Cadillac ATS-V and the strange joys of engine noise


Written by Dan Neil

I am in search of a word. The car in question is the newly juiced Cadillac ATS-V Coupe, a performance version of GM's premium compact coupe (also sedan), around $70,000 with the good kit, etc. On an open track the car is an absolute polo pony, way more fun than the last overstuffed Bavarian I drove. It's got magic Michelins in the corners, more steel in its structural corset, a wider stance, magnetic dampers, 50% stiffer roll rates front and rear, and Brembos for days. For a silly little luxury car the ATS-V is insanely track capable. But that's anon.

Like a lot of performance cars, the ATS-V features in-cabin audio enhancement, whereby various pleasing sonic and subsonic strains of the engine?induction roar, the thrill of high rpm, the crackling on a trailing throttle?are electronically gathered, filtered and piped through the Cadillac's awesome stereo that no one knows how to turn on.

This in an effort to, what, exactly? The ATS-V packs a 464-hp twin-turbo V6 with dual exhausts with driver-selectable bypass valves and dual pipes; that would seem like sufficient sonic excitement. But these audio systems sweeten the soundscape in subtle ways: a touch of subsonic presence to the idle throb, a hint of bright plashing at high rpm, more general storminess. Meanwhile, the audio's cabin-noise cancellation function is trying to wash unpleasant frequencies from the aural spectrum.

Engine Sound Enhancement (ESE) comes standard with the Bose sound system and piggybacks on the hot-rod amplifier and surround-sound speakers.

What do we call this process? Auto-tuning? Aural nostalgia? Simulacra-casting? And do we have a fix on exactly why the guttering of fire and piston in an internal combustion engine should release pleasure endorphins in the lizardy brains of human beings? This is Joseph Campbell territory.

Let's call it ambience engineering. The technology has emerged because, big picture, engine sound is wasted energy. The full-throated roar of a pushrod V8, though wonderful and atavistic, represents inefficiency in your net power. In an era of ambitious fuel-economy targets, turbochargers now intrude on the hot, melodious exhaust gases rushing out of engines. The turbos steal energy from the blast, and that pressurizes air entering the engine, making efficient horsepower. But the turbo robs the engine of its voice, like putting a mute in the bell of a trumpet.

In the case of the ATS-V, the 3.6-liter twin-turbo makes a rated 464 hp and 444 pound-feet of torque. That's 128.9 hp per liter of displacement, which GM says is the highest output of any six-cylinder in class. But as I hauled the mail up the back straight edging over 140 mph, where were the fiery trumpets of doom that one might hear from a big-cam, naturally aspirated V8? The horn section didn't show up.

So Cadillac (and Porsche, BMW and Ford) tinkers with the mixing board a bit and who can blame them? People want a performance car to make particularly satisfying and emotional sounds. Dudes, mostly.

My situation ripping around at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin was unusual, with laps of rapid redline shifts and long throttle pulls, which meant I could really hear, even through my helmet, the ESE making hot-sweet sexy noises. There is no harm in that.

Perhaps it is the way of the digital world, where the virtual invariably supplants the actual. Still, take a half-step back and it does seem like a weird thing to do: re-creating the sense-memory of an obsolete technology in the name of the familiar. It would be like putting a gramophone on an early car to play the clop-clop of a horse.

Speaking of horses: This is Cadillac's smallest car packed with a brute of an engine, an intercooled twin-turbo V6 with 464 hp and 444 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm, pumping through your choice of the supersmart, slick-shifting eight-speed automatic or (the curtain pulls back, crowd goes ahhh?) the Tremec TR-6060 six-speed manual transmission.

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