In the UK, the rules against what is called ‘comparative advertising’ are pretty strict, and so limiting in scope that you never see a direct reference to a competing product in any manufacturer’s advertising. So strict is the Advertising Standards Authority that carmakers are banned from even suggesting that driving their products may in any way be described as ‘fun’. So you can imagine the collective jaw-drop at a recent press launch in Abu Dhabi, when Cadillac came right out in the open and said it intends to take on BMW and the 3 Series, and it reckons the brand new ATS saloon is just the car to do it. Stirring stuff.
wheels has already driven the new baby Cadillac in Atlanta, and Liam Nelson came away surprised and impressed. Now we have a chance to sample it here, both on the roads around Abu Dhabi, and on the full South Circuit at Yas Marina. That’s quite unusual, as most carmakers use the North Circuit with its long straights, sweeping turns and generous run-off areas. The South Circuit is the ‘technical’ section, wrapped tight around the marina and designed to echo the streets of Monaco, all tight turns, narrow track and hard walls everywhere.
So, briefly, what is this ATS of which Cadillac so confidently speaks? It is its brand new compact saloon, a four-door designed to sit below the larger CTS and XTS ranges, and provide an accessible entry to the brand. As such, it uses the company’s established ‘art and science’ design language, unashamedly modernist, all creases and angles, and unique in current car design. Applied here, it gives the ATS real presence, particularly in the front, with dramatic vertical headlights and DRLs slicing diagonally down behind the bumper, and forming an imposing deep ‘v’ shape. The ‘v’ is echoed in the finish at the rear, a distinctive Cadillac flourish found in almost all their current cars.
The whole effect is taut, poised and technical, almost jewel-like in its angular precision. Standard 18in alloys complete the look, and the whole is nicely ‘stanced’ and unmistakably American. It is a shape that works well with deep metallic colours, with the deep grey coat on my car adding a pleasing menace. There are two engines available here, a 2.5-litre four-cylinder, and a 3.6-litre V6, both driving the rear wheels through a standard six-speed automatic. Pick the V6 — not only is the four-pot a bit underwhelming and asthmatic, the basic model doesn’t get Cadillac’s impressive magneto-rheological suspension package, and feels less supple and controlled as a result.
The four-pot delivers 202bhp and 259Nm of torque, enough to get the base ATS to 100kph in around 7.6 seconds, while the V6’s impressive 321bhp and 373Nm achieve that in a much more creditable 5.4 seconds. Top speed is limited to 250kph. Given the roads available around Abu Dhabi, largely long flat straight lines punctuated at intervals with roundabouts, pretty much all we could tell is that the ATS is quiet, comfortable, and distinctly European in feel. There might be something in this ‘taking the fight to the Germans’ after all.
All versions of the ATS get a multi-link MacPherson strut front suspension system with a double-pivot’ design, intended to deliver a more linear and communicative steering response, and come with the latest electric, variable-assist power steering gear from ZF Steering Systems. The combination works, steering is fast, linear and accurate, and offers real bite through turns. Rear suspension is a multi-link set-up, a first for Cadillac, and in their own words, they “had a long hard look at the competition, and put all the best bits together”.
Completing a comprehensive package on the Premium spec cars is a mechanical limited-slip differential, and Magnetic Ride Control. This provides continuously variable damping, and the opportunity to fine-tune the handling for comfort or sporting application. The most competitive mode also adjusts the intervention of the stability control and traction control systems. So far, so good, but how does it all work on the track? Really rather well, in fact. The man from Cadillac said something you never hear at a car launch. “We’d like you to drive the cars as fast as you want,” he said, “in fact, we’d like you to drive the cars as fast as you can.” Challenge accepted!
As mentioned, the South Circuit comprises the main circuit’s second main straight (with a fast left about halfway along) at the end of which is a sharp left, and the run-off area where we shot last year’s wheels CotY images. This rising uphill curve leads to a short, not-quite-a-chicane 90-degree right and left, a second left on to the long curve that runs behind the marina berths. This ends in an almost flat-out right, before hard braking in front of the hotel. Another 90-degree right, then left under the hotel and left again into a narrow rightish curve towards the main circuit’s starting straight. We run under the access bridge then cut back left on to the South Circuit at the top of the long straight to begin the whole thing again.
At the moment, we’re running in groups — fast groups — following an instructor. The V6 ATS is quite happy in this company, pulling hard along the straights (though subjectively not as hard as the 335i it aims to beat), electric steering carving accurately through the turns. Braking by the (optional) Brembos is predictably strong and fade-free, and you begin to wonder if this is really just an executive saloon. The real fun comes later. As the number of journalists dwindles, so the man from Cadillac asks if we would like to take the cars out singly, with an instructor.
Game on! Paul Denby was one such, helping to point out braking points, where to get the power back down and which turns you could carry more speed through. Finally we were beginning to find the limits of the car, and the one ironic disappointment of the evening. Rules are rules, and for insurance purposes, we have to leave the Traction Control and Stability programmes switched on. Normally, these flatter a completely average driver like me, helping to keep things tidy and under control, so we convince ourselves we’re better than we really are.
Anyone can go fast in a straight line, and the speedo was getting towards 200kph at the end of the main straight, where the marina section starts. The second half of the right/left sequence there is off-camber, and the best racing line is to clip the curb on the apex. Unfortunately, the electronics read this as a loss of control and nibble away on the brakes, hauling everything back into line, and with it, scrubbing off all the speed you have so carefully carried from the previous bend.
The irony is, of course, that we need to get away from the safety of the track and out into the real world with traffic and people and no run-off areas before we can disable the systems. To Cadillac’s credit, the electronics are not intrusive in operation and allow a degree of movement on the limit, but it would be nice to know where the real limits are. So, the question remains, is the ATS enough of a car to face off with a 3 Series? Until we get a chance to compare them directly, the point remains moot, but given the ATS starts from Dh175,000 for a ‘competitively specified’ version, it is certainly a contender for the title.
Specs and ratings
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Transmission: Six-speed auto, RWD
Max power: 321bhp @ 6,800rpm
Max torque: 373Nm @ 4,800rpm
Top speed: 250kph
Price: Dh175,000 (base)
Plus: Engine, handling and ride quality
Minus: Polarising looks