Cadillac ATS Coupe Review: Proving sporty, luxurious coupes make sense (and that the V is overkill)
Luxury sports coupes are a complicated, difficult species for us die-hard enthusiasts to palate. The shape alludes to deep sporting intentions but as comfort usually outweighs performance, we're left wondering why they succeed at much but excel at little. We who care about driving above (nearly) all else find difficulty in these cars as their tendency to coddle occupants is prioritized over any focus on tactile inputs. In turn, our “right tool for the job” mantra need not apply here. So when Cadillac decided to build a rear-wheel-drive coupe on the widely-respected Alpha platform, the enthusiast world-- myself very much included-- took notice. My friend James was among those who actually put their money where their mouth was and, as any of us would, when he offered me the opportunity to drive his ATS Coupe I absolutely had to do so.
I approached the ATS Coupe with mixed expectations. Much of this laid in that I always found a problem in defining the segment: Is it luxury sports coupe, or sporty luxury coupe? That's partially what I set out to explore, to actualize if I could finally understand the luxury sport coupe...or whatever this car is. What I did know is that I had always appreciated the ATS' design from afar and its dynamic abilities always received favorable reviews. The automotive journalism collective sung the ATS’ sporting praises when it launched. Half a decade later, would I agree? Could a nearly 3700-pound car actually be dynamically good? And if it is good, is it any fun? What is a naturally-aspirated V6 of this power level like to drive? Is CUE as infuriating as everyone says it is? After years of meaning to, I finally borrowed James’ car to find out.
My friend James leased this 2017 ATS Coupe after having a Buick Regal GS. He’s been a lifelong GM guy and has a taste for where sporty and luxurious meet. He wanted a comfortable, interesting coupe that’s not just a run-of-the-mill cruiser. The Alpha chassis and Cadillac brand cachet drew him to the ATS, as did the car’s shape and subtle under-the-radar performance abilities. When ticking the option boxes he went for the 3.6L V6, AWD, and, crucially, the Carbon Black Package, which truthfully I didn’t know existed until I met James.
Much like in the case of sports sedans, luxury sports coupe buyers demand an expensive look and feel from a vehicle that’s soft yet capable of providing a performance-alluding experience. Likewise, they offer the promise of “have your cake and eat it too.” With room for four (or five), the ability to carry more than the bare minimum (that do dedicated sports cars), long-range comfort, and either speed or tactile involvement not offered on the traditional vehicle, they straddle a fine line. This isn't easy: Luxury cars are filled with fine materials and loaded with tech, both of which add serious weight. And, as we know, making a heavy car both ride and corner well is a serious feat of engineering. But that’s what GM has been great at as of late.
We don’t condone basing anything on a spec sheet, but here they’re largely good: The V6 makes 335 horsepower and 285 lb-ft. of torque. The transmission has eight gears. The weight distribution is 51-49, front-rear. The much-lauded GM Alpha platform provides the underpinnings. There's Brembo brakes up front and a sport-tuned suspension. All of these are good standalone merits. Curb weight is high-ish at 3693 pounds (interestingly 64 lbs heavier than a comparable sedan). Then there’s the Carbon Black Package, which adds better seats and changes its demeanor in image and in practice. But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.
One thing is certain: The ATS Coupe is still properly striking. The styling elements lend themselves excellently to the Coupe’s shape and size. It still looks truly modern today, five years after its launch. It’s not quite as dramatic as the similarly-appointed ELR, but it’s aging extremely well-- even after going out of production.
To my shock the interior has fared well, too. Many complained about the gauges but they remain crisp and informative, nothing more. CUE is still lacking but that’s solely in feedback as it functions fine (if somewhat slow) and does everything you need from an infotainment system. There are certainly some weird aspects, like CarPlay access and storage hidden in a pop-up cubby which is activated by sliding your finger along the bottom of the head unit— laughably unnecessary and as if out of 2004 (also, why not just have a button?)— but overall it’s not as bad as it was made out to be. Far from great, but better than Lexus’ unit. Overall, the interior is handsome and coated in materials that might have been hard to justify for the price when new but that are perfectly passable today.
The highlight of the interior lies in the Recaro seats. Wait-- Recaros? In a luxury car? Oh, yes. They're the Black Package's crown jewel are yes, they're remarkable. The amount of bolstering is fantastic, as is the amount of adjustment offered. They afford a shocking level of comfort while holding you in place with ease. Seats like this are few and far between. They can easily corral the driver on a race track and are soft and adjustable enough to survive long-haul trips. And they do all of that while heating or cooling your backside. Amazing.
Enough marveling; let's get driving. The ATS’ drive modes affect throttle response, shift points, gear holding, and, mostly, steering heft. Even in Comfort there’s actual weight and feel to the steering; it’s a good indicator of the car’s dual-personality intentions. In Sport mode there’s truly a good amount of it, not only for a luxury coupe but for any car at all.
Hitting the road, I left the car to its own devices while acclimating to my surroundings. In the most comfort-minded modes the ATS Coupe provides an honest luxury experience. The cabin is quiet at speed except for the noise from the staggered (225/40/18 front, 255/35/18 rear) Continental ContiProContact tires, and the ride is plush and forgiving even over jarring surfaces. Though the V6 doesn’t sound great-- very few V6s do-- the ATS Coupe is utterly serene and buttoned down on any road surface. The serenity helps it mask speed amazingly as does the ease and lack of drama under acceleration. Heads Up Display-- a marvel of safety technology-- is present, allowing you to keep your eyes closer to the roadway rather than having to look down and out of your sight lines, and serves a nonstop reminder of how high above the speed limit you’re traveling. Which, as I found out within my first few minutes behind the wheel of the ATS Coupe, is concerningly easy to manage.
It’s not just that the ATS Coupe is deceptively fast, which it is, kudos to how insulating the cabin is and the V6’s effortless power. It’s also that the level of grip is astonishing for the weight, size, and comfort. Flooring the accelerator from a stop nets a linear building of speed that's far more forceful than I expected. The conventional automatic transmission allows for very little break in acceleration and it upshifts fairly quickly, too. And that V6 keeps pulling until you back off. This is the kind of car that when driving a back road you look down and are going not only 20 MPH over the speed limit, but 20 MPH faster than you thought you were.
A corner approaches. Downshifting with the paddle shifters— which are of nice quality but are marginally too far away from the wheel itself— proves slightly laggy and slow, but therein lie the limits of the auto. With the transmission letting the engine sit in the prime of its powerband, the corner comes into full view. In its performance mode the car feels eager and willing, the steering ratio quicker than anyone would expect from a luxury brand. Then as the corner becomes reality, the Carbon package proves its worth. You can plant the accelerator and point the wheel and it just goes and sticks. The Recaros hold you in place as the wide tires and sport-tuned suspension allow the car to settle on either side without much body roll and while providing seemingly endless grip. On the street, at least.
If I hadn’t researched the car’s stated curb weight prior to this drive it could have easily fooled me. The manner in which it changes direction is admirable and far better than I expected, even after reading so many favorable reviews. The ATS Coupe with the Carbon Black Package drives like a much smaller and lighter car than it is. That’s glowing praise. It’s also proof that you don’t need a full-on V-series car to have a good time in the ATS. I walked away impressed.
It’s difficult to learn a lot about a car with only an hour-and-a-half of seat time but driving the ATS Coupe on the exact same loop that I test every car revealed a lot. The chassis is shockingly well-sorted. It responded to every transition, every change of direction, like a much more nimble vehicle. Casual onlookers would never know that it has the dynamic capabilities that it does. But I kept wondering: Does it encourage you to drive hard? Weirdly, not so much. It’s so planted and buttoned down and coddling that this is the kind of car that’s more willing to dance when asked rather than regularly, constantly trying to prod you to boogie. I suppose that’s the strength of the luxury sports coupe, though. Or sporty luxury coupe. Depending on which side it leans towards.
Somehow, the mix of comfort and performance make sense. You could easily drive cross-country in comfort and enjoy taking detours to hammer on the car on every twisty section of road you can find. I’ve still never done a full cross-America trip but of all the cars I’ve driven in my life, the ATS Coupe would be near the top for my choice to do so. It would also be an excellent choice for an event like One Lap of America. Or even your own road trip, like a long exploratory drive to Tail of the Dragon and then a round-about haul home.
Poor sales forced Cadillac to pull the plug on the ATS and its Coupe variant. It’s a shame: The ATS stands as a marvel of what GM’s engineers are capable of. But now that they’re used-market only, is there any value in it? A sub-50k mile ATS Coupe 3.6 AWD can be had for under $25k but good luck finding one with the Carbon Black option box ticked. A quick Cars.com search tells me there are only around 30 of these cars for sale in the country at the moment, and clicking into a few of them reveals they aren’t as advertised (i.e., do not have the Recaros). Compare that with an ATS-V Coupe which can be had for $35k and...well, it’s a tough call. If you can withstand the V’s worsened ride quality for the major jump in performance, it’s a no-brainer.
But I wouldn’t fault a soul for going with the standard Coupe. The luxury sport coupe-- or sporty luxury coupe-- is a difficult predicament, since it's hard to have decent performance with the weight that comes with a luxury car. Getting to the V's level of speed/grip detracts from its luxury abilities, making cars of this high-performance vein inherently compromised from conception. To this, a car like the non-V, "standard" ATS Coupe just works. It manages to be both luxurious and sporty without sacrificing too much of either camp. Go further in either direction and it loses some of either side's charm, but right here, right where the ATS Coupe with the Carbon Black Package sits, is the segment's happy place.
Luxury sports coupes might not be for me or at least not for who I am at this point in my life. I like my comfortable cars to be that first and foremost and my sports cars to be focused on that and that alone. But James’ ATS Coupe convinced me that I could be a fan of this genre. Maybe not enough to own one, but absolutely to enjoy them from afar. I truly enjoyed driving this car and now understand the allure of the class as a whole. You can, apparently, have your cake and eat it too.
(Thank you to James for the chance to-- finally-- drive this. Looking forward to the next one...)
Hi, my name is Ross. I write primarily for Hooniverse.com and co-host the Off the Road Again Podcast. As you can guess, I’m an off-road enthusiast/self-proclaimed expert and an ever-improving amateur autocrosser. My current car is an NC3 Miata Club PRHT but the joke goes that I’m perpetually looking for the next vehicle I will regret...