When you think of the ill-fated Catera (based on the Opel Omega) and awkward Cimarron (based on — wait for it — the Chevy Cavalier), Cadillac’s previous attempts to jump into the market for luxury sports compact sedans, you might want to preemptively dismiss the new ATS as yet another half-baked offering from America’s oldest luxury automotive brand.
But that would be a grave mistake. If you aren’t up to speed, Cadillac has been on a tear of late (sales up almost 40% this year alone) which has given the folks in Detroit the confidence to again take on this extremely competitive class of vehicles with a bullseye squarely on the reigning champ, the BMW 3 Series. In fact, the new ATS has almost the same dimensions (just less than an inch shorter) and weight (about 100 pounds lighter) as its foremost competitor.
The cabin of the Cadillac ATS is first-class with fit and finish sporting wood and metallic accents that rival those offered by the Europeans. Even the instrument panel is fully upholstered. The driving position is spot on and provides a great vantage point from which to pilot the ATS. That said, the seats are somewhat deficient in the area of side bolstering. Even at its narrowest setting I was still not securely tucked in during aggressive cornering, though I’m sure that the expanding waistlines of the American populace have dictated the dimensions of Cadillac’s seat contouring.
For those of us who are vertically challenged, the rear seats of the Cadillac are somewhat comfortable and roomy. But those with long legs and/or height exceeding 6 feet may find the space cramped and the headroom limited. This is an area where the Bimmer has a distinct advantage with 1.5 inches more legroom and a full inch more headroom.
The other limitation is trunk space; whereas the ATS has 10.2 cubic feet, the 3 Series BMW offers a whopping 17 cubic feet. The Premium edition does come with 60/40 split-rear seats which offers significantly more storage opportunities.
The ATS is not as bold as the CTS but it doesn’t need to be. The sheet metal is still crisp and sleek but without any additional edge which might scare off potential buyers who are interested in flying under the radar. The ATS makes a strong statement without being ostentatious. The LED headlamps, which seem to go on forever as they rise from the front fascia up to the top of the fenders, give the car an almost futuristic look. The fender flares are subtle but pronounced enough to make the ATS look firmly planted and ready for some pavement aggression. And because the grill and tail lamps follow the sharp and angular approach of Cadillac’s Art and Science design DNA, the ATS fits nicely within the family, looking almost like the CTS Jr.
One of the main attractions of the ATS is its high-tech cabin and gorgeous black glossy center stack. Stepping inside the ATS is a little like living inside an iPad. The CUE infotainment system allows you to tap, flick, swipe and spread your fingers to interact with the 8 inch touch screen display which handles the audio, phone, HVAC and navigation. The virtual buttons provide “haptic” feedback which vibrates quickly upon activation. If you really mash on the volume or fan speed settings, they even respond accordingly.
For those less tech-savvy or open to innovation, the system might initially prove frustrating. Having no knobs, buttons or switches will take some getting used to. However, the system’s vibrant and stunning graphics and intuitive layout are inviting and welcoming and an app style home screen gives it a familiar vibe.
Even if the controls for CUE prove too daunting at first, the voice activated system is surprisingly good, despite the occasional hiccup for simple commands. It does, however, handle complex queries — such as rattling off number, street, city and state details for navigation which works extremely well.
Another feature that will appeal to technocrats is the heads up display, which is visually striking and provides a host of useful information including current speed alongside posted speed limited, turn-by-turn navigation alerts as well as audio information. It can be raised or lowered to find the right sweet spot and the brightness can be adjusted for as much subtlety or obtrusiveness as desired.
The Pandora integration, which requires a smartphone with the app installed, works beautifully and offers thumbs up/down song designation. Whether I was operating via Bluetooth or plugged in, I was able to access my entire iPhone music library and make selections based on Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs or Genres. SiriusXM satellite radio and HD Radio fill in any gaps. The 10-speaker Bose system provides an excellent sound stage with the ability to target specific seating areas (or you can just put it on surround). Bass is heavy, treble is not too bright and the overall reproduction sounds spot on.
The 3.6L V6 serves up 321hp at a screaming 6,800 rpm and 275 lb-ft of torque at a more tepid 4,800 rpm. Power is linear and despite the lack of serious torque, the 6 speed automatic transmission does its best to keep things lively. The sprint from 0-60 mph takes just 5.4 seconds. While the engine is strong enough to give the ATS a sporty vibe, the exhaust note is weak and could use some more ooomph. Another issue is that the engine has a tendency to drone on in highway driving and, during a long journey, it can become annoying.
There is no manual option, but the slush box does offer the driver the option of using either the gear selector or steering wheel paddle shifters to jump up or down. Either way shifts happen fast and smoothly without any discernible lag.
The transmission has 3 different drive modes but Sport is where you are going to want to spend most of your time, though Touring is a better option for improved fuel economy and Snow for, well, snow. EPA estimates come in at 19 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway and 22 combined. I especially appreciate that the ATS runs just fine on regular gas.
Cadillac has taken on the 3 Series in the arena where it performs best– handling. The 3.6L ATS tips the scales at just 3,461 pounds while the BMW 335i weighs 3,555 pounds. Weight reduction was a huge part of Cadillac’s strategy, using large amounts of lightweight aluminum and even magnesium, making it one of the lightest vehicles in its class.
The result is a rigid platform that is well balanced with a 50/50 weight distribution and surprisingly agile handling. Cadillac employs a MacPherson strut suspension in front and a 5-link independent rear setup, taking a page out of the BMW playbook. Our model came equipped with the high-performance FE3 system providing Magnetic Ride Control which changes the firmness of the shock absorbers depending on road conditions. The system works very well, allowing the ATS to eat up the pot-holed city streets of Los Angeles without jarring or bouncing the inhabitants around.
The ZF rack-mounted electric steering is still a bit muted, too boosted and light, but this will probably be corrected for the V Series edition. The Brembo brakes up front provide plenty of stopping power with no discernible fade and good initial bite.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Cadillac ATS stellar marks across the board, scoring 5 stars out 5 in every category for an overall 5 star rating. Standard features include antilock brakes, electronic stability and traction control, front/side/knee airbags for front passengers and side curtains along the windows. Our model also came equipped with the optional systems for lane departure and forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alerts, a backup camera and front/rear parking sensors.
Cadillac was smart to push the larger CTS sedan further upmarket with a starting MSRP of $45,100, allowing the ATS to own the luxury sport compact space where they had previously positioned the CTS as a contender.
The base price of our top of the line, fully loaded 2014 Cadillac ATS 3.6L Premium was $47,095. This model offers all of the accoutrements from the Luxury and Performance trims plus 18-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in summer performance run flats, navigation, 110 volt power outlet, head-up display, magnetic ride control and a mechanical limited slip differential. The only option added to our loaner was the Cold Weather Package ($600) which provides heated seats up front along with a heated steering wheel. The grand total including the destination charge is $48,620, which is priced below what a similarly equipped BMW 3 Series would cost. However, unlike Cadillac, BMW does offer a much more stripped down base model if you are just looking for a compact sports sedan that looks the part and has performance in spades.
Since the 1976 introduction of the Seville, Cadillac has sought to build a compact luxury car with widespread appeal. At long last, the ATS is the full realization of that vision… If you can overlook the small trunk, lack of space for rear passengers and limited customization options, the Cadillac ATS either meets or exceeds the competition across the board. It is no wonder that it was voted the North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show, 2013 Car of the Year by the Motor Press Guild, Car of the Year by Esquire Magazine and the Popular Mechanics Automotive Excellence Award in the “Luxury” category.