Cadillac has been obsessed with the German luxury carmakers at least since the Bob Lutz era (with the first CTS and the last STS), if not before (with the Catera). And by German luxury carmakers, we really mean BMW. The new ATS could be seen as just another arrow launched in the direction of the industry's most oft-sited target -- the 3-series -- but that underestimates the comprehensive nature of this effort.
You might remember that the CTS was supposed to face down the 3-series. Good as it is, however, the CTS is too big and too heavy to be a direct 3-series competitor. Instead, it's a 'tweener car, priced near the 3-series but closer in size to the 5-series. Odd as it may seem to Supersize America, where bigger is always supposed to be better, this hasn't really been an advantage. According to ATS chief engineer Dave Masch, one of the things Cadillac learned from its time spent with owners of competitive vehicles (the 3-series as well as the Audi A4, the Lexus IS, and the Mercedes-Benz C-class) was that "buyers didn't want a bigger vehicle."
At 182.8 inches long and 71.1 inches wide, the ATS is within half an inch of its bogey car, the 3-series. It also falls about midway between the smaller C-class and the larger A4. The 109.3-inch wheelbase again sits between the Mercedes and the Audi but is 1.3 inches smaller than the BMW. That last fact partly explains why the rear seat in the ATS is tighter than the one in the new 3-series, which is larger in every dimension (legroom, headroom, and shoulder room); so too in the Audi A4's. For a six-foot passenger sitting behind a six-foot driver, legroom is fine and headroom is adequate, but foot room is tight and the low-cut door opening and large wheelhouse impede ingress and egress. Space up front is fine, where the driver faces a relatively narrow windshield, a shallow dash, and thin A-pillars (which look almost anorexic compared with the General Motors norm). Engineers fine-tuned the driver's relationship to his surroundings, moving the shifter closer than usual, raising the armrest on the door, carefully positioning the dead pedal, and using a floor-hinged accelerator. The net effect is that the ATS comes across as a car that you actively drive, rather than one you sit in.
Calling Jenny Craig
Keeping size in check is all well and good, but the payoff would be meager unless Cadillac engineers could do the same with weight. GM has an embarrassing history of producing big-boned vehicles, packing more pounds than their similar-size competitors. To fight those fat genes, the ATS rides on an all-new rear-wheel-drive architecture rather than a cut-down CTS platform. Masch claims that "virtually nothing" in the chassis was carried over. Losing weight isn't easy -- as anyone who has tried it knows -- and Cadillac engineers looked for savings both big and small. Some examples: the connecting rods have a higher copper content to save weight, the speaker magnets are lighter, the wheel-well liners use a new material that's lighter (and also reduces noise), the sheetmetal is scalloped at the flange welds, rear suspension links have lightening holes, and aluminum is used for the engine cradle and the transmission case. The end result is that the ATS could star in its own Jenny Craig commercial. With two-wheel-drive curb weights ranging from 3315 to 3461 pounds, the ATS is as much as 150 pounds lighter than the equivalent Audi, BMW, Lexus, or Mercedes.
Beyond specs and dimensions, there was another goal for the ATS: "We wanted it to be quick, nimble, and fun," says vehicle line executive David Leone. The only way to test that claim is to drive it. Our route took us from the urban environs of Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood through the metro area's famously crowded freeways and out past the far northern fringes of the suburban sprawl to the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest -- and Atlanta Motorsports Park.
A 2.5 to Start
Appropriately, we started off in a car equipped with the base entrant in the ATS's three-engine lineup. It's a 202-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder that comes only with a six-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive. This four-cylinder may sound like weak sauce, but its power output is right there with the C250 (201 hp) and not far off of the A4 2.0T (211 hp). It's also on par with the Lexus IS250's similarly sized V-6 (204 hp). This normally aspirated four-cylinder doesn't fare quite as well in the torque department, however, with 191 lb-ft available at 4400 rpm. The turbocharged Mercedes and Audi engines both have a lot more torque and, equally important, serve it up at lower rpm. Thus, they both outhustle the ATS from 0 to 60 mph (Cadillac puts the 2.5-liter's time at 7.5 seconds, which is a full second behind the Audi). The 2.5, though, is acceptable in this application and doesn't feel or sound strained. In fact, the ATS is quiet overall. The standard suspension feels alert but compliant, although Atlanta's smooth pavement isn't much of a test of ride quality. The steering is quite light at low speeds but firms up once you reach 35 to 40 mph; it's also very quick, a sense that's exacerbated by the small wheel.
This particular ATS is a Luxury model, which is number two in the hierarchy: base, Luxury, Performance, and Premium. Leather is standard with this trim level and comes in five different color combinations: all black, red and black, beige and brown, beige and black, and caramel and black. The all-black interior is matched with brushed-metal trim with a block pattern design; other trim materials include three different woods and carbon fiber. Gloss black adorns the center stack and the steering wheel.
The Luxury trim level and above nets you Cadillac's new Cue interface (which debuted on the XTS). This system is functionally very similar to the loudly, and justifiably, criticized MyFord Touch/MyLincoln Touch. Cadillac banishes all knobs -- even for audio volume -- in favor of a gloss-black panel with raised ridges that indicate the touch points. To its credit, the touch spots here at least are larger than the tiny dots on Ford's system, and the spot vibrates to let you know that you've touched it successfully. But it's not as reliably responsive as a physical button and, unlike a knob, can't be operated by feel. What it does do well is look neat.
The other element to Cue is the eight-inch touch screen, which has a few new ideas that are actually good. For instance, the screen reverts to a cleaner image (full map, for example) after a few seconds, but when you reach your hand toward it, the formerly hidden buttons appear. Also, you can pinch to zoom (just like on an iPad!), although that ends up not working so well in a moving car. Dragging your finger across the screen moves the map, which is an easy way to scroll ahead and see what's coming up. Entering a destination, though, is a laborious, all-touch-screen process, in which the address is typed in as a single, long entry (rather than state, city, street). It's almost enough to force you to use the voice-recognition function.