The ATS Coupe marks Cadillac’s first foray into the compact luxury segment, as long as you don’t count the ill-fated Cimarron and Catera. Whether the ATS Coupe is a compact can be debated, but what is certain is that Cadillac is taking a very big swing at the sporty segment usually reserved for rival manufacturers from Europe and Japan.
We had the chance to sample an ATS Coupe fitted with a turbocharged four cylinder and a six-speed manual at the Motor Press Guild’s annual Track Days event late last year. The refreshing news is that this car connects on many of those big swings.
For example, the ATS Coupe is designed to be lighter and more agile than its competitors. With a curb weight of 3,418 pounds, the ATS Coupe is lighter than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class coupe, the BMW 3-series coupe, the Lexus RC 350 and the Audi A5.
“More power with less weight is always a better combination for performance, and the ATS Coupe offers one of the best power-to-weight ratios in the segment, making it feel lighter, more direct and responsive,” said David Leone, Cadillac executive chief engineer. “Engineers vetted the ATS’s performance on the track, and the Coupe benefits from that exhaustive validation – all matched with Cadillac’s trademark refinement.”
As Lotus founder Colin Chapman taught us, adding horsepower makes a car faster in a straight line. Removing excess weight makes it faster everywhere. That’s not to say the ATS Coupe is a fast car. If you’re looking for something genuinely fast, Cadillac just debuted the ATS-V Coupe. Powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with variable valve timing and direct fuel injection, the ATS Coupe is lively. The engine produces 272 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque from 3,000 to 4,600 rpm, so this little four-banger pulls pretty hard.
For comparison, a 1996 Pontiac Firebird Formula or Camaro SS produced 275-horsepower and weighed 3,450 pounds. Those cars were a lot of fun in their day, but they would never get close to the ATS Coupe’s fuel economy ratings of 21 city and 31 highway, and they were no more fun to drive.
There are a few elements that make the ATS Coupe as fun and lively as it is. First, there is the weight distribution at 51 percent front, 49 percent rear. The ATS Coupe also is fitted with a five-link independent rear suspension, Brembo front brakes and front McPherson strut setup with dual ball joints. It’s also equipped with underbody aerodynamic shields, but it’s doubtful we could feel those during the test drives.
A driver-adjustable FE3 sport suspension is optional. It includes Magnetic Ride Control, a mechanical limited-slip differential, high-capacity engine cooling system and 18-inch summer-performance tires. Magnetic Ride Control is a real-time damping system that delivers more precise body motion control. It “reads” the road and can change damping every millisecond.
The result is a tossable car that’s actually a good bit of fun on a racetrack. Whether these cars will make their way to a racetrack with any regularity is anyone’s guess, but if they do, they may surprise a few people with how poised they are. There were some things worthy of criticism, however.
“With the ATS, understeer is manageable, but there is a little too much turbo lag,” said NASA Director of Business Development, Jeremy Croiset, who also drove the ATS coupe at the event. “If you induce oversteer, which you can, it is hard to carry the oversteer through the corner because of the turbo lag.”
That could be dialed in with a bit of tuning if you could find a shop that could do it. Driving the car on a track was easy thanks to the adjustability of the seat and steering wheel. It’s possible to get up nice and close with the steering wheel aimed at your chest, racer style, yet still have enough room under the steering column to heel and toe without hitting your knee on the bottom of the steering wheel or steering column. Clutch take-up was spot on for quick shifts and the shifter effort was nice and light.
Inside, the ATS Coupe was trimmed out in leather with either real wood appliqués or the best plastic faux wood you’ve ever seen. The dash and door panels were wrapped in soft-touch vinyl French-stitched at the seams. The seating surfaces were perforated to make them breathable and there was ample side bolstering for hard cornering. They’re not race seats, but they’ll do if you need to make this your Time Trial car in a pinch.
The two details inside the car we could have done without were the CUE system, which controls the stereo, infotainment and navigation controls. It was almost as difficult to use as the HVAC controls beneath it. The HVAC system also gave no feedback such as a click or ding to let you know whatever you just touched worked. It was so unintuitive, it was distracting.
As low points go, the CUE and climate control systems don’t mean much during a HPDE or track day. They are however regular interfaces during everyday driving. As good as the rest of the ATS Coupe is, it deserves better systems than that.
“The 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe is a natural step in the brand’s progression, and another distinctive, fun-to-drive and technologically advanced product for a new generation of drivers extending our target groups,” said Uwe Ellinghaus, chief marketing officer, Global Cadillac. “It is an exclusively distinctive American alternative, unique in its class, yet delivering a sporty and sophisticated driving experience rivaling the world’s best.” — Brett Becker
|2.0-liter VVT turbocharged I4
|272 @ 5,500 rpm
|295 @ 3,000-4,600 rpm
|MacPherson-type with dual lower ball joints, twin-tube struts and direct-acting stabilizer bar
|Independent five-link with twin-tube shock absorbers
|Tremec TR3160 six-speed manual with single overdrive
Rear axle ratio: