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2015 Cadillac ATS Test Drive Review
Cadillac has finally decoded Germany’s secret sauce as far as engineering, design, and materials are concerned, and the result is a delight for the senses.
Modern Cadillacs demonstrate that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself, to question traditional wisdom, to challenge prevailing conventions, and to excel in the face of adversity. Want proof? Drive a 2015 Cadillac ATS.
Look and Feel
Out of 10
On a favorite stretch of road, scenery blurs in your peripheral vision as you focus on the twists and turns of the 2-lane blacktop ahead, and it takes only moments to realize that the Cadillac ATS sedan is bloody magnificent to drive just as hard and as fast as you can. As happens in any truly outstanding automobile, man and machine become one, with only the irritatingly granular note of the turbocharged 4-cylinder engine intruding upon the driver’s concentration with each rev-matched downshift.
Associations of the Cadillac crest with gray-haired grandparents, gold-toned trim packages, and white-walled tires fade from memory, the ATS confidently carrying an uncanny amount of precisely metered and managed speed as it sluices down the canyon road to the beach. A right turn onto a wide highway later, surf rolling in to the left on a gorgeous summer day, the driver reaches to turn on the stereo, and a broad grin fades into a proximity-sensing, touch-paneled abyss of haptic feedback confusion.
This car is so damn good, and at the same time it is so damn frustrating.
You need to spend a big chunk of change in order to make it good, too. Start by replacing the base 4-cylinder engine with either the optional turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder or the available 3.6-liter V6. Then, plan to upgrade to the Premium “collection,” which is how Cadillac references its trim levels, in order to get the performance-tuned Magnetic Ride Control suspension.
My Premium collection test car had the turbocharged 4-cylinder, and the price was $12,400 higher than the least expensive Standard collection version of the ATS. With extra-cost Black Diamond Tricoat paint, Kona Brown premium leather upholstery, and a Cold Weather Package with heated seats and a heated steering wheel, my ATS sedan cost a total of $49,500, but it was still missing some key features expected at this price point.
In addition to delivering extraordinary driving dynamics, the ATS Premium looks terrific. Personally, I wouldn’t choose this Black Diamond Tricoat paint, because when you get up close to the car, it looks like it got glitter-bombed. In fact, this shiny paint, in combination with the relatively bright polished silver wheels, fly in the face of modern matte-finish colors, dark wheels, and “murdered out” appearance packages.
Nevertheless, the Cadillac ATS is masterfully rendered, achieving aesthetic balance and bespoke design without resorting to recklessly grandiloquent styling cues. The ATS is cohesive rather than questionable, more aligned with a tasteful Audi than a gape-mouthed Lexus.
Inside, when you’re spending enough money, Cadillac gets the materials just right. My test car’s supple semi-aniline leather felt terrific, and the Natural Sapele wood trim looked luxuriant. Magnesium paddle shifters, metallic accents, and microfiber suede trim also provided a lush, upscale appearance.
Collectively, though, these materials served to underscore how inexpensive looking and fingerprint-prone all the dashboard’s piano-black plastic is.
Out of 10
Although it would put some extra weight over the ATS’s front wheels (and return slightly lower fuel economy), and despite the fact that it makes less torque and at higher rpm, the optional 321-hp, 3.6-liter V6 would be my engine of choice. The issue is a matter of refinement, not power.
As brilliant as the ATS 2.0T proves in terms of its steering, brakes, and handling, when running this car hard, the turbocharged 4-cylinder exhibits a graininess to its note as revs climb, sounding strained and reluctant rather than refined and eager for more. This is a small thing, but to an enthusiast driver it is a part of the recipe that defines the overall experience. Thus, I suspect that I’d be happier with the V6.
If you’re not planning to blast across California mountains anytime soon, the turbocharged 4-cylinder saves you $2,000 compared to the V6 while providing a little bit of extra driving range due to its superior fuel-economy estimates. The EPA says you should get 24 mpg in combined driving, and I averaged 22.9 mpg with a fairly heavy right foot.
Making 272 hp at 5,500 rpm and 295 lb-ft of torque between 3,000 and 4,400 rpm, this 2.0-liter engine is more powerful than what rivals from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz provide, but the German competitors also make their peak torque lower in the rev range, helping them feel mighty energetic in their own right.
Cadillac’s 6-speed automatic transmission is satisfying, with none of the hesitation that commonly afflicts vehicles with more efficient dual-clutch automated manual gearboxes. Magnesium paddle shifters provide manual control over gear changes, and it is easy to recall what gear you’re in with a simple glance at the instrumentation, reflecting the automaker’s understanding that a momentary check is all a driver can afford when driving hard on a favorite road.
If you’re never planning to do that, the ATS’s taut, stiff ride quality is likely to cause irritation. In this car, the driver is always aware of the road surface, nuances and all. My test car’s Magnetic Ride Control suspension added a layer of suppleness when switched from Sport to Tour mode, but if you’re looking for a classic Cadillac riding-on-a-cloud feeling, this isn’t the right car for you. Get a Lincoln MKZ instead.
The ATS isn’t quiet inside, either, as road noise is a constant companion. Instead of the irritating and monotonous sizzle common to inexpensive automobiles, though, in this Cadillac the sounds coming into the cabin from the tires and suspension serve mainly to communicate surface texture, important aural information for people who enjoy driving.
So then, the ATS proudly wears its new Cadillac crest, while extending a big middle finger at the stereotypes that have defined the brand for decades. Bravo.
Form and Function
Out of 10
Opt for the Kona Brown or Morello Red semi-aniline premium leather upholstery, and you’ll be rewarded with either open-pore wood or genuine carbon fiber interior trim. My test car had the Kona Brown leather and matte-finish wood trim, the seats covered in rich, caramel-tinted hides with a weathered, Pottery Barn-style patina. As a part of this interior upgrade, sueded microfiber trim covered the seatbacks and parts of the dashboard and door panels, and this collection of upscale materials really made the fingerprint-smudged, black plastic center control panel look and feel cheap.
Oft-maligned, the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) display screen and touch-panel controls work much like a tablet or smartphone, giving the ATS a modern, technologically sophisticated aura. Trouble is, when you’re using a tablet or a smartphone to access information, you’re typically sitting on the couch at home—not driving.
Granted, I had less trouble using CUE this time around than I did when I first sampled the technology in 2013. Cadillac has either improved the user experience, or I’m more comfortable with this type of interface, intuitively swiping and pinching and spreading my way to a semblance of satisfaction.
Still, there were times when I was trying to figure out how to execute a command, or discover how to adjust a feature, or determine how to make something work, when my surroundings would register, and I’d think to myself: “How the hell did I get this far down the road?”
Seriously, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking should be standard equipment in every single CUE-equipped Cadillac.
Comfort is not a problem if you’re sitting in the ATS’s front seats on a cool day. Although my test car’s driver’s seat had power adjustable side bolsters and a manual thigh extension, it didn’t feel as though it offered the same range of adjustment or produced as custom-tailored a driving position as some rivals can. Ventilated front seats are, apparently, unavailable for the ATS.
Rear accommodations are tight, but once you’ve contorted yourself into the back seat, it’s fine as long as you’re not fidgeting. Kids fidget, though, and even my 6-year-old complained from her booster seat that when riding behind me there was no room for her legs and feet. So she sat cross-cross-apple-sauce, just like she has to in, say, a Ford Mustang.
Trunk space is also tight. Two Miatas parked side-by-side offer more cargo room than the ATS, which provides 10.4 cubic feet of volume. However, since few people would be willing to spend more than 30 minutes in the back seat before suffering a claustrophobic meltdown, this represents plenty of luggage space for a couple.
Out of 10
To avoid using the CUE system, I resorted to fingering the steering-wheel controls and employing what Cadillac claims is a natural voice-recognition system. “Pardon?” “Pardon?” “Pardon?” You’re going to hear that often, because the nice lady living inside the ATS’s dashboard doesn’t hear so well.
I also had trouble with the new text-message reader. Pairing my iPhone 6 to CUE was easy, and it chimed whenever I received a new text. But when I hit the CUE system’s “Home”…umm, button, I guess…and then selected the “SMS Text” icon from the touchscreen menu, the little “Inbox” icon was dimmed to indicate inactivity.
Now, maybe I’m an idiot, but if my phone is paired, and the system chimes to alert me to a new text message, and the system is supposed to be able to read that text message over the car’s speakers, shouldn’t it be easy to make it happen by choosing “SMS Text” from the CUE system’s “Home” menu?
I tried asking the nice lady living inside the dashboard to “Read text message,” but all she could do is reply with “Pardon?”
Out of 10
Cadillac bundles safety systems in different option packages depending on the “collection” of equipment you’ve selected. Perhaps in recognition of how easily a driver is distracted by CUE, the automaker makes it easy to get a forward-collision warning system on an ATS.
You need to upgrade to the Luxury collection at a minimum, and then buy the Safety and Security option package, which also includes a lane-departure warning system and a lane-keeping assist system that gently nudges the ATS back into the center of the intended lane of travel if the car wanders. All three of these features are standard for the Performance and Premium collection models.
Personally, I think a blind-spot monitoring system is more useful, though I admit that a CUE-equipped Cadillac is a special case. Still, with the ATS, this technology is offered only for the Performance and Premium collections, and then as an option that's bundled with a whole bunch of other stuff I wouldn’t necessarily want to pay for.
Essentially, if you wanted a Cadillac ATS and the only upgrade you absolutely could not live without was a blind-spot monitoring system (my wife says our next car will have this, or it won’t find its way into our driveway), you would need to spend $14,750 on a turbocharged engine, Performance collection trim, and several options in order to get it. That makes no sense.
If you skip this safety feature and wind up wrecking the ATS, you’ve got a great chance of surviving, because this Cadillac earns 5-star ratings in every assessment the NHTSA conducts on new cars, including for rollover resistance. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had not published crash-test results as this review was written.
Out of 10
Extracting value from the purchase of a Cadillac ATS is a significant challenge, one that the company apparently fails to grasp.
After hiring a new president who is partially credited with Audi’s impressive rise from obscurity, moving its headquarters from Detroit to New York City, and adopting a pricing strategy aligned with A-list competition from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac’s sales continue to sag in a luxury car market enjoying significant increases. And we haven’t even gotten to the new naming conventions that are on the horizon: The cars will be “CT-something,” and the SUVs will be “XT-something.”
In an interview with Automotive News, Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen said: “Either you have to bring your volume aspiration into alignment with reality and accept that you will sell fewer cars, or you have to drop the price and continue to transact at the prices where you were historically. I think the logical conclusion is that it’s better to build off a very solid base in terms of credibility, charge a fair price for the car, and realize you have to wait until the volume comes.”
This is a rational argument in favor of premium positioning and pricing. But when a consumer checks ratings at Consumer Reports or J.D. Power and discovers unimpressive predictions about quality and reliability, finds that ALG gives the ATS a 2-star rating for its ability to hold its value over time, and sees on Cadillac’s website that lease deals and financing offers are no better than what the competition offers on cars that are often larger and better equipped, it’s tough to justify choosing the Cadillac, even if it is a blast to drive and critically acclaimed by reviewers like me.
Cadillac has surmounted the highest hurdle as it continues its transformation from a slumping American icon into a dynamic and global force. From mechanical engineering and driving dynamics standpoints, the ATS is phenomenal.
Now the company needs to make it a little bit bigger, adjust its approach with equipment and packaging, redesign CUE and add a few buttons and knobs to the dashboard, and make it as bulletproof as most luxury-car buyers assume a Lexus to be.
Then, with time, and as long as people ascribe aspirational value to the brand, Cadillac won’t be able to keep the ATS, or anything else it builds, in stock.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.