2013 Cadillac ATS: Not your grandpa’s land yacht

Jim Kenzie
By Jim Kenzie
Posted on October 19th, 2012
0 Comments

Can Cadillac really build a better 3-Series than BMW?

That is no less than Caddy’s stated goal with the ATS, its new entry in the hotly-contested “compact luxury” sedan segment.

The car went on sale a week ago Wednesday, starting at $35,195.

Based on initial observations trying out the car at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, I’d have to say they’ve come pretty close.

Cadillac started with a brand-new rear-drive-oriented “Alpha” architecture, which was developed exclusively for the ATS.

And because some 75 per cent of this segment is now four-wheel drive in Canada and (mostly) elsewhere in the world too, that capability is also baked into the ATS.

Scott Meldrum, product manager for the car with GM of Canada, said Alpha was designed to be “sizeable.” It can be lengthened or shortened and can handle engines up to eight cylinders.

Right at the very top of Cadillac’s objective list for Alpha was weight reduction — no fewer than seven grades of steel, plus magnesium, aluminum, carbon fibre and other high-tech materials went into this car.

The result is a car that is dozens of kilograms lighter than most of its competitors. Only the base model BMW 320i (sold in Canada but not in the U.S.) beats it by a few kilos, but is not as well-equipped.

When in history has a Cadillac even been among the lightest cars in its class?

The styling follows Cadillac’s art and science theme, with straight lines, sharp edges, vertical lighting elements. Not unlike the larger CTS, but perhaps a bit edgier.

It’s offered with three engines: the base 2.5 litre direct injection four, also seen in the new Chevrolet Malibu, has 202 horsepower, 22 more than that base BMW 320i, which has a 2.0 litre Turbo.

ATS offers one of those too as its one-up engine option, but it cranks out 272 ponies.

The range-topper is the 321-horse 3.6 litre V6, also seen in CTS. Both it and the 2.5 run on regular fuel, an important feature even for some luxury car customers.

The 2.5 is expected to account for about a quarter of ATS sales, despite being offered only with a six-speed automatic in rear-wheel drive.

The turbo is expected to account for half of ATS volume, with special appeal to the sportier crowd. It is offered in rear- or four-wheel drive with an automatic, and rear-drive with auto-box or a six-speed manual.

The 3.6 is auto only, rear- or four-wheel drive.

Suspension is by double-pivot MacStrut at the front — good enough for BMW, good enough for Cadillac — and Cadillac’s first five-link independent system at the rear.

GM’s magical Magnetic Ride Control dampers and four-piston front brakes by race-brake maker Brembo are available, depending on trim level.

The interior is a pleasant place to be, nicely designed and built from what appear to be high-quality materials. Several colourful choices are on offer, with wood, aluminum and carbon fibre trim packages to choose from.

The trunk is decently sized and decently shaped, and nicely finished too. The rear seat back split-folds, and there is a pass-through for longer objects.

CUE — Cadillac User Experience — is the company’s version of a touch-screen interface which allows control of climate, audio, navigation and telephone systems.

The 8-inch touch screen suffers from the same problems most of these systems do — when driving away from the sun, about all you can see is the fingerprints of whoever last drove the car.

At least CUE avoids one common touch-screen problem: because these “non-buttons” — like those on Ford Fusion or Chevy Volt — have no actual travel, you cannot tell just by touch whether you have in fact enabled anything.

CUE offers “haptic” feedback; the screen gives a little jiggle when a “button” has been pushed. At least most of the time.

CUE would occasionally talk to me unsolicited, as in: “Caution — entrance closed.” I had no idea what it was talking about. There would also be the occasional warning chime, but without an accompanying light or message to elucidate the nature of the problem.

It took me a couple of tries to pair iPhone to the ATS’ Bluetooth system, but once connected, the sound quality was excellent.

The full panoply of modern “safety” systems is either standard or available, including the ever-pointless “blind-spot” warning, lane departure warning and both front and rear parking warnings.

Unique to Cadillac is a haptic seat. GM calls it a Safety Alert Seat, which jiggles your bum if you transgress in any of these areas, even telling you (by which bolster it jiggles) whether you’re departing your lane to the left or the right.

The advantage to this is that no-one else in the car knows you’ve goofed up — no buzzers, no warning lights.

Car engineers at least since Henry Ford have known that weight is the enemy of just about everything — performance, economy, handling.

Yes, even ride: The lighter the car, the faster the suspension can adjust to road irregularities. All you have to do is get the spring rates and damping right.

You can really feel the lightness in the ATS — in the eager way it responds to throttle, steering wheel, brake pedal. It feels agile and nimble.

I drove several ATS powertrain combinations — base, turbo and V6 engines; rear- and four-wheel drive; base and Magnetic Ride Control suspensions.

Perhaps the most impressive combination for a variety of reasons — not the least of which was the price — was the base car.

The 2.5 engine isn’t the first four-cylinder in a Cadillac since 1914 — we cannot forget the Cimarron — but it is easily the best. It is decently quick yet quiet, although you don’t have to ultra-sensitive to know it’s a four.

The base suspension does a good job of smoothing out the bumps, yet the car corners well.

The German-engineered ZF electric power-assisted steering is light — North American customers will settle for nothing less — but very quick, and precise enough to provide acceptable feedback. Awaiting back-to-back comparison, I’d probably say this is one area where ATS does not quite match the BMW 3 Series.

I drove the turbo, both manual and automatic, on the track. Mosport has lots of places to “fatally kill yourself” (as I actually heard on a Buffalo TV station once) in the dry; in the wet, as it was during my test, it can be treacherous.

Some combination of the essential goodness of the ATS suspension, its four-wheel drive, StabiliTrak directional stability control and driver skill kept me off the walls.

The turbo is a short step price-wise over the 2.5, but a larger one in performance, stopping the 0-60 m.p.h. (96 km/h) clock at 5.7 seconds, versus 7.5.

The engine spools up quickly, and remains quite refined as revs rise.

The people who establish projected resale values for the purpose of calculating residual rates for leasing calculations, seem to feel Cadillac has a winner in ATS — it has established very strong rates for the car. And I agree.

Will long-time BMW fans flock to Cadillac stores? I doubt it. But for the first time ever Cadillac has a compact luxury sedan that is truly worthy of consideration.

Mid-size sedan owners — the typical entrants into the luxury-compact segment — will be shortchanging themselves if they don’t at least put the ATS on their shopping list.

2013 Cadillac ATS

PRICE: $35,195 (base model)

ENGINE: 2.5 litre inline four, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, direct fuel injection

POWER/TORQUE, (horsepower / lb.-ft): 202/191

FUEL CONSUMPTION: City / Highway, L/100 km: 9.2/6.0

COMPETITION:
Audi A4; BMW 3 Series; Infiniti G37; Lexus IS; Mercedes-Benz C Class.

WHAT’S BEST: Eye-catching exterior; classy interior; excellent ride/handling combination; wide range of power- and drivetrain options

WHAT’S WORST:
Some electronic systems a bit over-the-top; rear seat space snug; V6 engine surprisingly noisy.

WHAT’S INTERESTING: The best version of the car may in fact be the cheapest.

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