2013 Cadillac ATS- The General Takes On The World

DSCI1229Cadillac’s history is a checkerboard of triumphs, innovative achievements, downfalls, and the occasional identity  crisis.  One of the oldest automakers in the world, founded in 1902, Cadillac embodies American prosperity and has been interwoven in our culture and music; from Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” to  “Cadillac Pimpin'” by Young Bloodz.  The brand has been a trailblazer over the years, introducing the electric starter in 1912, memory seats in the 50’s, and automatic climate control during the Kennedy era.  Probably the most well-known Cadillac feature were the outlandish tailfins that defined post-war America.  But Cadillac lost its way during the second half of the century and in its lowest times was shamelessly selling rebadged Chevy Cavaliers and Opel Omegas, as well as catering to buyers who were in their twilight years with front-wheel drive floaty behemoths.  Meanwhile, pesky competitors from Germany and Japan were eating Cadillac’s lunch.  Something had to change otherwise the brand faced impending doom.

Cadillac-CTS_2003_800x600_wallpaper_02Rescue came in the form of the 2003 CTS- designed to compete directly with BMW and Mercedes by being geared toward drivers, and not passengers.  It marked the return of rear wheel drive and was the first Cadillac to offer a manual transmission since 1988.  More importantly, it introduced the new and audacious “Art and Science” styling theme that the brand was heading toward- sharp sheer forms and crisp edges.  The CTS has since been a modest success and the new bold, direction volted Cadillac way ahead of cross-town rival, Lincoln, in sales.

DSCI1227However, to battle the Germans, Cadillac has needed to take a different approach.  Since its launch, the CTS has been sized comparably to a BMW 5-Series and priced like a 3-Series.  Import buyers are happy with the smaller dimensions of the 3, Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class and didn’t want to upgrade.  Enter the new ATS to fill that void.

DSCI1242Unlike in the past with smaller GM’s, the ATS is not a rebadged Saab, Opel, or Chevy.  It is an all new vehicle from the ground up and is the inaugural model of the General’s new Alpha platform.  Cadillac engineers aren’t shy to admit that the benchmark for the ATS was the 1999-2006 BMW 3-Series, which they describe as the most driver focused and athletic generation of the 3.  The end result was a focus on reducing the pounds and a near perfect  weight distribution (49.9/50.1 front and rear).  Want proof that Cadillac used BMW as an inspiration?  The ATS is nearly identical to the 2013 BMW 328i in almost every dimension:  0.3 inches difference in length, 0.2 in width, and 0.4 inches in height.DSCI1225

So does it come close to driving like the self-proclaimed Ultimate Driving Machine?  This could be the first time that an American automaker has posed a threat to the revered Bavarian.  Handling, in sport mode, is superb.  The car remains stable and predictable through turns.  Traction is grippy and the even weight distribution shineDSCI1235s through.  However, what the ATS lacks compared to the BMW is solid and consistent communication with the road.  I found that the ATS’s steering felt a little too light and artificial.  That is where the BMW continually shines and is part of the magical feel of that car.  Once the driver learns the Cadillac’s capabilities, the drive can still be rewarding.

Ride is pleasantly firm in the European sense.  Bumps can find their way into the cabin, but it’s not at all harsh.  It’s a multilink MacPherson strut suspension in the front and Cadillac’s first ever five-link independent setup in the rear.  This sophisticated arrangement resulted in stable cornering and well controlled body roll during aggressive maneuvering.  Once switched out of Sport mode, the chassis does become more cushy and road imperfections are absorbed in the traditional Cadillac sense;

DSCI1256There are three powerplants available to the CTS- a 3.6 liter V6, a 2.0 liter turbo, and a base 2.5 liter four-cylinder.  Ours came equipped with the lowly 2.5, which produces 202 horsepower and is shared with the new 2013 Chevrolet Malibu.  That being said, this engine may very well be the biggest downfall when it comes to the ATS’s performance.  Acceleration is…well…..like a four-cylinder Malibu.  That isn’t DSCI1246necessarily bad, as it feels sprightly enough and is fully capable of merging onto freeways and going from a standstill thanks to the car’s relatively low weight.  It just isn’t thrilling for a sports sedan, and doesn’t match the car’s overall aggressive  demeanor and falls well short of the gobs of torque offered in the base 2.0 turbocharged BMW 3-Series.  Full throttle starts are tame, smooth, and anti-climatic.  If you must have neck breaking launches, it would be a shame to settle on this engine when the turbocharged powerplant is $1800 more and offers 70 more athletic ponies.

Regardless of the engine choice, all ATS trims have the same six-speed automatic transmission.  The gear ratios are shorter when teamed to the 2.5 liter in an attempt to improve  acceleration.  Shifts are smooth and almost transparent.  However, the automatic was very anxious to reach sixth gear in an effort to improve fuel economy.  Even a light tap of the accelerator at suburban speeds was matched by a necessary downshift to a lower gear, followed by the gearbox eagerly swimming back to sixth. DSCI1231

Being the smallest of all of the Cadillacs, it wasn’t a surprise that the ATS’s interior quarters felt cramped.  A CTS that I drove two years ago also felt cozy and this ATS, being seven inches shorter in overall length, felt comparable inside.  Upfront there’s a decent amount of legroom and headroom, and the cabin feels airy enough.  DSCI1257But back, headroom is lacking and passengers will find their knees digging into the plastic backing of the front seatbacks.  Some brave volunteers in the back also stated that foot space was sparse under the front seats and the center rear seat position is hampered by the intrusive driveshaft hump that would force anyone to sit in the knees-to-chin position.  To add to the misery, entry and exit are difficult to the back due to a low roofline (causing some bruised noggins) and narrow doors. On a bright note, the rear seats, as well as the front two. are nicely sculpted and comfortable.

DSCI1230It’s important to keep in mind that the ATS, like the BMW, is oriented more towards the driver than passengers.  Front seats are supportive and have well contoured side bolstering.  Visibility is good to the front and sides, yet due to the narrow, mail slot rear window, backing up could pose a challenge.  Luckily, the ATS is equipped with a slick interactive back-up camera that predicts the car’s trajectory with the turn of the DSCI1238wheel, much like in the Buick Lucerne tested last month.  Gauges, although somewhat plain-looking, are easy to read.  The three spoke wheel is attractive and has a nice grip, but even with my long arms and the telescoping column, it seemed to be a long reach.  Cruise control buttons are housed in the wheel and feature dual stage speed adjustments- a slight click will raise or lower the speed by 1mph, and a harder click will change it by 5mph increments, much like the Germans.  It’s another example of how GM sweated some of the details. 

Judging from the surfaces of the dashboard and steering wheel, Cadillac seems to be inspired by Apple.  It’s a black, glossy matte finish with flush buttons; ala Chevy Volt.  They look slick but are difficult to use by touch alone.  Basic ventilation and radio adjustments are controlled by some of these buttons, and are prDSCI1259one to be very temperamental.  At times they would respond to the lightest touch, other times it takes several hard jabs, until they would finally overreact to the driver’s command.  There were several occasions that a simple adjustment of temperature would unwittingly create a hurricane force draft!

The centerpiece of the ATS’s dash is the 8” touch screen for CUE, or Cadillac User DSCI1254Experience.  Introduced in 2011, it is one of the most advanced automotive multimedia systems on the market.  Personally, it was a love/hate relationship with the CUE.  Features such as capacitive touch, similar to a smart phone allowing the user to scroll and zoom by fingertip, and the ability to view a menu of radio stations and songs currently playing at any given time were impressive.  The system will go to a sort of DSCI1260sleep mode and darken the screen if left unused for a minute or so. and due to proximity sensors, will jump back to life once a hand is swiped near the screen.  It was always a crowd pleaser and another little nice unexpected detail.   But then things went sour, the adjustment menus were sometimes impossible to find, the radio refused to preset any stations and would never return back to the station I had it set to before I switched band frequencies, and like the actual, physical buttons, the response to an input on the screen would be hysterically overblown.  Although pretty to look at, the screen is also a magnet for fingerprints and dust and was impossible to keep clean.  Overall, CUE is an amazing piece of engineering, but takes too much of the driver’s focus on the road and is very finicky.  It’s an example of how something  can seem good in a lab but not so much in the real world.  However, I look forward to CUE 2.0 and the inevitable improvements.

DSCI1255Interior pieces all seemed to fit together well and the there’s a mixture of materials and surfaces.  Overall it feels upscale and classy, but between the leather surfaced dash, aluminum accents, the glossy black piano key trim, and some low-rent plastics on the lower door panels, there was an inconsistant and overdone theme in the cabin.

DSCI1241The trunk, by any standards, is puny at only 10.2 cu. ft., which is about 30% less than the 3-Series sedan.  To compensate for that, the rear seats do fold down 60/40 adding versatility.  This is a rarity in the luxury car market as most competitors will only have a pass-through for skis.  The trunk opening is a decent size and hinges are out-of-the-way.  Cadillac did skimp on offering a spare tire DSCI1228and substitutes it with a tire inflation kit and run flat tires, so beware if you ever have a shredded tire.

Styling continues the Art and Science theme introduced by the CTS a decade ago that has since boosted Cadillac’s image.  The look is more toned down and taut on the ATS.  It’s still undeniably a Cadillac  with a prominent grill. aggressive headights that are DSCI1243kinked over the front fenders leading to the sharp lines in the greenhouse and a short decklid finished off with the signature narrow and angular tailights.  There’s a defined crease running from front to back along the center of the vehicle that adds an aggressive, and symmetrical, touch.  It’s an unashamedly American style and looks dashing and audacious from all angles, and I feel it looks more attractive, daring, and bold than the mismatch of shapes on the latest 3-Series and the blandness of the Audi A4.

The EPA rates the 2.5 liter ATS at 22city/33highway- quite impressive.  During our mixed driving in suburban Atlanta and some stretches of empty Georgia interstate, I averaged a disheartening 19mpg. 

Our tester was almost brand new with only 300 miles on the odometer and an intoxicating new car smell.DSCI1261  However, it did have one major defect- the driver’s door was not properly aligned and would rub against the front fender whenever it was opened.  This would be maddening and disappointing on an entry-level luxury car for any owner.

Prices  on the ATS start at $33,095, which is about $2,500 cheaper than the lowest level BMW 3-Series, and includes 17-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, automatic headlights, cruise control, dual-zone automatic climate control, six-way power front seats with power lumbar, leatherette premium vinyl upholstery, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, OnStar, Bluetooth phone connectivity and a seven-speaker Bose sound system with satellite radio, an iPod/USB interface and an auxiliary audio jack.  Ours came in the midrange Luxury trim that adds run-flat tires, keyless entry/ignition, remote engine start, eight-way power front seats, front and rear park assist, a rearview camera, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, leather seating, driver memory functions, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat (with pass-through), HD radio, Bluetooth audio streaming and the CUE infotainment interface.  Adding the Luxury trim DSCI1226and including the destination charge bumped the price to $38,485.  Considering this is a still equipped with the base engine and a BMW with a much larger standard engine is available for about $3,000 less- the value equation isn’t so strong once options are added,  However, keep in mind that BMW does offer all extras ala carte as well.

DSCI1249The Cadillac ATS is the closest any American manufacturer has come to matching the likes of the small sedans from BMW, Audi, and Mercedes.  It looks damn sexy, handles like it was tuned in Europe (which it was), and has loads more personality than the serious Germans.  No small feat.  But the meager engine performance from the 2.5, frustrating CUE, cramped interior, and questionable quality control offset the assets.  It’s heartbreaking, because the ATS is so close to being a fantastic automobile, but it comes across as being half-baked.  Ditch the standard 2.5 liter and upgrade CUE and some of the ergonomics, and then we’ll talk.  As it is, it gets a decent 3.0/5.0 boomerangs.


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