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.
A Familiar Six
Next, we jumped into an ATS with the largest engine offered. This is the lone six-cylinder, Cadillac’s 3.6-liter, which does duty in the CTS as well. Here it makes 321 hp, which beats not only the 335i (300 hp) but also the C350 (302 hp) and the IS350 (306 hp). And while the 275 lb-ft of torque output of the Caddy V-6 is virtually identical to that of its normally aspirated competitors — the C350 and the IS350 — again the turbocharged engine, BMW’s straight six, has an advantage, with 300 lb-ft. Cadillac is offering the V-6 exclusively with the six-speed automatic, but there is a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive. With the former, the factory-estimated 0-to-60-mph time is 5.4 seconds, exactly the same as that of the 335i. That’s a strong number, and indeed it is a strong performer. The V-6 has plenty of power and linear throttle response, and it sounds good as the revs climb. This car is the Performance trim level, which includes oversize, steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles (no need to move the gear lever out of Drive to use them) as well as sport seats with adjustable side bolsters, upgraded front lighting, and other lesser items. Oddly, it does not include Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control, summer performance tires, or a limited-slip differential, which together with upgraded engine cooling and wider rear wheels make up the FE3 suspension package. That’s available only on the top-spec Premium version, which is where we headed next.
Our Premium-spec ATS was equipped with a 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder. This engine is likely to account for about half of ATS volume (with the 2.5-liter and the V-6 splitting the other half), and it’s available in the most permutations. It can be had with all four trim levels, with rear- or all-wheel drive, and the 2.0-liter alone offers a six-speed manual transmission in addition to the automatic. The specs on the 2.0 are 272 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. That beats the BMW 328i’s engine by 32 hp and 5 lb-ft.
Unfortunately, like so many direct-injected turbo four-cylinders, this 2.0-liter is less than melodic going about its work. The good news is that it does its work extremely well. Throttle response is linear and predictable. The full measure of torque is available across a wide rev band from 1700 to 5500 rpm, and that makes this engine almost seem livelier than the V-6 (factory measurements put it 0.3 second behind its bigger brother, at 5.7 seconds to 60 mph). Aggressive driving through empty, curving two-lanes called up the automatic’s performance shift program, which downshifted entering fast corners and held off upshifts when we suddenly lifted off the throttle. Equally impressive, though, was Magnetic Ride Control together with the Bridgestone Potenza performance rubber, which really enhance the feeling of connectedness that you get through the chassis. There are two suspension settings, tour and sport, and there’s not a whole lot of difference between them; sport firms things up a bit but doesn’t aggressively squelch body motions — meaning you might actually be able to use it where the roads aren’t perfect.
Unsurprisingly, all the cars at the track were equipped with this package. The available powertrains were V-6/automatic and turbo/manual. Again, as out on the street, the turbo felt very much like it could run with the six, although the V-6 flexes its muscles as the speed climbs. The stick-shift four-cylinder car boasts 50/50 weight distribution (the six is a couple percentage points heavier up front), and the ATS proved to be balanced and responsive on this fairly tight track, which also features plenty of elevation changes. With the stability control in competition mode, the ATS can be coaxed into oversteer, but the electronics still keep things on a short leash. (The system also can be shut off completely.) All but the base 2.5-liter ATS use Brembo front brakes, and they never faded despite repeated laps. The automatic transmission was a champ in this environment, its performance algorithm choosing gears so well that there was no need to reach for the paddles; the only flaw was an occasionally abrupt two-gear downshift. With the manual, meanwhile, a hurried third-to-second downshift sometimes had the lever missing the second-gear gate and heading off in the direction of reverse. The throws are short, however, and the clutch is friendly. That was particularly important on our drive back to the city, where we got caught in a multimile traffic jam on the Georgia 400 freeway. Welcome to Atlanta.
And welcome, Cadillac, to a place you’ve long wanted to be. The ATS is a solid effort that at last puts a Cadillac on par with the German competitors it has fixated on for so long.
2013 Cadillac ATS
Price: $33,990/$35,795/$42,090 (2.5L/2.0L turbo/3.6L)
Engines: 2.5L I-4, 202 hp, 191 lb-ft; 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 272 hp, 260 lb-ft; 3.6L V-6, 321 hp, 275 lb-ft
Drive: Rear- or 4-wheel
EPA mileage: 22/33 mpg (2.5L)