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2013 Cadillac ATS review: Nimble Caddy? Who would have thought?

Luxury brand takes on BMW with lighter model

Published January 21, 2013

It used to be that you’d never see the word Cadillac in the same sentence as small, nimble or fun.

The usual image was of gigantic Sedan de Villes mushing and wallowing along with a white-knuckled driver at the helm, muttering a terse, “flank speed, right full rudder” every time a corner approached. Cadillacs always pampered their captains with a myriad of comfort and convenience options but as for any aspirations towards sportiness or “put a grin on yer face” motoring? Not so much.

But times change and Cadillac has changed. With a base price of $35,195, the all-new ATS has the BMW 3-series directly in the crosshairs and if the occasional Audi, Mercedes or Acura gets taken out by some collateral shrapnel, then so be it. Fortunes of war and all that.

The ATS wears GM’s new Alpha platform, which is unique to this model … so far. The base concept is rear wheel drive, although all-wheel drive is available as well. Three engine choices are offered — a 202 hp 2.5L four cylinder engine with rear-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic is standard, while a 2.0L 272 hp four and 3.6L 321 hp V6 are optional.

The 2.0 and 3.6 have the option of all wheel drive, which should suit Canadian winters just fine. A slick-shifting, six-speed manual transmission is only available if you tick the “2.0 turbo, rear wheel drive” box on the order form. With any other combo, you get the six-speed automatic.

Front suspension is a multi-pivot, double link McPherson strut system while Cadillac’s first five-link independent suspension brings up the rear.

The diet cops were all over the ATS during its development and it shows as the rear wheel drive model checks in at 1,504 kg, 66 kg less than a BMW 328i and 50 kg less than a Mercedes C250.

When asked about the ATS soldiering along with a six-speed auto while several competitors are offering seven and eight speed units, a Cadillac spokesperson smiled and said, “Stay tuned.” He also added, “Drive the car to the track, do the track sessions and then talk to me.”

I can vouch for the effectiveness of the auto. Upshifts were quick and crisp and, when in sport mode, it matches revs on downshifts (which is incredibly cool as well as effective). If desired, the titanium paddle shifters can be used but the automatic worked so well I doubted I could do better.

Cadillac has so much faith that the ATS can go head to head with Europe’s best compact luxury vehicles, part of my drive experience included several sessions around Canadian Tire Motorsports Park. Mosport’s high speed sweepers and challenging layout will quickly reveal any vehicle’s handling shortfalls.

A 50/50 weight distribution made corner entrances fairly neutral until I started getting more exuberant, and it was then that I noticed subtle differences between the 2.0L turbo and the 3.6 V6 around Mosport’s fast, flowing layout.

The 2.0 requires some finesse; enter the turn precisely, cherish your momentum, keep cornering speeds up and you will be rewarded. The V6 on the other hand, was a marauding beast that exhibited slight understeer upon corner entry but throttle induced oversteer was just a foot stomp away. A little offline? Front plowing a bit? Who cares? Just plant your right boot firmly on the floor, steer with the throttle and all it all comes together as the ATS rockets to the next turn, ready to do it all again.

The electric, variable-assist ZF power steering required only a light effort to navigate around town, while on the track it was quick, nicely weighted with excellent feel and feedback, letting me know exactly what the front wheels were doing.

Four wheel discs are standard with Brembo four-piston aluminum calipers optional on the standard model and included in other packages. They provided outstanding braking power with exceptional feel and zero fade, even after several hot laps around Mosport.

OK, so it performs. Cadillac users still want to be cuddled in the lap of luxury and the ATS delivers there as well. Settling into the cockpit is a treat courtesy of excellent visibility, ergonomically located controls and a nicely bolstered driver’s seat. Seven distinctive interior combinations are offered, the leather is nicely stitched and the wood is real.

The ATS is offered with Cadillac User Experience or CUE — a comprehensive infotainment system that integrates all the electronic gizmos and doodads today’s young professionals require: Bluetooth, USBs, SD cards, MP3 players and more. Anyone familiar with an iPad will be instantly at home with the eight-inch LCD touch sensitive screen. It’s actually simpler than it sounds. Most luxury cars have approximately 20 buttons for the radio and entertainment functions — CUE has only four.

The ATS is the real deal. With 75 per cent of the luxury compact sales in Canada coming from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, Cadillac has delivered a vehicle with the size, specifications, quality and performance to go head to head with the European and Japanese competition.

This is definitely notyour grandfather’s Cadillac.

2013 Cadillac ATS

PRICE: Base $35,195

ENGINE: 2.5 litre four, 2.0 turbo four and a 3.6 V6

FUEL CONSUMPTION: Claimed 6.0 to 7.1L/100 km highway

POWER: Between 202 and 321 depending on engine

COMPETITION: BMW 3-series, Mercedes C class, Audi A4, Lexus

WHAT’S BEST: Competent chassis, comfortable cockpit, performance

WHAT’S WORST: Heads up display not visible to drivers over six feet tall

WHAT’S INTERESTING: First Cadillac with five link independent rear suspension

 

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