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Cadillac Punches Back: ATS-V First Drive

Cadillac Punches Back: ATS-V First Drive

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Pursuitist Luxury Best Luxury Blog

Sometimes the only way to get respect is to face your nemesis head on.

In middle school there was a kid who picked on me relentlessly. Maybe it’s because I was a snot-nosed punk or maybe it was just because I was new in town. All I knew was that he was bigger than I was so I gave him wide berth in the halls. The world is a small place, however, and ultimately there came a time when I had to stand up for myself and step behind the school building for an exhibition of our pugilistic skills. After our brief skirmish we walked away bruised and a little bloody, both claiming some semblance of victory. After that, when we passed each other we acknowledged each other with a subtle, respectful nod.

Apparently Cadillac has grown weary of being pushed around by BMW. For years they’ve danced around the Munich-based automotive juggernaut with good cars that were never really in the same league as those from BMW. Even the vaunted CTS-V was more of an American hot rod than the sophisticated sports tourer that is the BMW M5.

Now, with former Audi boss Johan de Nysschen at the helm, Cadillac is focusing on building products that will compete in a global market. Their first effort takes dead aim at the car that is the very heart of the the leading luxury automotive brand in the world: The BMW M3.

I know this because before I was handed the keys to a 2015 Cadillac ATS-V sedan by Tony Roma, chief engineer for Cadillac V vehicles, I was told that I should compare it directly to BMW M’s standard bearer that I drove at Road America last year. So I did.

It starts of course with the numbers…

As close as these numbers are, however, this chart doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

While the additional 41 horsepower doesn’t show up on the stopwatch, you can feel it in the seat of your pants. This car has great punch, chirping the rear wheels off the line and in the first three gears if you choose the 6-speed manual transmission. Cadillac also employs the same rev-matching feature that debuted in their sister division’s Corvette, making downshifts smoother and allowing you to keep your foot fully planted on the throttle while upshifting, reducing lag. With the 8-speed automatic, the ATS-V is just as quick and almost as satisfying for a three-pedal snob like me.

The Cadillac is heavier than the BMW and feels it, much more than the 105 pounds indicated by the scales. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In corners where the BMW is nimble and flickable, the ATS-V digs in and carves its way through with great balance and confidence. I did several high-speed runs in the ATS-V reaching triple digits on some of my favorite back roads in the area and even on rough pavement, the Cadillac tracked straight and true with no drama at all.

On the track the ATS-V eminently predictable. There’s almost no body roll when the adjustable suspension and magnetic ride control are set to track mode. In fact, the engineers told me the car is designed to corner just like the Corvette with only two degrees of lean per G of lateral acceleration. With a weight balance of 51/49 front to rear, cornering is very neutral and easy to control with a combination of both steering and throttle. Even with the electronic nannies turned off and driving near its limits, the ATS-V never lost its composure, and my confidence in its capabilities never wavered. In addition, Cadillac’s standard high-performance brakes are track ready. There’s no need to upgrade if you plan on taking the ATS-V to the local raceway for some hot laps.

Inside, the Cadillac feels a little more snug than the BMW. With its long, high center console there’s definitive separation between the driver and passenger space. The Recaro-made performance seats stitched with leather and Alcantara offer exceptional support and plenty of comfort both on the track and the street and overall, the interfaces were clear and easy to use. Two little quibbles on my part. Like many, I’m not a fan of Cadillac’s CUE entertainment system. It’s not as sophisticated nor as intuitive as BMW’s iDrive and I really don’t like the touch screen interface which is hard to operate at high speeds and becomes hard to see as fingerprints build up on its surface. Also, the turn indicator and washer stalk is straight out of the GM parts bin. I know it’s a little thing, but building a world-class car means everything the driver touches should have a substantial feel and operation. This just doesn’t.

On a more subjective note, Cadillac’s engine with its V6 configuration and quad-exhaust sounds more aggressive and satisfying than the BMW’s straight six. Like BMW, Cadillac also pipes in engine noise through the stereo speakers, but for some reason, I found it to be less obtrusive and objectionable than in the M3.

As far as exterior styling, if you like Cadillac’s angular Art & Science design language, you’ll love the ATS-V. Everything about its design screams functional performance, from the vented, carbon fiber hood that pulls hot air out of the engine compartment and helps reduce lift at speed, to the larger grille openings in the front fascia that feed more air to the engine. Even the mesh pattern of the signature grille has been enlarged to allow more air into the radiator and multiple heat exchangers. A front splitter enhances handling by creating significant downforce at track speeds and the fenders are flared to accommodate 18 x 9-inch front and 18 x 9.5-inch rear low-mass, forged aluminum wheels that wear specially developed Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires.

The Cadillac ATS-V in both sedan and coupe form can go toe-to-toe with the BMW M3/M4. In acceleration, handling, overall performance it is every bit as good, every bit as satisfying and delivered in a package that has just a little more character than the Bimmer. Maybe it’s the growl of the engine or the heavier steering feel, but something about the Cadillac feels less like a precision tool and more like a hammer. And in this category, character is never a bad thing.

What it all boils down to is this: Cadillac has delivered a round house right to BMW’s jaw with the ATS-V and should have every ounce of their attention.

Now, just fix the damn CUE system and I’m in.