If you had told me five years ago that General Motors — more specifically, Cadillac— was going to make a car like the ATS-V, I would have callously laughed at you in disbelief.
That’s because nothing in the carmaker’s history would suggest it could go from making woefully outdated, quasi-luxury geriatric land-barges into producing a rear-wheel drive sports sedan capable of stepping into the realm of BMW’s M division or Mercedes’ AMG — all in the span of a single car’s development cycle.
And yet here we are. With a 464-horsepower twin-turbocharged V6, 8-speed automatic transmission, electronically adjustable suspension and cushy sport seats, the ATS-V is a Cadillac for the 21st century and one that should have the Germans nervously looking in their rearview mirror.
But, as I learned after a week with it, simply making a car that competes on paper doesn’t mean it’s a full-blooded challenger on the pavement.
Sport is the antithesis of comfort. That’s why making a Cadillac sporty seemed to be counterintuitive. Impressively, just like the Jaguar XF S and the Mercedes-AMG C63 S, the ATS-V gets awfully close to perfectly melding the two divergent concepts.
The ATS-V’s seats are its crowning achievement in this segment. They’re classic Caddy comfortable while also being able to competently cradle your body during hard cornering — and, believe me, you’ll be doing plenty of that in this car. That’s because it handles incredibly well. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Aside from its soft seats, the cabin is quiet and, in terms of style and build quality, falls between the BMW M3 and the Jag XF. It’s a sight nicer than the BMW but not as ‘youthful’ as the Jag and not nearly as cool as the AMG.
Although the ATS-V (like the rest of the current Cadillac line) is let down by its CUE infotainment system, it’s bolstered by another piece of in-car tech: the standard Performance Data Recorder (PDR).
The PDR, which originally debuted on the Chevrolet Corvette Z06, is a forward-facing digital camera mounted up behind the rearview mirror that can record your driving session. As you can see in the GIF below, it can also overlay road speed, engine rpm, steering angle and even a G-force meter.
While it is in no way essential, it’s a really cool tech feature that not only distinguishes the ATS-V from its rivals but also allows its owners to bore their friends to death by making them watch their sportiest driving sessions.
The seats aren’t the only comfort tour de force in the ATS-V. The car’s Magnetic Ride Control suspension is, perhaps, the best electronically adjustable suspension in its class; it’s incredibly smooth, but also taut and sporty. Amazingly, it also boasts the ability to make micro adjustments so fast that— at 60 miles per hour (mph) — it can calculate realtime damping adjustments every inch of the road the ATS-V is traveling.
If you’d asked me to guess before driving the car, I would have wagered the ATS-V’s weakness would be its V6 engine. GM is known for displacement, not refinement. Sadly, I was wrong. While the engine is OK, what it’s mated to is much, much worse.
The ATS-V’s twin-turbocharged 3.6-liter V6 is both smooth and powerful…but not in a European way. With 464 horsepower and 445 pound-feet of torque on tap, it’ll do 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds on the way to its 189-mph top speed — all while producing a trumpeting exhaust note.
That said, the 3.6-liter feels like an engine originally created for mom’s Chevy Malibu that designers used all of their smarts turning into a BMW fighter. And they’ve done a great job at that — on paper. But it doesn’t delight with a sharp crispness the way a BMW inline six-cylinder does.
The best way I can describe it is like eating vegan cheese: It tastes like cheese and feels like cheese, but you know something just isn’t right. You can just sense the hours of work turning something that was never ever going to be cheese…into cheese. The same is true with the ATS-V. Its repurposed power plant delivers acceleration in a stringy lump while the M3 pulls across the rev range.
If the engine is capable of sort of faking the sporting funk, what’s mated to surely cannot: GM’s all-new “Hydra-Matic” 8-speed automatic transmission.
Although the ATS-V can be had with a six-speed manual gearbox, my press demonstrator was fitted with the new 8-speed auto that Cadillac brags can execute commands “160 times per second” and execute upshifts “up to eight-hundredths of a second quicker than those of the dual-clutch transmission offered in the Porsche 911.”
I’ll grant them that maybe it can do that on paper or in the lab. On the street, however, my loaner car exhibited none of those characteristics.
Even when the car was in “Track” mode, the transmission felt soggy and lazy. In Manual shift mode, using the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, my shift commands were often responded to with a “shift denied” message on the instrument cluster.
And when my shifts commands were complied with, they were often excruciatingly slow. They were so slow, in fact, it felt like the car had to bounce shift commands off a satellite and back down to the transmission before they were complied with.
Worse, the automatic seemed to have no Sport mode at all. Cadillac says it has a “Performance Algorithm Shift,” but I sure never felt it. When left to its own devices — even in Track mode — it would shift up to eighth gear as fast as possible. While this strategy is great for eking out as many miles per gallon as possible on the highway, on a desert mountain road during a spirited drive, it’s infuriating.
To put plainly: I could neither shift the 8-speed myself the way I wanted, nor could it be trusted to shift itself the way I desired. Essentially, I had 464 trumpeting horsepowers underneath the well-sculpted hood ahead of me, but had little way to tap into them in any meaningful and reliable way.
The Cadillac ATS-V is a perplexing vehicle for me. It’s incredibly good looking. It has the most comfortable sport seats in the segment. It has the best electronically adjustable suspension in its class. And its trumpeting 464-horsepower is just intoxicating (when you can get at it). But, sadly, the great components don’t add up to a triumphant whole.
Its engine is stringy and awkward in its power delivery. Its infotainment is slow and silly. Its brakes are easily overwhelmed and over heated. And its noncompliant 8-speed automatic is anything but sporty.
In the end, I respect the ATS-V for what it is: A huge leap forward for Cadillac. But it’s still several yards behind BMW.