American beefcakes: Cadillac’s new ATS-V and CTS-V

We test out Cadillac’s two new performance models, the ATS-V and CTS-V.
The Cadillac ATS-V, with the saloon in black and the coupé in red. The ATS-V is one of two fresh models from the American carmaker aimed at rivalling the likes of BMW, Jaguar and AMG. Courtesy Cadillac
The Cadillac ATS-V, with the saloon in black and the coupé in red. The ATS-V is one of two fresh models from the American carmaker aimed at rivalling the likes of BMW, Jaguar and AMG. Courtesy Cadillac

When you hear or read the name “Cadillac”, what normally springs to mind? For me, it’s huge 1950s cars with outrageous tail fins, lashings of chrome, whitewall tyres, bench seats and a boot big enough to fit the entire family inside if they start getting on the driver’s nerves. What definitely doesn’t immediately spring to my mind is motor racing or muscular road-going saloon cars with Ferrari-­baiting performance, but Cadillac would like a word in our collective ears to change that.

Hence the reason I’m at Yas Marina’s Formula One circuit in Abu Dhabi, where I will be getting to explore the outer edges of the “performance envelopes” of Cadillac’s latest mentalists: the ATS-V and the CTS-V – two new models (there’s never been an ATS-V before now) that their maker is using to take the fight to BMW, Jaguar, AMG and the rest of the Euro establishment in the battle for tyre-shredding lunacy. It’s as though these companies have vested interests in the rubber supply chain, such is the punishment the new breeds of super saloons dish out on their ­Michelins, Pirellis, ­Dunlops, et al.

These are not cars to appease anyone’s enviro-conscience. They represent the apex of conspicuous consumption, because unlike impractical supercars that offer similar levels of firepower and performance, you can use these things every day, with three or more passengers on the work commute or family outings. Then, if you’re so inclined, you can rip up the tarmac at the weekend on a racetrack – they really do, on paper at least, represent the best of both worlds.

For Cadillac to take what it considers to be a decent market share, it needs to offer realistic alternatives to BMW’s M3, M4 and M5, Mercedes’s C63 AMG and E63 AMG, Jaguar’s XE S and XFR, as well as Audi’s RS4 and RS6, and, new to the fold, Dodge’s frankly insane ­Charger Hellcat – tremendous machines, one and all. Unlike the American car industry’s approach in times past, these new Caddies need to offer more than simple straight-line speed, because at this level of motoring, the chassis is as important as the thing that propels it. But, hey, we’re at Yas, wearing a crash helmet (which usually signifies the fact that you can go as fast as you like), so my hopes are high that the ATS-V and CTS-V will be properly sorted weaponry.

The American brand is in the process of repositioning itself, freely admitting that, over the past three decades or so, it has lost most of the prestige image it used to be associated with. ­Cadillac used to be held aloft as an iconic company that produces hugely desirable cars that the young, up-and-coming and fashionable set gravitated towards. Cadillac’s star has almost faded into obscure irrelevance. Its task to thrust itself back into the limelight is daunting, to say the least.

These will help. Overall they look like different-sized versions of the same design, the ATS variant being more compact and available in two- or four-door body styles, while the CTS has gravitas aplenty, with a bad-boy stance and attitude that, while still subtle, is just enough to whisper: “Come on, you wuss. Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.” I like a bit of danger when it comes to performance cars, and there’s decent visual balance when it comes to both of these new ­Cadillacs.

The ATS was the first ­General Motors product to genuinely impress me, and it was right here that I spanked it at full throttle about three years ago, its gruff V6 putting in a sterling performance that was comprehensively matched by a sweet chassis and perfectly judged damping. It was revelatory – suddenly an American saloon car was able to hold its head high among the big players. And now the version many of us deep down knew was inevitable is here. When a base car is as capable as the ATS, there’s a compelling reason to give it some proper muscle.

Developed by a small team of part-time racing enthusiasts and serial modders, evidently this has been a labour of love, with the engineers responsible freely raiding the Corvette’s parts bin. The V6 remains, but it has been blessed with a duo of turbochargers to liberate an impressive 464hp and 603Nm of twist. Stateside, there’s a six-speed manual offered, but here that particular avenue of pleasure has been closed off – we’re limited to a paddle-shift eight-speed automatic.

Its Brembo stoppers are suitably large, and there’s a third-­generation “Magnetic Ride ­Control” damping system that Cadillac says offers 40 per cent faster response. If you’re partial to external addenda and frippery, there’s a carbon-fibre aero package, and there are hugging ­Recaro sports seats to keep yourself in place while hammering through the tighter turns – it’s all extremely heartening stuff.

As for its bigger brother, the CTS-V, this is the third iteration since its debut a decade ago. In the States, the imperial measurement system is still used, so our benchmark acceleration time of 0 to 100kph is binned in favour of 0 to 60mph, which equates to 96kph. Cadillac claims the CTS-V will perform this feat in just 3.7 seconds, if you floor it in the right conditions. That’s seriously quick in anyone’s book.

Under the standard fitment carbon-fibre bonnet lies a monstrous, supercharged V8 that displaces 6.2L, putting down 640hp and 855Nm via another eight-speed slushbox. Like the ATS-V, this has Brembo brakes, adjustable magnetic damping and Recaro furniture. ­Attractive 19-inch wheels are wrapped with bespoke triple-compound Michelin Pilot Super Sport rubber, and these help enormously in enabling nearly 1G in lateral acceleration.

Advancements in the V8’s design, and that of its super­charger, are too numerous and complex to bore you with here, but suffice it to say it all stacks up – on paper at least – to a super saloon that can hold its own with the competition. What I want to do is find out how all this theory translates into seat-of-the-pants thrills, so I don a silly white hair net, squeeze my cheeks into a helmet and plonk myself into the Recaro driving seat of a four-door ATS-V.

This thing can crack 304kph, but I’m expecting it to be a ­pussycat compared to the unhinged CTS-V. That’s not to say this isn’t a stonking performer – it fires itself up the straight sections of Yas Marina Circuit with fierce acceleration and absolute control, and feels relentless in its pursuit of the red line. The plumbing of its turbochargers means they’re close enough to the combustion chambers for lag to be noticeable only by its complete absence, meaning the delivery of power is smooth, uninterrupted and, if you become accustomed to its maddening transmission, savage.

It’s the shifting of the gearbox that lets down the ATS-V when you really want to get on it and move. Before we were let loose, Cadillac’s people were at pains to point out that you can “preselect” your chosen ratios before you enter a corner, enabling you to get straight back on the gas while exiting, without fumbling for the right gear. In practice what happens is that, when you do get back on the throttle, the car feels like it has shifted into neutral for maybe half a second, before it wakes up and delivers the power you’re attempting to summon. It might not be that big a deal, but it definitely robs you of a certain degree of enjoyment.

On the road, I’m sure this will rarely be an issue, but here, on the smooth, fast-flowing Grand Prix circuit, the ATS-V is crying out for that six-speed manual ’box. When I mention this to Cadillac’s people back in the pits, they get on the expected charm offensive, and try to convince me that “you get used to it” – something I cannot accept, because automatics can actually offer lightning-fast shifts; they don’t need to be so recalcitrant. You only have to try out the ZF auto in a Jaguar F-Type to know this is the case – it shifts up and down with electrifying pace and you rarely, if ever, find yourself yearning for a manual on road or track.

The CTS-V, fortunately, is able to devastate anything in front of it on a staggering wave of torque that means the gearbox has less work to do. Through the more-challenging corners it feels intimidating, such is the sheer pace you find yourself travelling at when entering them. Apparently the “V” in the nomenclature of both these ­Cadillacs stands for “velocity”, and rarely has that word been more ­appropriate.

While the ATS-V is chuckable and benign on the limit, playful almost, this thing displays an almost malevolent amount of power that, should the traction control system be disarmed, would have drivers very quickly experiencing a Cadillac-Armco interface in thick clouds of tyre smoke. What this car is doing overtime is fighting the laws of physics, and without that computing power at its disposal, it would no doubt be undriveable. But it’s enormous fun once you start to feel confident enough to gun it, and it remains cool, calm and collected as the scenery becomes a blur, offering superb levels of grip and composure.

These cars aren’t for everyone. They do offer all the practicalities and luxuries of luxury saloon cars, but their performance potential puts them in the same brackets as mid-engined exotica that costs twice the price (the ATS-V starts at Dh265,000, while CTS-V numbers are to be ­confirmed).

As halo models for a brand that’s desperate to be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Bentley and other luxury icons, they certainly form a positive impression. If the next generation of ATS-V comes with an automatic transmission that can match the performance of its engine and the sweetness of its chassis, it could well rule the roost as best in class, but for now it’s a case of “could do better”. Not much, mind you. Europe, it really is time to watch your back.

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Published: November 5, 2015 04:00 AM


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