Feature: Sharp dressed: 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe review

Photography courtesy of Cadillac/GM

My first up-close encounter with Cadillac’s new two-door variant of the ATS came late last year during its unveiling at GM’s Dearborn, Michigan facility. Alongside the all-new Colorado mid-size pickup, the company was also showcasing its new 4G in-car Wi-Fi and entertainment technology on the 2014 Impala, as well as the cream of the crop, the C7 Corvette Z06 supercar, which at that point consisted of nothing more than a full-size painted clay model and cutaway version. Regardless of how incomplete or unavailable the Z06 or ATS Coupe were at the time, they each gave more than the full effect.

The assignment for Ignition Luxury & Performance was two-fold and, covering both the ATS Coupe and Corvette ensured that I would be covering both luxury, and performance. I had driven the ATS sedan earlier in the year at a special #ATSDrive event at CTMP Mosport, hauling the six-speed manual, rear-wheel-drive 2.0 Turbo around the Grand Prix circuit at high speed. I was largely impressed by Cadillac’s then-newest offering, so when I found out I would also be seeing the “new and improved” Coupe, I was very interested to see what was in store.

Coming full circle from that Dearborn trip, the Corvette Z06 was featured in-depth in our Spring 2014 issue, “5 Cars you Must Drive,” looking directly at the exotic technologies packed into the North American supercar, for anything but exotic prices.

When the Canadian launch event of this newest ATS Coupe finally arrived, it was the culmination of a long and anticipated wait that began when the curtains were drawn on that cold December day last year.

The four-door sedan had done extremely well in the year leading up to the press unveil. It was named the 2013 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit auto show and, in the four months leading up to the coupe unveil, Cadillac was consistently beating or demolishing its 2012 sales numbers: up 10 per cent in September and October, then 11 per cent in November. When the bell rang on 2013, Cadillac had outsold its previous year by an astounding 28 per cent, due largely to the XTS and ATS sedan.

The sedan exceeded company sales expectations by as much as 15 per cent. As impressive as that was, executive design director Andrew Smith and his team would not be caught sitting on the laurels of success with this lower, longer and wider ATS coupe.

“This was an opportunity to do something very expressive,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s not trying too hard. It’s a really confident vehicle. I think it will appeal to different people than the sedan as well.”

It marks a changing of the guard at the company previously regarded as the luxury “boatmaker” of the industry; cars that had creature comforts and were fantastic for bourgeoisie businessmen, but had little to compare when it came to the likes of their sportier, agile European counterparts. The CTS Coupe paved the way, and now the ATS Coupe has refined the sleeker, bolder and sharper representation the Cadillac brand – not only in design, but driving character. It’s also the first Cadillac to carry the company’s revised, sleeker crest.

The CTS Coupe paved the way, and now the ATS Coupe has refined the sleeker, bolder and sharper representation the Cadillac brand – not only in design, but driving character.

“The ATS is an important step in overall vehicle design for us,” Cadillac Product Manager Scott Meldrum says. “It’s monumental for the identity of Cadillac.” 

This coupe takes what I consider the top two engines from the sedan’s three: an updated version of the 2.0-litre inline-four turbo, outputting 272 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, and the 3.6-litre V6 with 321 horsepower at 6,800 rpm (shown above). The 2.5-litre, 202 horsepower ECOTECH stays in the sedan and will likely not make the move to this new sibling.

My formal test happens to and from Wellington, Ontario, about two hours east of Toronto as part of the Cadillac-hosted Canadian launch. With Cadillac’s Director of Communications, David Caldwell in the passenger seat, I embark on an insightful and informative drive. The route is well-known to motorists and riders for its purposeful flow, moderating speeds and sheer driving freedom, all obvious, especially when driving through the beautiful changing colours of fall.

This was an opportunity to do something very expressive. But at the same time, it’s not trying too hard. It’s a really confident vehicle.
— Andrew Smith, executive design director

I opt for the 3.6-litre V6 rear-wheel-drive "Premium” coupe. The six-speed paddle-shift automatic is the only transmission available for the 3.6 (the 2.0 T also has a six-speed manual option), but in automatic mode and the normal drive setting, it allows me to test the ATS how many people will likely drive it in slower - or stop-and-go - traffic. Not surprisingly, it's comfortable and quiet. Auto shifting from the Hyrdra-Matic is also smooth, and throttle response is more impressive than I expected. Even in normal mode, there is very little shift lag, something I’m not used to from previous automatic Cadillacs of this size.

Part and parcel of the Cadillac’s comfort stems from GM’s magnetic ride control (non-Premium models get sport-tuned shocks and struts). Personally, it’s one of the most exciting aspects of the car, if not solely because it’s the exact same system employed by the heralded C7 Stingray. The Premium trim-exclusive suspension is fully operational at all times, reading surface conditions up to 1,000 times per second and keeping the 51/49 weighted vehicle balanced for more precise control. When we escape the city and highway 401 for the lake shore, a quick mode change from tour to sport engages the magnetorheological (say that five times fast) fluid controlling the four corners, and I flip the transmission to manual mode to get the most out of the car and the test.

Firstly, the adjustment in handling is obvious, but it doesn't require a change in driving style. The mode switch simply sets the ATS to what you’d naturally expect. Paddle shifts are quick and precise, further accented by the sturdy metal triggers. The speed-sensitive, electric-assisted ZF steering rack operates pointedly with excellent feedback, making me forget this is supposed to be a luxury car – not a sport coupe. The Premium coupe’s standard four-piston, fixed Brembos further reinforce that notion. Riding higher into the revs, the exhaust puts out a note that lets you know this American V6 is serious.

Even the optional safety features put a smile on my face. There are no beeps or flashing lights if you’re being lazy or about to make an error behind the wheel. Instead, your seat vibrates subtly as if you’re driving over rumble strips. If you’re being really bad, the lane keep assist will actually steer the car back into the lane smoothly and progressively if you accidentally cross the median or shoulder line when you’re not supposed to. It can easily be overridden, and it's neither impeding or forceful. It feels just right.

There are no beeps or flashing lights if you’re being lazy or about to make an error behind the wheel. Instead, your seat vibrates subtly as if you’re driving over rumble strips.

Put simply, this is a car that I want to drive again. While he won’t admit it flat out, Caldwell is quick to point out that, although Cadillac doesn’t consider itself a direct competitor with certain European marques, the numbers are there to back up the ATS’s performance. The smaller 2.0-litre Turbo for example, puts out more torque and achieves a 0-96 km/h time faster than the BMW 428i, Mercedes-Benz C250, Audi A5 and Infiniti Q60. It outputs higher horsepower than each of them as well, save for the Q60. And it does that at a cost that’s $2,660 to $5,560 less than each of them.

In combination with the drive, after closely examining the comfort and interior details of the various test cars from the event, it’s clear that – competition or not – the new ATS Coupe can more than hold its own against the best.

It may be why the company has been actively expanding to markets across the globe, first confirmed by Smith, then again by Caldwell, who, during a stopover, made remarks about Cadillac’s recent expansion into China with the long-wheelbase ATS-L.

“This car would be very appealing in Europe,” Smith says. “It’s an obvious fit for Europe… and certainly we’re excited about China as well.”

Truth be told, of the Detroit Big Three, GM seems to be the only one putting its foot forward in the compact luxury class. Some may see it as jumping into a shark tank, but Smith simply sees it as an opportunity for success. If there was ever a reason, the ATS just might be it.

“It’s interesting not coming in as an American and having an idea of what Cadillac is,” Smith says. “What I want to do globally is not shy away from being American. It is the American luxury car brand.”

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe V6 Premium

Base Price: $53,635 CAD ($52,665 AWD)
Engine: 3.6L V6
Horsepower: 321 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Torque: 275 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Curb Weight: 1,601 kg
Configuration: FR (FA available)
Transmission: 6-speed paddle shift automatic
Tires: 225/40 R18 front, 255/35 R18 rear
Fuel Economy Ratings (city / hwy.): 12.8 / 8.4 L/100km
Warranty (mos. / km): 48 / 80,000 km
Notable Options: Driver assist package ($3,555); Track Performance Package ($525); Power sunroof ($1,395)