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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Driving the 2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe, sparring with the Germans


2015 Cadillac ATS coupe
For more than a decade, Cadillac has been hard at work trying to replace its stodgy image with a hip new one. Before 2002, it seemed the automaker was happy to sit on the sidelines, watching its market share plummet along with its prestige, while cars from Germany and Asia became the standard by which all luxury cars were measured.
 Then came the 2003 CTS. It was the first comfortable, fast, fun-to-drive car that Cadillac had built in years, and it put the automotive world on notice: General Motors’ luxury brand was back and ready to compete with the world’s best, once again.

Ten years ago Cadillacs were clearly inferior to those from Germany and Asia, but now, they are on a par in terms of performance, quality and style.
 Some experts even believe they are better, and sales have increased; in 2013, Caddy’s sales rose 21.9% in the U.S., thanks to new models like the XTS and ATS sedans. That is the brand's largest sales increase since the 1970s.

Unfortunately, the revival seems to have stalled, at least in terms of consumer interest. Overall sales for the luxury brand are down 2.3% from a year-ago. That might sound like a miniscule number, but it’s those same two models that drove up sales last year that are faltering today; ATS sales have decreased by 20%, while the XTS is 21%.

Surprisingly, GM’s isn’t sweating bullets about this turn of events. It believes the downfall isn’t due to the automaker’s image issue. Instead, company reps blame the fact that luxury car buyers are fickle; they want the latest thing, and are willing to pay for it. And Cadillac hasn’t really done anything new since 2012 (excluding the pricey ELR), when it unveiled the ATS Sedan.

Enter the all-new 2015 ATS Coupe, due out later this month. It’s Cadillac’s answer to the question: “What have you done for me lately?”

Starting at $37,995, the Coupe is – surprise, surprise – designed to compete with the best luxury sport coupes in the world, like the
Audi A4 and BMW 4-Series.

More evolution than revolution, it looks like a mini-ATS Sedan from afar. Up-close and-personal, however, it is a much different car. A more aggressive car. A better looking car. A sportier car.

According to Cadillac, the only panel shared between Sedan and Coupe is the aluminum hood. Everything else is “different.”

Though I find the exterior tweaks subtle, they nonetheless have a significant impact on the overall appearance of the car. Even so, you could never mistake this compact two-door for anything but an ATS variant.

Underneath that gussied up body lurks the same global platform as the Sedan, which makes the car similar, but not identical, in almost every way. The Coupe rides on the same 109-inch wheelbase as the Sedan.

 However, its track has been widened 0.4 inches in front and 0.8 inches in the rear, thanks mostly to wider wheels with greater offsets. To cover the broader stance, Caddy designers flared the fenders, adding another 1.4 inches in width, giving the car a beefier, meaner silhouette.
I give the Coupe’s interior a resounding two-thumbs up, especially from a tech perspective. Little has changed between the Sedan and Coupe; the seats are comfortable and support you in all the right places, even in the twisties. The dash features the same user-friendly layout, and the build quality and materials are all top-notch.
However, the backseat – or lack thereof – is disturbing. Cadillac says that legroom remains unchanged – more than 33 inches. I believe it, but the space looks and feels very different, and getting in and out of it takes some contorting. If you plan on transporting more than one adult, save a few grand and purchase the Sedan instead. You’ll be glad you did.

Like its sibling, the Coupe is packed with a wide array of driver assists, including blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, front and rear collision alerts, and cross traffic monitoring to warn you of an oncoming car when you're backing out of a parking spot, as well as a standard rear-view camera.
 New features added to the list: Lane Keep Assist, making the car automatically steer back into the center of the lane if you wander too close to the painted lines. And like in the Infiniti Q50, I found the feature to work like a charm.

The Coupe will be offered in four trim levels (standard, luxury, sport and premium) with a choice of either a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder or a 3.6-liter V-6. The four-cylinder is available with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, while the V-6 gets only the six-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional for either engine, but matched only to the automatic transmission.

While the 3.6-liter engine is carried over unchanged (321 hp and 275 lb.-ft. torque), the 272-horse 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder has been well massaged for 2015. Torque has increased by 35 lb.-ft. over the outgoing model, from 260 to 295 lb.-ft. And improved engine programming helps smooth out response. The turbo is still heard, but not felt as much when it kicks in.

Other enhancements include the brand's first five-link independent rear suspension, an underbody aerodynamic shelf, Brembo brakes, electric variable-effort steering, and driver-adjustable performance suspension.

On the road, the Coupe’s sportier intentions are quite apparent. It feels like it wants to be driven more aggressively, just like its European counterparts.

All ATS models offer tour and sport driving modes to tweak steering effort and shift points. But in the Coupe, they also affect ride quality; Sport mode offers more road feel, while touring mode reduces the bumps and bruises considerably.

I was able to get behind the wheel of an all-wheel drive ATS 2.0T, rear-drive 3.6 with Magnetic Ride Control suspension, and rear-wheel drive 2.0T. All drove like champs.
 The stock suspension handled the sinuous, off-camber, undulating North East back roads quite nicely. There were no weird body motions on the bumpy stuff and the ride was rather comfortable – hard, but not like a rock. Looking to push the vehicle a little, I switched into sport mode.
 This reduced power steering assist, allowing more of the road’s imperfections to come through; although I still found the steering to be number than its competition. But the car was quick to respond to my inputs, and gracefully went wherever I aimed her.

While the stock suspension was plenty sporty, I found the cars equipped with Magnetic Ride Control to be more pleasurable to drive. In Touring you get a comfortable, somewhat floaty but controlled ride.
 But in sport mode you get that same feel you got from the stock, sport-tuned suspension, but it wasn’t as punishing. The car stayed poised and predictable through tight turns and the rolling hills, especially when the road got rough in patches.

I didn’t find much difference between the engines in terms of performance. The V-6 does have better throttle response than the turbo and sounds more forceful.
 However, it doesn’t jump to attention any faster when you punch the accelerator, or perform any better when powering through tight turns and up steep grades. The four-banger is noisier, though, but with the 3.6-liter, the premium you’ll pay just isn’t worth it.

When all was said and done, this is one car that I can say truly lives up to the hype. And the one Caddy that I can definitely see attracting a younger audience.
 It’s more attractive than the Sedan, handles better, offers better tech, and develops plenty of power for most driving situations. It is an impressive package with a fun-to-drive nature. What have you done for me lately indeed.