Tony Roma’s secret sauce has nothing to do with babyback ribs.
The Tony Roma we’re talking about is an engineer at Cadillac rather than the man behind the barbecue restaurant chain. This Tony takes cold metal and raw data and turns them into saucy, soulful machines. He’s had a hand in all of the V-Series cars and is the chief engineer of the second-generation CTS.
Fittingly, I get a sense of this otherwise quiet and unassuming guy—born and raised in Ohio—over a massive plate of barbecue in Austin, Texas. (This Tony can also tackle a formidable serving of meat. Just sayin’.) Roma has been with GM since 1993, but most of his stories are about the claptrap race cars he’s owned. “I’ve spent too many holiday weekends underneath a car in the pits, trying to get it running for a SCCA club race,” he tells me between bites. Most of the engineers who work on the V cars, it turns out, have humble racing backgrounds. “The guys who work on the V cars have to truly understand performance,” Roma says. That level of understanding is actually quantifiable. To get on the V engineering team, you have to achieve a “Level 6” certification from GM, meaning you can only be tenths of a second off a pro driver’s pace around a track.
Tony’s one of the Level 6 guys. And the love of speed and precision guys like Roma bring to the table is the ATS-V’s secret sauce. It’s baked into the details.
And so it is the next day, at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas, that I all too easily pry him out of the pits and into the left seat of a manually equipped ATS-V coupe.
As soon as his helmet goes on, Roma’s body relaxes. He slides into the car like a man who has spent more hours in a bolstered seat than any Aeron chair. By the time we’re up and over Turn 1 and into the esses, the Michelin Pilot Super Sports are warm and the throttle is buried. This man can drive.
I’d already taken a fair measure of the cars, both coupe and sedan, six-speed manual and eight-speed automatic, and had come away relieved. A Caddy is by definition a soft and livable space. Draw your fingertips around the interior of the ATS-V and that still holds true. But the car’s details show that it’s not a luxury cruiser with a few bolt-on performance parts; it’s a carnivore crafted from the inside out, performance always in mind. The cushy bits are the things that seem to have been added on last.
To the buyer mulling whether to buy a M-something or a V-something or just something else, this is a significant point. A lot of carmakers have been introducing performance badges, and some have as much legitimacy as an attendance prize at a kids’ three-legged sack race. At best it can seem glib and at worst predatory: an opportunity to add thousands onto a sticker in return for glossier wheels and an ineffective spoiler. Even BMW and Cadillac could be called into question for their respective M Sport and Vsport lines. Only careful consumers will realize they aren’t quite the real things.
In light of constant spec creep, the output of 464 hp and 445 lb-ft of torque may just sound average. Even a sub-4 second 0-60 is a “whatever” these days. (The ATS-V takes 3.8 seconds.) But brute force is not the ATS-V’s forte. Leave that to the forthcoming CTS-V. Says Roma: “The new CTS-V will be all about maximum aggression, while the ATS-V is more focused on precision. It’s the sledgehammer versus the scalpel.”
If the ATS-V has a soul, it dwells in the suspension. Roma and his crew will deluge you with tales of zero-compliance cross-axis ball joints, new handling links, higher-rate springs, and stabilizer bars stiff enough to keep the Empire State Building ramrod rigid in hurricane-force winds. I’ve heard these stories before—on every single car launch since the 1990s, in fact—which promise the new model is somewhere between 10 and 100 percent stiffer than the car that came before it. Usually, you can’t feel the difference on the road. In the case of the ATS-V, however, the marriage of the stiffer suspension with GM’s ever-improving, third-gen Magnetic Ride Control is a thing of glorious revolution.
Puttering around town in Austin’s ever-growing traffic mess, the sedan is utterly livable, as compliant and mannered as you’d hope. Its modest size makes it easy to shoulder your way into narrow spaces. At freeway speeds, you begin to notice how precisely you can position the car. It shifts weight effortlessly, is light on its feet, and very willing to tuck into turns. Then you ride over a big bump and realize you didn’t feel it. The magnetorheological system simply deals with road imperfections without fuss—a magical martyr that suffers in silence.
But it is on track, and specifically at COTA, where these elements really shine. The road course has lots of curbing. It’s rough and unfriendly, meant to keep drivers as corralled and best-behaved as possible. The ATS-V makes a mockery of the stuff. If you’re feeling particularly cheeky, you can take a straight line through the esses, ramming full blast over the scalloped ridges like a bulldozer atop a sand castle. It does wonders for your overall time, and you feel only a slight shudder under your backside.
Like the BMW M3/M4, the sedan is a smidge cheaper than the coupe, which start at $61,460 and $63,660, respectively. Fun stuff, such as the same performance data recorder found on the Corvette Z06, costs more.
Lap after unfettered lap at COTA, with speeds routinely above 135 mph, the ATS-V held up under heavy braking and left me feeling hugely confident in its capabilities. It has none of the Jekyll and Hyde power delivery of the current M3, and the ride is far more comported.
But, also unlike the M3, it isn’t bonkers. It’s a chore to get the back out on the ATS-V, with none of the drift happy mannerisms of the BMW. By all appearances it’s more grown up. Almost, well, mature. For some would-be buyers, that may be a drawback.
But that’s what you might think when you first meet a guy like Tony Roma, too. Buttoned-down. Calm. Right until you let him loose on a racetrack.
2016 Cadillac ATS-V Specifications
|Engine:||3.6L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/464 hp @ 5,850, 445 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm|
|Transmissions:||6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic|
|Layout:||2- or 4-door, 4- or 5-passenger, front-engine RWD coupe/sedan|
|EPA Mileage:||16-17/23-24 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||184.7/184 x 72.5/71.3 x 54.5/55.7 in (coupe/sedan)|
|Weight:||3,700 lb (est)|
|0-60 mph:||3.8 sec|
|Top Speed:||189 mph|