If you’re like me, you’ve read all the glowing reviews of the all-new 2013 Cadillac ATS, the entry level Caddy that was created to slay the mighty Germans, with the BMW 3-series directly in the engineers’ cross-hairs.
I certainly was skeptical. After all, the Bavarian Motor Works has been honing its 3-Series for decades and it’s the de-facto benchmark by which all compact sports sedans must be compared. Cadillac’s engineers tore apart the 3er to see what makes it tick and then built the company’s all-new rear-drive Alpha platform to meet, match or exceed the standards of BMW.
The short answer is that Cadillac has succeeded in making a competitive, first-rate compact sports sedan. Is it a BMW? No, it’s not, but it’s a great freshman entry. It’s not quite carved from one block of granite and doesn’t convey the decades of engineering experience and crammed trophy cases that paved the way for the current (internal code) F30 BMW is built.
Perhaps I’m biased because I’ve owned at least one or more cars from all the German manufactures. Perhaps I’m predisposed to expect mediocre product from the Wreath and Crest division of General Motors. However, in the ultra-competitive luxury car market, brand image is vital and perception translates into sales reality.
GM’s luxury division is going to have to work magic to get BMW, Mercedes or Lexus owners to cross shop – particularly in a region like Southern California where a Caddy is joke punch line, not something you drive. Cadillac’s customers skew much older and attracting youth to the brand – youth that will appreciate the driving dynamics of the ATS and who will know how to use all the electronic gizmos – will be key to the future of the brand.
I’d like to get past the styling before we get to the actual driving experience. The ATS wears a conservative, toned-down version of Cadillac’s decade-old Art & Science theme. I like the way the vertical headlight array sweeps up the front fenders and the mini fins in back are a Cadillac hallmark. The rear center brake light is nicely integrated into the trunk lid. The whole package works well, but color choice is very important to the overall look.
The ATS’ Alpha chassis is text book sports sedan: Front engine, rear-wheel drive, four-wheel independent, multilink suspension, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes and optional all-wheel drive. Like all modern cars, to save weight and engine drag, the ATS uses the latest-generation electric power steering unit from Germany’s ZF.
Cadillac offers three engine options: The base unit is a Chevy 2.5 L four-cylinder unit with direct injection making 202 hp. Next up is a 2.0L turbo four, also with direct injection, making 272 hp and the most potent engine (before the inevitable ATS-V makes its debut) is the familiar 3.6L direct injected V6 good for 321 hp.
The standard transmission on all trim levels is GM’s aging 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters. You can get a 6-speed manual transmission only on the 2.0 turbo models. GM always seems late to the party on transmission. Its competitors have been using 7- and 8-speed automatics for a while now. However there is hope. The just-introduced 2014 Cadillac CTS, which also rides on the Alpha platform, will use an Aisin (aToyota affiliate) 8-speed automatic on some models with V6 engines. The 8-speed should migrate to the ATS in the next model year. Problem solved.
I drove the ATS 3.6 Luxury with a base MSRP $42,090 – much more than the standard ATS 2.5 that starts at $34,000. Aside from the V6, 6-speed automatic and an assortment of other goodies, it come standard with the CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment system (sans navigation). My tester had the optional $845 Driver Awareness Package and nothing else.
The ATS was a delight to drive. If this was around in the Roman times, Mercury wouldn’t have needed wings on his shoes. The 3.6 has plenty of power and a very broad torque range. It effortlessly flew up hills and down wide boulevards. This was a happy time for my right foot; just don’t watch the instant fuel economy readout.
The ATS felt light and nimble, even in “Luxury” trim wearing only standard 17 inch wheels and all-season tires. And I do mean light. The V6 ATS weighs around 3,400 – about 100 pounds less than the comparable BMW 335i. It’s also balanced nearly 50-50 front/rear, long a BMW bragging point. It easily tosses into turns and straightens out without feeling like the mass is still moving in the opposite direction.
Fortunately, the Cadillac doesn’t use run-flat tires like almost every BMW. Even on highway braille bumps and uneven surfaces, the chassis was calm, quiet and composed, facilitating a sporty but comfortable ride. It was a joy.
Steering is light, well balanced with commendable road feel. Much can be attributed to the ZF EPS unit, but Cadillac’s engineers really spent bundles of time and untold computing hours tuning the steering – and it shows. There was no drift, and it tracked laser straight and small movements yielded exacting results. I wished for slightly better on-center feel. That said, I wished for the same things when I drove 2012 BMW 328i and it’s the benchmark.
Cabin quality was on par with the competition, but not to the level of Audi. Materials felt rich, plastics were mostly soft to the touch (with a few glaring exceptions) and I liked the French stitching on the dash. Some switchgear felt cheap.
For me, the cabin was a bit claustrophobic – I’m 6’1” tall, 180 pounds. While I fit in the seat, and I liked the electric adjustments, side bolsters and the manual thigh support extension, I just felt like the passenger and I were too close. There was an unconscious jousting of elbows for the slim center arm rest.
And with me in the driver’s seat, the back seat is good only for small adults or children. There was barely room for our two dachshunds. The BMW 3 seemed to have more space. Trunk space was on par with the others in this category. If your idea of weekend fun is Swedish meatballs and flat-packed furniture, buy an SUV.
Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system is frustrating and might be enough to kill the deal. I’ve driven many cars with more responsive touch screens. I believe Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system that mixes a more responsive touch-screen with old-school knobs and buttons is far superior. While CUE’s haptic feedback is nice, I always felt a hesitation when I punched a function on the slick 8 inch full color screen. It was slow enough to make me almost want to touch the control again. Like many others, I’m used to the instant response of an iPad screen and CUE feels like the design predates the iPad which is already on its third generation.
I also don’t like the lack of physical knobs for things like volume or climate control. While I’m sure you’d get used to sliding your finger over the slick center panel to raise or lower volume, I’m willing to bet users will elect to control that kind of stuff with the redundant hard buttons on the steering wheel.
The very fact that the 2013 Cadillac ATS exists is a minor miracle and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to someone looking for something different from the standard issue (in LA) BMW 328i, Audi A4 or Mercedes C250. But for me, it’s really the Almost There Sedan from Cadillac. It would only be attractive on a heavily-vented short-term lease. I have high hopes for the ATS, particularly when it matriculates to its 2nd generation. Maybe then, some of its freshman flaws will be exorcised and we can call it the All There Sedan.
[Editor's note: March 2013 sales were announced two days ago. Cadillac's March 2013 sales were up 55%. The ATS had its best month since launch, with 3,587 units sold - outselling the Audi A4/Allroad, but still a distance from the BMW 3-series with nearly 9,000 unit sales. Ward's Automotive reports that 70% of ATS sales were "conquest sales" from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. Fifty percent of ATS sales were with the 2.0T engine, with the remaining half split evenly between the base 2.5L I4 and the 3.6L V6 engines. ]