Dealer Future Classic: 2016 Cadillac ATS Coupe–Child of Thunderbird or Bavaria?


Curbside readers, if they’ve read any of my work, know of my absolute, undying affinity for older cars.  This doesn’t always add up to a disdain for modern conveyances, but I almost invariably save my unadulterated car lust for things with carburetors.  The Cadillac ATS coupe is a modern exception, a car I’d love to buy if it made any financial sense.  As a result of my affection, this car is doomed, as my tastes rarely align with current trends.  The beauty of this Cadillac to me, although it wears a bodystyle that is not currently winning any popularity contests, is that it harkens back to many notable coupes from home and abroad.

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The coupe is a bodystyle almost as old as the car, but the four-seat Thunderbird of the 1950s and ’60s is, of course, the paternal grandfather of the American personal luxury coupe.  It was distinctive, attractive, and somewhat exclusive; but also quite ponderous, heavy, and comparatively slow.  The Riviera, Toronado, and Eldorado may not have existed if Robert McNamara didn’t count pennies and find a market opening in the shape of a bigger T-Bird, but it’s somewhat hard to compare a modern ATS to an old T-Bird.  The athleticism just wasn’t there.


Of course, in the Cadillac camp, the ’67 Eldorado best symbolizes the sum of all Cadillac coupes.  It was beautifully styled, crisp, and desirable, but it was also the “it thing” for a time among the wealthy.  This is Frank Sinatra’s kind of car, whereas the Frank of today would probably drive an Escalade.  A new ATS simply doesn’t have the kind of snob appeal that the Eldorado, and to some extent the Escalade, projected in spades. Additionally, the Eldorado (and T-Bird, and Escalade) are much, much larger than the svelte ATS, which is actually shorter in length than a modern Mustang or Camaro.


Therefore, the true progenitor of the modern Cadillac coupe is probably not an American luxury coupe at all, but the BMW coupe of the 1970s, especially of the 3.0 variety.  It shares much with a modern ATS: it’s understated but attractive, athletic and light on its feet, and it’s not angling for the “flavor of the month” crowd.  Both it and the ATS seem like intelligent choices for people with discerning taste (not to talk myself up or anything).


The ATS isn’t Cadillac’s first attempt at a sporting coupe in the modern, Germanic idiom.  The Eldorado Touring Coupe of the pre-Northstar era was svelte in size, but also crisp and attractive, as a Cadillac should be.  But even though it was bedecked in road wheels, larger tires, and monochromatic paint, there was something of the imposter in this Eldorado.  It was still front-wheel drive and vaguely reminded one of Beethoven in a jogging suit. Something didn’t quite fit.


More recently, Cadillac shocked the motoring world with its CTS coupe and optional “V” variant.  Journalists swooned, but it had an almost comically oversized posterior that I can not overlook. Additionally, compared to the BMW, the new ATS, and even the Eldorado Touring Coupe; it is too showy, too creased, and too stealth-like for my taste.  The radically raked rear window reminds me of a ’71 Mustang Mach 1, but with a second story attached.  On the other hand, it is menacing in a Batmobile-like way, and it has a certain charisma that evokes the original Eldorado; in short, a nice compromise between Cadillac’s heritage and the modern reality of manufacturing a sporting coupe.


Unfortunately for Cadillac, coupes aren’t particularly good sellers these days, which makes one pause.  Why did Cadillac spend time and money to design and build a car that hasn’t really been in style for a long time?  Is it a 3-series (now 4-series) competitor?  Couldn’t the ATS sedan do a fair enough job of that? The old CTS seemed to fit Cadillac’s modern design language better than the current ATS does, but the ATS is almost classically smooth, without too many discordant creases and body lines, unlike so many other modern cars.  Its rear end is even more attractively proportioned, which is an uncommon touch in a world of severe wedges.


Almost everything about it seems in good taste.  The overhangs and proportions are just right, and there’s little to distract the eye from its basic shape, which means that most modern buyers will probably find it bland.


For those folks, Cadillac does offer an ATS-V, with all of the spoilers and body cladding one might expect from a modern performance machine.  Its twin-turbo V6 also offers more performance than one will ever need outside of a racetrack, and its handling is even more German than a BMW’s, whatever that means.


There’s even a race car version for the Pirelli World Challenge series, with a raucous V6 of its own.  Cadillac has certainly changed; I’m fairly certain that the ’67 Eldorado never competed in factory-backed, organized speed trials.


But then again, times have changed.  The ATS coupe will likely become a forgotten sales flop, which is a shame, because it’s one of the few new cars that really pushes my buttons.  If I weren’t into old cars with all of the expenses that come with them, I’d certainly look for one that’s a year or two old.  At around $42,000 base price, however, even a new one is not unreasonably priced for a Cadillac.


Mine would be a low-optioned, turbo-four with a six-speed manual (which is still an option on that engine). This example is an ATS4 with the 3.6-liter V6, eight-speed automatic, and all of the electronic gimmickry that I have been able to do without for so long.


Anachronisms, that’s what I and this ATS are.  Just as I’ll probably be the last person to ever buy a smartphone, the ATS may be the last bastion of understated design, without too many extraneous bulges and divergent lines.  Of course, the old cliche “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” applies here, but even after a year or so, I am still excited to see an ATS coupe on the local dealer’s lot, and that says a lot.