-class topography is compromised by third-world pavement best described as coarse gravel suspended in a tar adhesive. These roads don’t support the 0.97 g of grip we measured on the skidpad, though you can still marvel at the obedient chassis, the gentle breakaway, and the easy catch of slides at the lowered limits of the road. PTM’s third-most aggressive mode (of five total settings) is the perfect safety net, leaving you just enough rope to tie a noose, but not so much that you can hang yourself.
On roads this coarse in a car this connected, you feel the texture of the surface change in your hands at the same moment your ears register a pitch shift in the thrum of the tires. In small wiggles and twitches, the steering wheel telegraphs the groove where an overloaded truck creased the pavement and the bulge where the earth has never stopped settling.
Bosch (formerly ZF) supplies Cadillac with the same variable-ratio electric-power-steering system found in BMW’s compact sports coupe, a fact Cadillac engineers only discovered as they dissected an M4 in GM’s Warren, Michigan, tech center. Even if it isn’t intentional, it’s more than a coincidence. The last Mercedes that Cadillac purchased for benchmarking purposes was the supercharged E55 AMG built between 2002 and 2006, and no one at Cadillac mentions the Audi RS5 or the Lexus RC F without prompting. The American underdogs aren’t afraid to advertise where they set their sights. “We chose one car to bludgeon, performance-wise,” Roma says of the M3/M4.
So how does Cadillac conjure more steering feel than BMW using the same system? To compensate for the additional lateral stresses transmitted by the Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, engineers stiffened the structure that was originally optimized for weight savings in the base ATS. An aluminum shear plate now connects the front subframe to the body structure, and a pair of diagonal braces ties that cradle to the front longitudinal members. Spherical bearings replace six bushings in the lateral suspension links to enhance wheel location.
Unfortunately, these reinforcements also mean that the Alpha platform’s weight advantage evaporates in V spec. At 3760 pounds, our test car weighed in 204 pounds heavier than the comparable M4, though you wouldn’t know it without driving onto the scales. The ATS-V maneuvers as if it’s the lighter, smaller machine.
Left: A large aluminum shear plate ties the front subframe to the body structure for increased rigidity.
Right: The twin-turbocharged LF4 engine keeps plumbing runs short with liquid-to-air intercoolers straddling the throttle body and exhaust manifolds integrated into the cylinder heads.
Most of this is not exactly news. We’ve heaped praise on the Alpha platform and Cadillac’s chassis tuning in each of the ATS’s comparison-test appearances. The ATS-V amplifies the desirable traits we’ve called out: higher grip, improved steering fidelity, and sharper reactions. The difference is that the V marks the first time that the smallest Cadillac packs an engine to match its moves. Roma readily admits that a small-block V-8 fits under the hood, perhaps with less effort than was required to install the taller LF4 twin-turbo V-6. But with a new, 640-hp CTS-V just months away, Cadillac wanted distinct character and pricing to differentiate the V-series models.
The 3.6-liter V-6 minimizes turbocharger plumbing runs with exhaust manifolds integrated into the heads and liquid-to-air intercoolers perched on top of the engine. Titanium-aluminide turbine wheels cut the inertia inside the turbochargers by 51 percent while the optional eight-speed automatic uses a torque converter that locks up slower than in the Corvette to mask any whiff of turbo lag.
In an age where boosted engines typically churn out max grunt below 2000 rpm, the torque peak at 3500 rpm sounds suspiciously high. But the net effect is one of linearity rather than lag. The transition from rising boost to the 445-lb-ft plateau is less abrupt than in most turbo engines, and the revs climb as if delivered by a torque-rich, naturally aspirated engine rather than a boosted powerplant.
At the test track, the ATS-V launches like a cat out of a bathtub, clocking 4.2 seconds to 60 mph and 12.6 seconds through the quarter-mile. The automatic should do the run even quicker, though we wouldn’t trade the satisfaction of the Tremec’s short, firm throws for those tenths.
Front brakes pilfered from the outgoing CTS-V make easy work of slowing a car that weighs in 500 pounds lighter. The stopping distance from 70 mph measures just 154 feet. There are no optional carbon-ceramic brakes or upsized wheel packages. Only the Track package with a larger carbon-fiber front splitter and taller rear spoiler influences performance. The added aero bits increase downforce at speed while dropping Vmax from 189 mph to about 185.
The ATS-V’s few blatant flaws are squirreled away inside the cabin. The V-specific instrument cluster is more legible than the regular ATS’s, though it hardly looks upscale. The V treatment doesn’t address the ATS’s tight rear seat or the maddening CUE infotainment system that becomes even more difficult to use when combined with a firmer ride and higher speeds.
From the snug hold of the optional Recaros, it’s easy to excuse these missteps. The ATS-V marks the culmination of Cadillac’s concerted efforts to redefine the brand as a leader in driving dynamics and performance. Amid an increasingly competent product range, the ATS-V still stands out as the one astonishing success that manages to pull the whole enterprise together. From a brand that has been closing in on excellence for years, the ATS-V shines as the single star that can guide the rest of the lineup. At least until the CTS-V arrives.