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COUPE DE GRACE: Cadillac’s compact two-door ATS primed to fight foreigners

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Cadillac once proclaimed itself the “Standard of the World.”

In the years preceding and following World War II, there were few who would challenge that assertion. Cadillac engines were so revered for their exceptional performance they showed up in a number of high-end European sports cars, and a modified Cadillac 61 Coupe actually came in 10th in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans, against some pretty snooty competition.

But General Motors’ premium division was slow to respond to increasing competition from Europe and Japan. And as the 20th century wound down the one-time status symbol drifted into near-obscurity as U.S. sales dwindled from 384,840 in 1985 to 182,543 in 2013.

But in the last few years, Cadillac has made a valiant effort to compete with the foreigners who have been eating the division’s lunch. Vehicles such as the new ATS Coupe, this week’s test vehicle, are proof the best may be yet to come.

Based on the division’s compact ATS sedan, touted as a viable competitor to the iconic BMW 3-series, the ATS Coupe sports the latest – and by far the best – adaptation of the so-called “Art and Science” design theme. Here, it’s honed to minimalist handsomeness, unlike some earlier off-putting attempts which tried too hard to be edgy.

But looks aside, it’s the way the coupe performs that seals the deal. Our tester featured the upgraded engine option, a potent twin-cam V-6 that supplants the standard turbo four-cylinder.

This punchy powerplant emits a sweet burble at idle that morphs into a pulse-raising wail as the tach sweeps toward redline. The six-speed automatic clicks off shifts with Teutonic precision (although it was manufactured in France!).

2015 Cadillac ATS CoupeThe little coupe knifes through curves with superb control and balance, abetted by razor-sharp steering. The high-performance Brembo discs brakes add to the sense of confidence.

The cabin is a study in high-end materials masterfully assembled, with loads of leather and gorgeous open-grain wood trim plus all the luxury and convenience attributes this price point requires. Sport buckets gently hug occupants; back-seat passengers won’t fare so well in tight quarters.

The ATS Coupe strongly suggests Cadillac is on the road to a brighter future.