The BMW M3 has always been the sports sedan that has kept all of its ingredients in balance. It never had an engine that would overpower the chassis, the footprint was just right, and it had all the ingredients of a race car turned to road use.
But the current M3 has had a change in ethos. The change to turbo power resulted in a car that had the same horsepower as before, but a torque curve like the M3 had never seen. It suddenly wasn't a car that had the joy of developing its power at the top of the range, it now had thrust everywhere.
Combine that with the larger F80 platform that the new M3 rides on, and it felt distinctly more like a Bavarian muscle car than a precision instrument. It's a pretty stark change for a car that had defined its segment for decades.
And now, with the ATS-V, Cadillac is building the M3 BMW should have .
Let that sink in for a second, because it's something you thought you'd probably never hear.
In order for Cadillac to be taken seriously as a luxury performance brand, since that's what they are now, they needed a car that could be considered a competitor with the M3. That means that they took the ATS-V very, very seriously.
It has a twin-turbo V6 instead of a V8, because that allows them to keep the weight down and move the engine further back. Cadillac was also adamant that they are "not in the Hellcat business." The car is overcooled, meaning that there is no option package to get more vents or anything, that all comes standard. There's a standard differential cooler. The traction control system is derived from the system that's on the ATS race car. Every single body modification to the outside of the car is functional.
And while the V weighs about 300 pounds more than the M3, it feels lighter, smaller (it is slightly smaller), and more alive. On track, the M3 just feels big. The ATS doesn't.
On Monticello Motor Club's challenging 4.1 mile track, the ATS feels like it belongs. The electric steering, which is still a work in progress for every manufacturer, is pretty good, not great, but pretty good. It's definitely better than the setup in the M3, which, as we found out on our first drive, is essentially the same as the M3 so geometry is the difference.
The 464 HP/444 LB FT 3.6 V6 is a powerhouse, as long as you can get around the lag at lower revs. Some of Monticello's slower third gear corners require this car to be driven as if it's an older, laggy beast. Get on the throttle before you think you should, and by the time you hit your true acceleration point, the turbos will come on line and you'll be firing out of the corner.
That power is all sent through either a Tremec six-speed manual or GM's eight speed automatic. Both are great transmissions, but the manual is the one to get. Shocker. It's been engineered for no lift shifts and has auto rev match that you can turn on or off. Systems like that usually annoy me to death, but this one is actually really, really good. Nearly Porsche good. The V is faster with the auto, but the manual is more involving. Now you just need to go buy the manual, because the take rate is a planned 20 percent, but insiders suggest the actual rate will be closer to 10 percent, which doesn't really leave them much of a bargaining chip to continue to develop a manual in the future.
It doesn't lack for top end with either gearbox, with Monticello's long straight seeing the speedo get near as makes no difference to 150 MPH.
Thankfully, the standard steel Brembo brakes are fantastic. The pedal can get long after a number of laps, but they never fade. ABS jumps in only when it is very needed and it's welcome. I ran in/abused the same car all day and had no issues with the brakes going away.
Once you are slowed down for a corner, the ATS is your toy. It's pretty neutral on corner entry, maybe a slight push, though that may be more because of an over optimistic speed than the tuning. Mid-corner the balance becomes distinctly more neutral with it controllable on the throttle. A heavy lift will make the tail come around, but you can correct or hold it rather easily.
Of course, if you're using the precision traction management system, it'll do a lot of the work for you. Like in the Corvette, PTM in the ATS-V is there to maximize performance on track. I ran the car in the most aggressive setting most of the day, Race, which only cuts in when it thinks you're a moron. It's a very smart, unobtrusive system, though if it's a lurid powerslide you're looking for, you'll want to turn everything off.
The interior, especially the gauge package, is woefully behind the times, and Cadillac understands this. Buyers in this class are looking for a car that has a mixture of tech and performance, and right now the visibility of the tech is obscured by outdated instruments. When asked, Cadillac said they've been quietly improving the car for the last few years, so that might be an upcoming change.
But in the scheme of things, that doesn't really matter.
What Cadillac has built here is a car that is surprisingly good in every single way. The engine might not be the no lag thrustmaster that sits in the front of the M3, but I tend to think that adds to the charm of this car. It is indeed a work in progress, progress being the optimum word there. There's something far less sterile about the ATS-V than its German and Japanese counterparts, it feels more like it's the result of people building something they want rather than the solution to an exacting equation.
That's what makes it akin to the older M3s. This is a car that was built to be fun, and it just so happens that the fun has transferred to real, tangible performance. Drive one and you'll understand.