Short of a polar bear club dip in frigid waters or a morning yoga session with a Victoria’s Secret model, nothing gets you started like a hot cup of Joe… or 321 horsepower to the rear wheels. We at least imbibed in the latter two as we cruised to a couple of Chicago coffee spots in the new Cadillac ATS 3.6L Performance. Clearly an upgrade from the 4-cylinder turbo version, the 3.6-liter V6 packs its own lunch and brings the caffeinated digestif, too.
In Chicago, both Intelligentsia Coffee and Metropolis Coffee Company are well known. Windy City roasted and piping hot enough to melt the horizontally blown snow, it’s crafted caffeine indulgence at its best — meant to go up against the Seattle’s coffee monolith, albeit from a different direction. Well, such fierce competition is even more prominent in the automotive world. Everyone wants a piece of BMW’s 3-series sport sedan magic. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’d know that Caddy’s put the bread-and-butter Bimmer in its crosshairs with the ATS. Dimensionally nearly identical and just as well balanced front to rear, the ATS doesn’t pull any punches, but also doesn’t strive to be Germanic.
But make no mistake, it’s not brutish American we’re looking at here, no in-your-face, uber-dark roasted mug of hot black mud. Cadillac smartly decided to tone down the angular style made prominent with the first generation CTS, a car that looked like it had been folded one too many times. The ATS still displays the Caddy theme (which has worked well), but its lines are gentler; the overall effect is elegant and sporty while remaining consistently Cadillac. Nothing about the exterior seems overdone or unoriginal, a feat not easily mastered these days in the quest to stand out in the Colosseum of automotive-brand battles. The car just plain looks good, especially in the deep White Diamond Tricoat.
The interior of the ATS is a fine place to be, not cushy and snooze-inducing like the Cadillacs of yore. It’s more for piloting. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and the steering wheel is well-positioned — you’re driving, not cruising the boulevard. Materials are right for this price point, save for the glossy wood trim. The one major issue is the painful CUE system. From a design standpoint, we get where Cadillac was trying to go, but it’s just too much flair with not enough everyday usability. The touchscreen is finicky to the point of frustration. The buttons are too slender and lack any of the tactility that lends to undistracted driving. On more than one occasion, I wanted to deactivate the whole system by punching it. It’s the bitter sludge at the bottom of a tasty French-pressed java.
Thankfully, the driving experience prevails. The 3.6-liter V6 powerplant provides substantial oomph. Mash the throttle and, with traction control active, the rear wheels chirp and slide like any good sport sedan should. The sound coming from the engine is wonderful, and the ATS pulls hard all the way to the higher RPMs. In Sport Mode the transmission responds well and the handling is impressive, with very little body roll and controlled entry and exit through spirited turns.
The ATS is a recipe for American success in this competitive segment, where Audi, Mercedes and BMW do battle every year. It can surely hold its own in just about every area, and it’ll be that much better when the CUE system is jettisoned for something useful.