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)