Since it's the end of year, car publications have been giving out accolades for everything from best performance car to best car colors to best tech features to best cars to make out in the back seat of. I like to transcend such things, due to lack of press car access. However, it didn't stop me from thinking of the best cars I'd driven this year instead of attempting worthwhile things, like putting up Christmas lights.
The first was the Fiesta ST, which I didn't write about because everyone else has and they're all spot on. In second was the ATS 3.6, a car which more than exceeded expectations. Being a recovering BMW fanboy (I'm embarrassed to admit I was once an E65 7-Series apologist), I was amazed how enchanted I was by driving it.
Before I go on, there is a certain specification to this ATS 3.6 I'm writing about. The one I drove had both Magnetic Ride Control and the limited-slip differential, so it's the Premium trim level (Starting MSRP: $48,020). It's on the expensive side, but people have paid more for Audi A4s and BMW 3-Series cars with a lot less equipment and a lot less enjoyment.
First, let's talk about styling. It may not look it in the photos, but in person the ATS is striking and surprisingly looks bigger than it is. It doesn't fall victim to overstyling like other upscale short-wheelbase cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLA and Jaguar F-Type have. Most importantly, since I live in the Silicon Valley, where $40,000 German entry-luxury sedans are a dime a dozen, everyone gives the ATS a second look. It's worth it.
Since I'm discussing a V-6 entry-luxury sedan, I'm obligated to compare it against cars like the BMW 335i, Audi S4, and the Mercedes-Benz C350. But I won't. Mainly because I'd lose any stoplight race against all of them except the C350. That and the S4 is a better handler everywhere else too.
Instead you should look for the 328i M-Sports and the A4s with the ridiculous Titanium package, usually operated by a young computer science/engineering/MBA major with none of the open-mindedness of the individual with the liberal arts degree in the Cadillac's driver's seat. People who would never expect that good-looking Cadillac to both get more attention than them and outrun them at full-throttle. (Don't bother with the C-Class. They just wanted the Mercedes badge.)
But those are just drag races, you'll say. What about on the country roads, where you should enjoy driving the car? Well, I can safely say the ATS can keep up and you'll have more fun than that 328i driver who'll be busy second-guessing his/her active steering and will promptly misjudge where the car is headed. So while the BMW driver is headed for the ditch because he/she misjudged the grip, your limited-slip differential (which isn't available on the BMW) will give you a better feeling of the road.
On the other hand, the A4 quattro, like most Audis, will stick to the road but simply won't be able to keep up with the ATS. The Volvo driver will concentrate on the road, because safety. The Lexus driver will ignore you. The Infiniti driver will be focusing on getting the hang of the steering. And the C350 driver will wonder what your car even was.
Now, a Jalopnik reader who has made it this far will exclaim "Satish, you idiot! The ATS 3.6 only comes with an automatic! You should get the 2.0T with the manual! It's even cheaper! Give me one reason why you'd pass up the 2.0T!" To that I respond, "I have several."
First off, the 3.6 can take regular fuel helping make up for the price difference. On cross-country trips, I'd be comfortable with any GM dealer in the heartland diagnosing and taking care of engine trouble with the 3.6, an engine used on countless other GM cars for years, than with the 2.0T. (General Motors will probably never admit this if it's true, but it's my theory as to why they make the rental car-grade 2.5. Honestly, it's rare I find a 2.0T for sale at a rural Cadillac dealer.) And most importantly for the purpose of fun, it has more power and torque.
If you're compelled to get a manual in a 3.6, I'm sure you can send it to Pratt and Miller and they can fit one of those six-speed Tremec manual gearboxes for a price. But I swear the automatic is good enough. If the Hydra-Matic is good enough for the current CTS-V, it's more than enough for the ATS, and you'll still have fun. I guarantee it.
So far, you may have noticed all I've gushed about so far are the powertrain and chassis. You're right, because I've been avoiding talking about the interior. Namely the gauge cluster, which looks to be thrown together and needs a redesign. (Though the Premium trim level has head-up display standard so you mercifully won't have to look at it as often as you think.) The shiny black center stack, which doesn't look so nice on a sunny day. I don't like having to touch the IP panel rather than a button when changing the cabin temperature. And CUE has its moments of madness.
But hopefully you'll get over it, much like we got over iDrive, The Verve, and BBM informing the sender you read their message. (The solution to the last one? Get Snapchat.) Because the ATS is indeed a joy to drive. It drives like the BMWs of the 1990s and 2000s that I grew up with and loved. In fact, it drove better than my dad's E39 (the last good-looking 5-Series), a car much loved on Jalopnik.
For a while there, it was looking like if I wanted a fun rear-drive entry-luxury car, I'd have to buy a used 2000s 3-Series. The Mercedes is too staid, the Audi is too idiot-proof, the BMW has no steering feel, the Lexus is getting there but not quite there, the Volvo has no rear-drive, and the Infiniti is like driving in Gran Turismo, which meant I'd have nothing to look forward to in five years except looking for an E30 325i with no broken ECU.
In the ATS, I see hope, which is quite possibly the cheesiest thing I can write in this review. Hope that in five years, when I'm on Autotrader or Craigslist, there'll be a car worth buying with a wondrous driving experience without resorting to much older German cars. Cars with four-figures worth of service bills every year and an irritating chirp at low temperatures.
It's a travesty if you don't drive an ATS. But don't bother telling your friends about it. You're wasting your time. They'll worry about what their friends, siblings, parents, parent's friends, coworkers, etc. will think of them and not about how they feel in the driver's seat. Only you'll know what they're missing out on. You're all the better for it.
Satish Kondapavulur runs Clunkerture, named because "Clunker.com" was $82 at auction and would've taken 30% out of the balance of his Eagle Vision for LeMons fund. In between contemplating cross-country runs, he spends much of his time attempting to convince others that his MkV Jetta 2.0T Wolfsburg is indeed a sports sedan.
Photo credit Cadillac.