First look: 2013 Cadillac ATS

Patience and persistence count for a lot when you're shaping brands. BMW is probably the best example, having evolved, model by model, from a German also-ran that built a weird minicar to the undisputed crafters of Ultimate Driving Machines. General Motors is probably the worst example, its recent history being littered with tales of expensive impatience. It remodeled the entire Oldsmobile lineup and then shut down the brand, it remodeled the entire Saturn lineup then shut that down, it engineered an all-new Saab 9-4 and 9-5 get the picture. Such was the expectation for Cadillac when it decided a little more than a decade ago to build German-style sport sedans. Surely, Cadillac would get the whole European thing out of its system and then go back to building ponderous sedans. Or disappear altogether.

Except Cadillac hasn't gone away, and it's still chasing those Europeans. If the pursuit hasn't always been successful -- the XLR, the STS, the Europe-only BLS -- it has been dogged. Now, with the all-new 2013 Cadillac ATS compact sedan, which debuts at the Detroit auto show and goes on sale later this year, Cadillac thinks it has gained enough experience and credibility to do something that was once unthinkable: call out the BMW 3-Series.

"We're going to outrefine the 3-series. We'll have similar or better performance, but we'll have that silk glove of Cadillac laced over it," says the ATS's lead development engineer, Chris Berube, who worked most recently on the CTS-V.

It's a bold claim, but the ATS's vital stats suggest that Berube is serious. Unlike the CTS, which originally skirted away from direct confrontation by offering BMW 5-Series accommodations for a 3-series price, the ATS targets the smaller Bimmer in every dimension -- it's within half an inch in length, width, and height -- and will be "priced similarly." Its new, direct-injected 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder -- one of three powerplants, the others being a base 200-hp four-cylinder and the familiar 3.6-liter V-6 -- outmuscles the four-cylinder 328i with 270 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The automatic transmission is a six-speed, for now, but an eight-speed is on the way. The real hint that Cadillac means business, though, is the ATS's curb weight - another traditional weak spot for General Motors. With a six-speed manual transmission and the 2.0-liter turbo, the ATS weighs less than 3400 pounds, which edges out the 3406-pound 328i and significantly beats other competitors.

To produce a car so trim -- nearly 500 pounds lighter than the CTS and 400 pounds slimmer than the Chevrolet Camaro -- Cadillac's engineering team couldn't rely on any of GM's existing rear-wheel-drive platforms. "It's very difficult to take an existing architecture and make it a lightweight design," says Dave Masch, who led development of the ATS's all-new platform. Known internally as Alpha, it applies the lessons learned during six rounds of suspension development, which started back in 2007, to arrive at what the engineers describe as a much better and more mass-efficient suspension geometry. The suspension features a multilink setup in back and, rather than the CTS's control-arm front arrangement, employs struts with dual lower ball joints. Like the CTS, it will be available with magnetorheological dampers and Brembo brakes.

For the first time, engineers did not have to contend with dated internal standards that mandated bulkier than necessary suspension components (Bob Lutz's recent memoir describes a General Motors test that simulates tire-blowout conditions common in 1920s Alaska). Although the ATS is stiffer than a CTS, many individual parts, like the control arms, are of thinner-gauge metal. Even the fasteners are smaller. "Most every suspension bolt that we have in the car is one size smaller than what we've executed in the past," says Masch. For the same reason, the ATS team resisted pressure to incorporate Escalade-size wheels. "If you put a much bigger wheel and tire on this car, it's just going to make the car bigger -- and that creates mass," says Masch. Instead, the most aggressive setup the ATS employs are eighteen-inch wheels shod in summer performance tires (nineteens will be available as a dealer accessory, but only with all-season tires).

Although design has powered Cadillac's renaissance, here it took a back seat to weight reduction and suspension optimization. "We worked on this program for about two-plus years before we started any of the styling," says Masch. Translation: they didn't want a designer sketching a concept on a napkin that would then dictate the entire program, as happened, for instance, with the Camaro. The result is consistent with Cadillac's Art and Science theme and benefits from excellent rear-wheel-drive proportions, but it isn't as evocative as the CTS. Again, Cadillac nods to BMW, which tones down its design language for this high-volume segment.

The ATS's interior is also a step forward for Cadillac. Most notable is the arrival of a cohesive, branded approach to interior technology to rival the likes of BMW iDrive and Audi MMI. CUE, short for Cadillac User Experience, features an optional eight-inch touch screen and touch-sensitive controls, similar to MyFord Touch. The touch screen is capacitive, like an iPad, rather than resistive, like most automotive applications, which yields crisper graphics and faster responses. It also incorporates haptic feedback - icons on the screen and the controls on the panel below send a pulse when you touch them, simulating the texture of physical buttons. Drivers, however, will sooner appreciate the small steering wheel, the floor-hinged gas pedal and large dead pedal, the deep bucket seats, and the optional full-color head-up display. Materials, at least in the preproduction model we saw, are exemplary, including the soft leather dash and nice slabs of real wood.

We won't know whether the ATS stands up to the 3-series until we drive it - many automakers have tried and failed. However, we do know that Cadillac, after a decade of improvement, is well positioned to continue its ascent. Its new rear-wheel-drive platform, we're told, "is very scalable," which means you'll see other lightweight rear-wheel-drive Cadillacs, and it is very flexible, which means we're also likely to see a convertible. Oh, and there's room for a V-8. "In my world, there's always room for a small-block V-8," says Berube.

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