Shoulda been a contender.
The Phantom Gray 2017 Cadillac ATS Premium Performance model you see here has all the right stuff to be a world-class sports sedan: a solid, lightweight platform; rear-wheel drive; a high-revving 3.6-liter V-6 with 335 naturally aspirated horsepower; a snappy eight-speed automatic transmission; adaptive, adjustable magnetorheological dampers; a limited-slip differential; and staggered-width summer tires. Stir in options such as the V-Sport red-painted Brembo calipers with slotted rotors and upgraded pads, performance exhaust, a sport suspension upgrade, and an interior richer than a Parisian house of ill repute, and we’ve got ourselves a four-door Chevy Camaro V-6 in a Hugo Boss suit.
Or at least that’s what it should have been. Despite that impressive arsenal of equipment, this Cadillac turned in a rather mediocre performance. Not what we expected from a car that seemed to be just a pair of turbochargers and a brace of Recaro seats away from being an ATS-V.
Now in its fifth year of production, the ATS has evolved too little where it counts. At the time of its introduction, its Alpha rear-drive platform and optimized suspension geometry raised the standard for compact-luxury-sedan handling, and we said as much in a comparison test between the 2013 ATS and its performance bogey, the BMW 328i. Despite the Caddy’s tremendous cornering acumen—which it possesses to this day—it lost that comparison test between the turbocharged four-cylinder models. In 2013, the 3.6-liter V-6 version came in third in a three-way comparison against the BMW 335i and the Lexus IS350 F Sport. Why? Because there’s more to a luxury sports sedan than its ability to ride and handle.
For starters, there’s the powertrain. Since we first tested a 2013 ATS 3.6 sedan with its six-speed automatic transmission, both its 3.6-liter V-6 and the gearbox have been replaced. With 335 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 285 lb-ft of torque at 5300 rpm, the new 3.6-liter makes 14 hp and 10 lb-ft of torque more than did its similarly sized predecessor, and with eight speeds rather than six, the new transmission—in theory—should be able to make the most of its enhanced output. Yet, this car needed 5.6 seconds to get to 60 mph, 0.2 second behind the 2013 model. The same gap is found at the quarter-mile mark, which the eight-speed ATS hit in 14.2 seconds at 100 mph. Perhaps more worrisome: Its zero-to-60-mph time was also 0.2 second slower than the ATS 2.0T AWD we tested last year, a car that weighed nine pounds more than this one. The eight-speed, it appears, has been geared and calibrated with far more interest in fuel economy than in performance.
Blame, too, the V-6’s lack of low-end torque, being 10 lb-ft shy of the peak figure produced by Cadillac’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four and far behind the higher-performance variants of its competitive set, such as the BMW 340i, the Mercedes-AMG C43, and the Infiniti Q50 Red Sport 400. With more abundant torque at lower rpm—thank you, turbochargers—each of those cars easily makes the zero-to-60-mph hustle in the mid-four-second range and offers better midrange power than the ATS 3.6, which must be wound nearly to its 7000-rpm redline before it feels like it’s on the boil. That’s a task we rather enjoy in, say, a Camaro V-6 1LE with a manual transmission, but in this car, it’s somewhat out of character. Sure, the ATS has shift paddles, but few will want to use them all the time. Speaking of the Camaro, in that car the same V-6 emits a sound that we’ve described as a “heady tenor snarl,” but this Cadillac’s performance exhaust system—a $1650 option—produces more of a droney blat, and that blat is too loud. (From outside, however, the car sounds bad-ass. Remember the old Infiniti G35? Yeah, kinda like that.)
The chassis, though, is as competent as ever. This example came with every conceivable performance enabler, and we’d hoped that would help the Bridgestone summer tires hold on to a 300-foot-diameter circle with more than the 0.90 g of lateral grip we measured on the skidpad. Still, 0.90 g remains at the competitive end of the sports-sedan spectrum. More to the point, it felt right—with perfectly weighted steering and little perceptible body roll. Braking also was impressive, with the ATS requiring just 156 feet to stop from 70 mph, among the shortest distances in the segment.
What didn’t feel right was the ATS’s packaging. Undeniably dressy, the ATS is nonetheless graying at the temples, turning zero heads as far as we could tell. The dashboard remains a mish-mash of capacitive touch sliders and buttons on which one is never quite sure where to press—on the silver parts or on the shiny black regions just above them. The CUE infotainment system is a well-documented source of madness that is offset somewhat by the friendly folks at OnStar who relieve subscribers from the need to enter destinations into the navigation system themselves, instead allowing simple voice commands. Also on the plus side: The clever (if confusing at first) hidden storage bin behind the motorized central dash panel contains an inductive charging station as well as a USB port. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are supported, and all works as intended.
The rest of the interior gives no respite to the eye. The designers deserve credit for blessing the Cadillac with a rich mix of materials, but when the passenger-side dash is covered with leather, sueded microfiber, carbon fiber, and a hard plastic lower section, one gets the sense that designers are hitting too many notes to make them all sing in harmony. It gets worse in back. While the seatbacks on our test car wore more sueded microfiber, the plastic on the back side of the center console could have come out of any of General Motors’ 1990s compact cars, if not for the two tiny air vents and the 110-volt AC and 12-volt DC power outlets. A simpler, clean interior rendered with a narrower array of exquisite—and only exquisite—materials would be better. Folks like being offered a choice among 31 flavors of ice cream, but no one orders them all in one cup.
The ATS already had a mid-cycle refresh in 2015, but Cadillac missed that opportunity to take this car to another level. It made cursory exterior changes and only slightly alleviated the issues with the CUE interface. It didn’t even rid the car of that dust-attracting piano-black trim that looks so good in designer sketches but cheapens the cabin once the fingerprints, scratches, and debris inevitably accumulate. A complimentary Cadillac-branded dust cloth is not a solution.
The ATS was conceived to beat the BMW 3-series, and when it was launched in 2012, it almost did. But it never actually has, and the narrow margins by which it missed the mark five years ago appear to be widening, to say nothing of the fresher challengers such as the Jaguar XE, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-class, and more. As it stands today, the ATS remains an awesome chassis topped by a good, but not great, design effort. Maybe next time out, it really will be best in class.