Cadillac goes Captain America with the German-fighting 2016 ATS-V

“Come on e-diff, don’t fail me now!” I muttered to myself as I took the Cadillac ATS-V far too hot into Circuit of the Americas most complex set of corners. Snicking the manual transmission down a gear I hung on for dear life through a double apex corner, just barely controlling the ATS-V’s rear end as it slid out. This fit of over exuberance wasn’t just a testament to the technical brilliance of the ATS-V, but also to the sports car soul that so rarely survives in modern sports sedans.

Sadly, as brilliant and, for lack of a better word, Passionate, as the ATS-V is on the track, its soul doesn’t fully translate to the street. Still, with its unique looks and livable interior, the aggressive ATS stands out next to its predictable German competition.

Outsider, in

When Cadillac said that it was bringing Digital Trends to Austin for our drive in the ATS-V I wasn’t just thrilled at the prospect of taking another crack at Circuit of the Americas; but also at the matchup of car and locale.

Austin, Texas, like Cadillac, has a long history, with its own distinct culture. But, in the last few decades, Austin has reinvented itself as a worldwide capitol of everything youthful and cool. Cadillac is trying to pull off a similar act, by branding itself as the thinking person’s alternative to the Germans.

The ATS-V is a key contributor to this project and, from the outside, it is a brilliant success. Cadillac’s Art and Science design language has come to its ultimate fruition with the ATS-V.

Not only have Cadillac’s designers done a tremendous job with the angular stealth fighter design, they have also given the “science” part a real workout. As the product manager was proud to point out, every styling change from the standard ATS-V has been made for a practical reason.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V

From the raised rear spoiler to the front splitter and massive new grille, the V-Sport changes are all about the way that air flows in and around the body. Even the slitted hood is purposeful, which counteracts lift created by the additional cooling airflow.

As a side benefit, these changes take the already handsome ATS-V and give it a downright sinister aspect, especially when the cars are fitted with the exposed carbon aero package. The Cadillac ATS-V would stand out in nearly any company, but when compared to the predictable German offerings it is mind-blowing.

Unfortunately, the interior doesn’t quite live up to the exterior styling, or for that matter the price tag. The ATS-V’s interior manages to feel both a bit busy and spare. This paradox is created by a design that contains very little “surprise and delight” but a great many black materials.

Sitting down in the Recaro seats, the driver is surrounded by a welter of piano black, black leather, black carbon fiber and black micro-fiber, and a black ye-olde instrument cluster. While all of the individual materials are high quality, with the exception of some GM-sourced switchgear, the result pales in comparison to the luxury feel of other sports sedans.

It’s not ugly, but in a $73,000 — the price of a moderately equipped coupe — car that will spend most of its life commuting, it is disappointing.

Subtle on the streets and a demon in the sweeps

While the interior may be underwhelming to look at, it is nonetheless a shockingly comfortable place to be. Cadillac’s engineers and designers made the most of it, combining surprisingly good noise proofing, sublime Recaro seats with adjustable bolsters, and the subtle dark arts of Cadillac’s magnetic ride control.

The result is, despite having bones stiffer than mighty wolverine, the ATS-V has a buttery smooth and quiet ride. Fortunately, the noise-proofing hasn’t dulled the pleasant roar of the 3.6-liter, 464 horsepower twin-turbo V6. Despite the somewhat humble origins of this motor, in the ATS-V it is downright amazing.

While it doesn’t produce its impressive 445 pound-feet of max torque until 3,500 rpm, it gets there shockingly quick. This “revolutionary” turn of speed is thanks to some special quick-acting turbos; the turbo impellers are made of a special sci-fi alloy of aluminum and titanium.

The result of all of this power and technology is a 0 to 60 time that just kisses 3.9 seconds and a top speed of 189 mph.

On the street, these numbers don’t quite translate into the liveliness and fun for which I was hoping. The car does accelerate like a stabbed rat, especially when the driver gets to drop cogs on the excellent Tremec manual. This manual transmission also features a surprising amount of tech, with automatic rev-matching on downshifts and the ability to perform a no-lift upshift allowing the driver to keep their foot hard down.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V

Drivers who prefer an automatic won’t be disappointed either, as the in-house built eight-speed automatic offers intelligent and nearly instantaneous shifts, as good or better than any dual-clutch manual.

However, the handling feels more competent than inspired. Partly this is down to the magnetic ride control and the electronic differential, which make the car almost too planted. The result is that, to really feel excitement, the driver has to attain some alarmingly high cornering speeds.

On the track, though, the ATS-V shines like an electric diamond. When pushed … or when the e-diff and other electronic nannies are neutered, the ATS-V comes alive.

The planted character of the car was such that I found myself using the curbs on nearly every corner, even when the speed was rubbing triple digits. This magic comes thanks to Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control, a system that uses magnets and a magnetorheological fluid — essentially a fluid with metallic particles suspended in it — to alter the stiffness of the suspension in response to the road. In the ATS-V this system can read the road and change the suspension conditions literally faster than it takes to blink an eye.

As good as the suspension and grip are, the steering is even better. The system adjusts with both speed and sport setting. On the road this means great on-center feel and pleasant communication in the corners, but on the track in translates to driving nirvana.

The steering is heavy, but so precise, and so, so quick. On Circuit of the Americas long sweeping S-turns, the steering tricked me into believing I was a truly talented driver, as I could easily make micro corrections to take the perfect line. In the tight, hilly hairpins, the excellent steering allowed for simply stunning direction changes, as good as anything I have experienced in supercars.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V

In fact, the steering is almost too good, as it gave me more confidence than my skills really deserved. Thankfully, the electronic differential, which uses a clutch to split power between the rear wheels, and the custom designed Michelin tires can bail out the car from all but the most insane angles of drift.

I could have spent all day on the track trying to get the most out of the car and myself, but at least I will have something to remember the experience by, thanks to the onboard Performance Data Recorder. This system uses onboard cameras to record track or road sessions. The real trick, however, is that it overlays all of the car’s telemetry, providing feedback on throttle position, g-load, and where the driver is on the track. This tool isn’t just a fun way to show off to your friends, but also a great resource to improve driving.

Conclusion

On the track or a truly demanding stretch of road, the Cadillac ATS-V is a revelation, sharper and more fun than anything the former Axis powers can pull off an assembly line. Cadillac has really found its stride and its personality when it comes to performance.

In many ways, this only highlights the company’s failures when it comes to interior design and giving the driver the sensation of everyday performance. These are important shortcomings, considering the theoretical role of sports sedans and coupes as everyday transport.

That being said, the ATS-V regains some lost ground on personality and style. Buying a BMW M3 is like moving to Orange County, understandable but also so predictably boring. Buying an ATS-V is more like moving to Austin, it says that you are at least trying to be interesting. Though, if you do buy an ATS-V, I recommend moving to a place with more curvy roads than Austin.

Highs

  • Sublime steering
  • Magnetic Ride Control suspension
  • Performance Data Recorder
  • Eye catching styling
  • Strong powertrain

Lows

  • Underwhelming interior
  • Slightly passionless on-road feel
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