If you're under 60, you can't be faulted for not remembering there was a time when Cadillac was the "it" car. That's also because, for decades and very until recently, General Motors' luxury marque remained a disappointment. But all all that changed over the last decade as Cadillac became more competitive in an attempt to pry a new generation of luxury buyers away from German and Japanese premium brands.
The 2016 ATS coupe seems to be proof that Cadillac is ready for a stab at the title again. A clean, swept look flows back from a new logo – a larger crest, sans wreath this time – culminating in a pointed tail that hearkens back to the Eldorado coupe from the late '60s. The body lines are well-polished, giving the impression the car is moving even when it's sitting in the driveway.
Simply put, the ATS coupe is a clear manifestation of a marriage between the fanciful spirit of the design studio and the cold, hard reality of manufacturing.
It's not difficult to lose track of time when you're looking at the car, taking it all in. The view from behind the wheel is nearly as impressive. Deep, shiny black-and-chrome accents gleam on the dash, and a heads-up display beams speed, tach and safety information onto the windshield (the mode can be changed to show the posted speed limit and a few additional parameters).
But the real fun begins when you push the big silver start button and bring the ATS coupe's 335-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 engine to life. This is not an old person's Cadillac. It's tight, it's slick, it's fast, it turns heads. That's not to say it's a track car, like it's 464-horsepower V-badged sibling. But it will get you from point A to point B in a hurry and in style and comfort.
On long highway trips, the car floats over tarmac like a supersonic hovercraft. You can feel the road, but it doesn't own you. Steering is light and fast, and although the car drives smooth and quiet when you want it to, it can also let its presence be known. With the windows and sunroof open, a gratifying, brassy "brraaap!" can be heard from the exhaust pipes each time the eight-speed transmission shifts gears.
The EPA's fuel economy numbers for the ATS coupe turned out to be misleading. Drive it with a heavy right foot and mileage plummets into the high teens. But with the cruise control set once you hit the highway, it's possible to get 33 mpg.
Cadillac's Cue infotainment system still needs some refinement. Although the non-button buttons on the dash have been improved over last year's version, the lack of at least a couple physical knobs is maddening when you're trying to manipulate controls on the open road. But what I found positively infuriating was the car's voice recognition software. Sometimes it worked, but when it didn't – well, let's just say it's a good thing I don't have a heart condition.
Cadillacs are equipped with Apple Car Play for 2016, but I wasn't all that impressed with it. For one thing, it was necessary to connect my iPhone with a cable. For another, only a few of the apps on my phone worked, and not the ones I wanted. I needed Waze (to keep an eye out for the law as I blasted down the New Jersey Turnpike), but couldn't figure out how to get it to come up on the car's main screen. I had to settle for the old phone-precariously-balanced-atop-the-steering-column trick.
Front seat passengers will probably be comfortable, but only if they're not too tall. The sunroof on the ATS we drove was a must-have on a gorgeous late-summer day, but it also cut into outboard headroom. If you're likely to have back seat passengers over the age of 6, they will hate you. My mother, who is 5'1", complained bitterly when I asked her to contort herself over the folded passenger-side seat and seatbelt tripwire into the cramped back seat. She didn't have much room for her legs. My brother's girlfriend, who wasn't much taller, had to duck in order to sit up straight.
A comparably-equipped BMW 228i will give you more rear seat space, better fuel economy a slightly bigger trunk and a lower price. But it's not as sexy as the Cadillac ATS coupe. In fact, one of the American car's best features is that it's able to be this good without being a BMW, Audi or Mercedes-Benz. It gives us hope that – after decades of collective waiting – Cadillac is on its way back to the top of the heap.
By the numbers: 2016 Cadillac ATS Coupe
MSRP: $56,415 (includes $995 destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 3.6-liter, 335-hp V6 engine, rear-wheel drive
Transmission: 8-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy: 20/30 city/highway mpg
Safety: The Cadillac ATS Coupe is not yet rated by the NHTSA and IIHS
In showrooms: Now