With the all-new 2013 ATS, Cadillac is hunting in unfamiliar territory -- the compact entry-level luxury market, dominated by BMW and Mercedes. Previous American attempts to take on this segment have been a joke, but Caddy thinks they've hit the mark with the ATS. Have they done it? Read on.
First Glance: They did it their way
There's a reason that American cars are not taken seriously as competitors to the Germans, and why Cadillac in particular has never been seen as a rival to BMW: We have never produced a car that could seriously compete with the BMW 3-series. Cadillac has certainly tried, and they have most definitely failed: There was the Seville of the 1970s (a gussied-up Nova with an exorbitant price tag); the Cimarron of the 1980s (a bad joke thinly disguised as an automobile); and the Catera of the 1990s (a good car, but not a proper Cadillac).
For 2013, Cadillac is trying again -- this time with the 2013 ATS. And you know what? I think they've finally done it.
The secret to the ATS' success is that they haven't tried to build a 3-series knock-off, as Infiniti did with my beloved G-series, or a BMW-Mercedes hybrid like Lexus' IS. Of all the things I like about the ATS -- and there are a lot -- what I like best is that it's unique. The size, layout, and attention to the drive experience are clearly inspired by the 3-series, because that's what the market wants -- but this car is a Cadillac through-and-through, and for once, that's a good thing.
It starts with the styling. The ATS reminds me like a prepubescent CTS: Same sharp lines, same angular features, but with a bit of baby fat around the face and limbs. Traditionally Caddy details like the vertical LED taillights (link goes to photo) and wreath-and-crest logo bestow a sense of dignity in the family's long and often troubled history. It's a very handsome car, and one I wouldn't mind seeing in my driveway every morning.
In the Driver's Seat: Demons exorcised
In the past, I've complained about a thin veneer of cheapness that seems to line the interiors of General Motors' luxury cars, but that's been dispensed with in the ATS. Run your eyes and fingers over the dashboard, twist the dials and press the buttons (what few there are), and you'll experience quality that will impress a seasoned Lexus owner.
Riding the center stack is Cadillac's new CUE interface, which combines a multi-configurable touch screen and a touch-pad panel in place of buttons. I'm not 100% sold on the latter, but perhaps that's a lack of familiarity; I found myself ordering up functions I didn't want and unable to do simple things like rapidly turning down the fan (which, as it happens, can also be done through the touch screen). Other than that, I loved every aspect of the CUE system, from its sensible menu structure to its "favorites" bar (where you can put anything from radio presets to common destinations) to the artistry of the screen graphics. Even the voice command system works well. Nice job, Caddy.
Rounding out the ATS is a back seat that offers reasonable if not remarkable space and a trunk that's way too small -- 10.2 cubic feet, or about half the cargo room of a Honda Fit. No matter -- you can fold down the rear seat if you have to carry more stuff, right? Not if you get the base model, you can't. That seems like a rather unnecessary bit of cost-cutting.
On the Road: Caddy sweats the details, and it shows
The ATS is offered with three engines; the volume seller will be the 272 horsepower turbocharged two-liter four-cylinder, which is bookended by a 202 hp 2.5 liter four and GM's venerable 3.6 liter V6, here tuned for 321 hp. Believe it or not, the engine that impressed me most was the 2.5; it provides adequate power and a surprising amount of refinement. The V6 is what it is -- throaty and powerful, if not terribly unique.
And what of the 2.0T? I certainly liked the strong flow of power and the fact that it's EPA fuel economy estimates (22 MPG city/32 highway) are identical to the 2.5. But I was a bit disappointed by the soundtrack; while not as rough sounding as BMW 328i's turbo four, it makes a lightweight buzz that doesn't fit the ATS' demeanor. That said, it's the only engine available with a manual trans, and while I hate to sound like a typical car journalist, that is the powertrain to have -- not that the six-speed paddle-shifted automatic does a bad job (it even knows enough to hold a lower gear in the curves when in Sport mode), but the stick-shift really enhances the driving experience. If you can drive a manual, that's the powertrain combo to get.
Handling is better than you'd expect: Caddy's engineers pared the weight down mercilessly, gave the ATS a perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and even used a steering rack from ZF, purveyor to BMW (although it's electrically assisted and doesn't provide enough feedback -- they should have gone to Honda). The ATS offers two suspension options; the sportier one (called FE3) uses magnetic-ride shock absorbers that can instantly change their damping rates. Both suspensions provide great grip and admirable balance, with the FE3 supplying a ride that is slightly firmer but never uncomfortable. Set the electronic stability control to Competition Mode and you can throw the rear-drive ATS' tail around with well-controlled abandon (less so in the all-wheel-drive version). The ATS doesn't put the whole experience together quite as well as the BMW 3-series; then again, since its 2012 redesign, neither does the BMW 3-series. But the ATS is more involving than the Mercedes C-Class and the Lexus IS, and it doesn't beat you up like the sport-tuned Infiniti G37S.