Cadillac's new ATS sets the standard for all American saloon cars, taking the fight to the European establishment.
All new Cadillac ATS shows determination and hard work pay off
What's in a name? Most of us are blissfully unaware of how a great many car companies came to be given their names, yet Cadillac, that so-American-it-hurts purveyor of big, luxurious automobiles, was named after a French explorer, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac. Why? Because he was the founder, in 1701, of Detroit, the home of the American car industry. I like facts like that.
Cadillac was one of the companies that emerged from the ashes of the Henry Ford Motor Company when its namesake went his own way, and was swallowed up by a young General Motors in 1909, just seven years after it was formed, becoming GM's prestige brand. And things have remained the same ever since, with Cadillac being viewed by millions of Americans as the absolute be-all-and-end-all when it comes to automobiles. Yet, if we're being honest, they haven't always been all that good, have they? Sales in Europe have been pitiful, although China, the Middle East and, naturally, the United States, have bought into the brand in a big way over the years. But now GM is wanting a slice of that Euro action and it thinks it has a car that will appeal, not only to its traditional markets, but also the territories dominated by the likes of BMW's 3 Series and Merc's C-Class.
"The most important car Cadillac has ever launched." For a company that was founded 110 years ago, that's some statement, but GM's top brass is adamant that, in the new CTS, they have, at long last, produced a genuine rival to steal precious sales from the aforementioned German hierarchy. And it would appear that midnight oil has been burnt and homework has been done, because the amount of effort and sheer determination shown by these guys is extraordinary.
Putting its money where its mouth is, Cadillac has assembled a group of motoring journalists from all over the region, gathering us together at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit, where my contemporaries and I are to put the all-new ATS through its paces. Whenever I hear that a new model is to be demonstrated here, I normally have to stifle some pretty big yawns because mere track work alone cannot tell anyone enough to write a meaningful review. Normally, we're stifled by strictly enforced 120kph speed limits and have to drive the circuit in convoys of 10 or more cars, but today is different. Today we can really go for it.
We're to drive this - the smallest Cadillac on offer - on the south circuit, which is normally out of bounds on events such as this because it's a tight, extremely challenging section that has exposed the inexperience of plenty of drivers and resulted in some very expensive fender benders, to use American parlance. But first there are a couple of hours to try it for size on some of Abu Dhabi's most out-of-the-way roads.
Before I discuss what it's like, it's worth considering for a moment just how much work has been put into this car. Robert Kotarak, Cadillac's global vehicle performance manager, takes me through some of the highlights before hopping in the back to talk as we drive. Kotarak leads the team that engineered and tuned the ATS and, as he points out, there was a huge amount of pressure to get the car feeling and performing as a BMW rival should.
"We have an entirely new car here," he says with an evident pride, "and we first and foremost set out to make a car that was dynamic and huge fun to drive." This, he points out, meant benchmarking against cars that dominate the marketplace for mid-size saloons, namely the aforementioned 3 Series and C-Class, both of which are as well resolved as you'd rightly expect a car to be. So, with the bar set as high as it gets, the team had to get out of the US for a significant period of time.
"Yeah," concurs Kotarak, "we set up camp at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany. We reasoned that that is where our rivals hone and perfect their vehicles and that we needed to do the same if we were to have a hope of competing." He's right, too, because that fearsome racetrack has a well-deserved reputation for being the toughest in the world - 20.81km of twisting, undulating, terrifying tarmac that has seen better days. For a car to set a new lap record there is all the world needs to know when making up its mind as to its merit and, for a US manufacturer so often derided over the decades for making cars that can't take corners, the 73 bends of the Nordschleife would make any handling flaws immediately, and embarrassingly, apparent.
The CTS engineers weren't just based in that stunning region of Germany - they were all over the planet, testing in extremes, whether they be roads, tracks or laboratories.
"We threw our all into this," says Kotarak as we take our seats, and now it's time to see if all this hard work has resulted in an American car the hard-to-impress Europeans can take seriously as a driving enthusiast's choice over the establishment.
I have to say, at the outset, that this is by far the most visually appealing Cadillac in the range. It tones down some of the more challenging lines and angles of the startling CTS and XTS models, yet still manages to look distinctive and, in the right colour with the right wheels, quite elegant, classy and nicely understated. And that theme continues to the interior, where high quality materials and a superb fit and finish abounds. "If you see carbon fibre trim, it's real carbon fibre," quips Kotarak. "If you see wood, it's real wood - we had to make sure the cabin ambience was the real deal."
And it does seem to be. With quality switchgear, a nicely laid out dashboard and very comfortable seats, there's very little to moan about. Initial signs are positive but these frills will mean nothing if the drive is wallowy or uninspiring, so we head for the open road.
I've plumped for the current range-topper, the 3.6L V6 (the other one is a 2.5L four-pot), which has plenty of potential, with 321hp on tap, as well as 373Nm of twist. It sounds good, too, when you give it some throttle, with a muted yet quite satisfying growl. There's plenty of urgency, as you would expect, but it's when I speed up to an obviously empty roundabout that I can really feel the results of all that honing and refining. Hard on the brakes, as I enter the turn, I floor the throttle and the ATS goes around it as though it wasn't there - flat, composed and eager to press on when the road straightens. Kotarak holds on tight in the back but there's no panic in his eyes - he of all people should know what this car is capable of.
The car continues to impress. The trademark refinement of the brand has remained intact, at least in this Magnetic Ride Control equipped V6. Kotarak tells me the ATS is riding on run-flat tyres - a pet hate of mine because they blight BMW's ride comfort on anything other than the smoothest surfaces - yet in this car I would never have guessed it. The steering, too, feels perfectly weighted, with plenty of feel yet nothing in the way of harshness. So far I'm mightily impressed with the ATS, but a quick car change to the four-cylinder model might undo some of that…
As expected, it doesn't match the 3.6L for performance, but it's the ride that disappoints in comparison. It sits on standard suspension and it transmits far more in the way of roughness into the cabin, which is still nicely appointed, by the way. It weighs less than the 3.6, so it's still nippy, but it does sound a bit thrashy when I get on the power. After a few minutes of this, we're back at Yas, so I need to spend more time with this model to really get a feel for it. Now, though, there's a properly scary section of racetrack to be dealt with, and there's obviously only one model suitable, so it's back into the V6 I go.
With a pace car up front, I head out of the pits and onto the famous circuit, still wondering if a Cadillac can really pass muster on an unforgiving section of track. The driver up front is communicating via radio, and immediately puts his foot down, encouraging me to keep up, thankfully offering guidance through each of these incredibly tight corners. I'm surprised at how fast I'm encouraged to drive and, as lap follows lap, even more surprised at how effortless the ATS makes everything seem.
The automatic gearbox is in sport mode, which means I can use the steering wheel paddle shifters to swap ratios, and it feels every bit as sorted as the German offerings, inspiring confidence and allowing driver to feel in control. The Brembo brakes wipe off speed with contemptuous ease, too, and remain fade free, even after dozens of foot-down, flat-out laps.
I head back to the pit garages and wait while everyone else goes through the same exercise and, after an hour or so, am summoned to try it again, this time with an instructor at my side and no pace car. Now I'm familiar with the track's layout, the opportunity is here to really explore the handling, so off we go.
Again, the ATS simply gets on with the job in hand, displaying not only its high turn of speed and epic brakes, but its total composure in turns that would have other machines rolling around like ocean liners. It's brilliant, and a credit to the various teams that worked so hard to pull this off.
"Built to take on the world's best" says Cadillac's marketing blurb and, for once, it's an accurate reflection of reality. And, while I cannot put hand on heart and say that it's actually better than a BMW 335i, it does make a case for itself as a worthy alternative choice. When you consider, too, that the ATS comes loaded with kit that would have the BMW's price spiralling upwards and out of control, the Cadillac is an absolute bargain, starting, as it does, at Dh175,000 for the V6. You know something? I reckon the Euro sceptics will actually "get" this car and I leave Yas Marina a changed man. If GM can keep this up then the future for that auto colossus is very bright, indeed. A job well done.