Cadillac takes on the Teutons

Cadillac takes on the Teutons
Cadillac is not at all shy about the ATS’ mission. It was built from the ground up to fight the good fight with German icons: Tough gig.
Peter Bleakney
By Peter Bleakney
Posted on August 3rd, 2012
3 Comments

Atlanta, Ga.—While there have been many challengers and a handful of real contenders, the BMW 3 Series has remained the dynamic darling of the luxury sport compact sedan segment for decades.

And why am I starting this 2013 Cadillac ATS review by speaking of the BMW 3 Series? Because Cadillac is not at all shy about the ATS’s mission. It was built from the ground up to fight the good fight with this German icon. Tough gig.

Caddy certainly has its mechanical bits in order. The ATS rides on an all-new Alpha rear-drive platform that incorporates aluminum, high-strength steel and magnesium to keep weight in check. Indeed, the ATS handily undercuts most rivals, and here we’re speaking of the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, Audi A4, Lexus IS and Infiniti G.

To get close to the ideal 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution, the front cradle is all aluminum while the rear subframe is pressed steel. There are struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension. just like in a certain car from Bavaria. The third generation of GM’s magnetic ride control is available.

Cadillac is covering all the bases when it comes to configuration. There are four trim levels (Base, Luxury, Performance, Premium), three engines (2.5L four, 2.0L turbo four. 3.6L V6), two transmissions (six-speed auto and six-speed manual), available all-wheel-drive and a track-focused performance package. An ATS for every taste is a clever strategy — this is the fastest growing luxury car segment.

The 2013 Cadillac ATS sedan arrives in Canada late summer. The $35,195 base model is powered by a direct-injection 2.5L four generating 202 hp and 191 lb.-ft. of torque.

This is the most fuel efficient model with a highway rating of 6.0 L/100 km. It’s a serviceable engine for those who don’t feel the need for speed, but seems here only for price-point bragging rights.

The first ATS I drove was a 2.0L Turbo (starts at $36,985) with six-speed auto and standard nonadaptive suspension. This all-new engine makes its debut in the ATS, kicking out 272 hp and 260 lb.-ft. from 1,700-5,500 r.p.m. A comparable BMW would be the 240-hp, four-cylinder turbo 328i at $43,600.

Having almost literally stepped off a plane after driving a couple of BMW 3s in Germany, my derriere was in tune for a reasonably accurate comparo (4,000 kilometres and jet-lag notwithstanding).

So here are my initial findings. The Cadillac chassis engineers deserve kudos and schnitzel for arriving at this impressive ride/handling compromise. The car cut an accurate swath through the winding back roads of rural Georgia — it was always poised and always eager, yet never upset by bumps. Even over rough pavement, the ride was compliant — impacts big or small didn’t ruffle car or passengers.

Well, this is a Cadillac after all. I suspect the relatively modest 17-inch wheels helped in this matter, too.

The front seats are very good (BMW’s are better, though), and when you’re not thrashing the four-banger, the cabin is remarkably quiet. Standard in the ATS is noise-cancelling technology that reads interior sound characteristics and plays out-of-phase signals through the audio system. It works and, bonus, cuts down on some weight-adding sound insulation. The cabin feels cosier than in the Beemer and back seat room is tighter.

The 272 hp 2.0L Turbo is an effective torque pump, but doesn’t feel as smooth or alive as BMW’s 2.0L TwinPower Turbo four, getting buzzy above 4,000 r.p.m. The six-speed auto shifts smoothly and responds well to paddle shifter inputs but it “hunted” around the upper cogs more than I liked. In the BMW 328i, the engine and eight-speed auto are seamlessly integrated.

The aluminum-caliper Brembo brakes (standard on 2.0T and 3.6) are stellar and save 4.4 kg per corner.

And the steering: the ATS uses an accurate ZF-supplied variable-effort electric system that, in concert with the chassis, has this car flowing like maple syrup. Complaints? When compared to the BMW, it’s a tad light and a little thin on true tactile feedback. Still, a solid B+.

If you want to get more involved with your ATS, a slick six-speed manual is available only with the 2.0 Turbo.

Moving up to the $43,935 3.6L model nets GM’s proven V6, here making 321 hp and 274 lb.-ft. at 4,800 r.p.m. This is the most “Cadillac” feeling of the powerplants — strong, linear, smooth — and bestows a premium feel to the car that the other four-cylinder mills can’t match.

You’ll notice this 3.6L V6 ATS is priced right against the four-cylinder BMW 328i. The 300-hp six-cylinder BMW 335i starts at $51,200.

Standard on the V6 is a host of luxury goodies including CUE (Cadillac User Experience) interface that features a capacitive iPad-like touchscreen. A proximity sensor brings up submenu icons when your hand approaches the screen, keeping the view generally uncluttered. “Haptic” technology bumps back at your finger, letting you know the message has been received. Excellent voice recognition, too. It’s a clever, legible and user friendly system. CUE is also available on the four-cylinder cars.

Visually, the ATS is immediately recognizable as a Cadillac, incorporating a toned-down expression of the CTS’s razor-edged “art and science” design. The interiors of these pre-production cars looked good, featuring hand-stitched leather dashtops and tight tolerances. The possible combinations of interior trim, colours and luxury/safety package options are endless.

To further drive home the point that the ATS is a true performance sedan, we were set loose on the Atlanta Motorsports Park circuit in 3.6L V6 and manual-equipped 2.0T cars fitted with a limited-slip differential, performance tires and FE3 sports suspension with magnetic ride control.

This is where a lesser sedan could fall to its knees but out here the ATS was a happy camper, showing surprising neutrality and poise. As a compliment to the chassis, I was thinking, “Jeez, another 100 horsepower would be nice.”

Has Cadillac built a BMW 3 Series beater? A solid contender, for sure.

2013 CADILLAC ATS

BASE PRICE/AS TESTED: $35,195 /est. $47,000

ENGINE: 2.5L four; 2.0L turbo four; 3.6L V6

FUEL CONSUMPTION: 2.5L auto 9.2/6.0/7.8 (city/hwy/comb); 2.0T and 3.6 N/A

POWER/TORQUE: 202 hp/191 lb.-ft.; 272 hp/260 lb.-ft.; 321 hp/274 lb.-ft.

COMPETITION: BMW 3 Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Volvo S60, Infiniti G., Lexus IS

WHAT’S BEST: armonic chassis and steering, CUE, value

WHAT’S WORST: Tight rear quarters, dull base engine

WHAT’S INTERESTING: To help weight distribution, the differential housing is cast iron.

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