Moving away from the "more for your money" underlying mantra that has defined its rebirth over the last decade, Cadillac is ready for the big leagues.
Witness: Its new entry-level ATS sports sedan is, at least on the spec sheet, a near carbon copy of a certain default German, the BMW 3-Series. Cadillac's former "base model" was its brand-redefining CTS, a terrific sedan by all accounts, but one that offered size up accommodations and power for the price of a 3.
This shift in Cadillac's lineup couldn't have been possible without the original, sharply-chiseled CTS that, on its own, recast an American icon in a decidedly Teutonic mold. The high value concept worked wonders, but is Cadillac finally prepared to take Audi and BMW head on?
What is it?
Riding on a new rear-wheel-drive platform, the ATS was designed with one goal: To be a better BMW 3-Series than the BMW 3-Series itself. That's a lofty goal since the 3 has dominated both its segment's sales charts and critical reviews for three decades thanks to its combination of goes-where-you-point-it handling, lusty powertrains and just-right sizing.
Strip away the ATS' softened angles and its inspiration is obvious. Power goes to either the rear or all four wheels (on ATS4 models) via a choice of six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes and a trio of engines ranging from a 2.5-liter four-cylinder to a 2.0-liter turbo four up to our tester's 3.6-liter V6.
That V6 is a popular unit at GM - it's available in virtually all of the automaker's larger and more expensive models - from the Chevrolet Camaro to the Buick Enclave.
ATS is the second Cadillac to offer the brand's new CUE infotainment system, a touchscreen-based system standard on all but some of the lowest-rung models. Designed to emulate an iPad, at least conceptually, CUE replaces virtually every traditional button or knob with a flat surface ready to be tapped. Steering wheel controls and voice commands offer some control duplication. Cadillac-exclusive CUE differs from the infotainment systems used on other GM products.
ATSs can be loaded up with base, Luxury, Performance and Premium trim levels, depending on the engine chosen. The latter two include a sports suspension, though Performance models like our tester ride on 17-inch wheels rather than the Premium trim's 18s.
What's it up against?
The aforementioned BMW 3-Series - in 335i guise - is the ATS' chief rival, but the Audi S4, Mercedes-Benz C350, Volvo S60 T6 and Infiniti G37 offer serious competition.
What's it look like?
Very much an evolution of Cadillac's current, edgy design language, the ATS breaks little ground yet appears fresher and simpler than any model that preceded it. Perhaps more importantly, we think its cleaner look will age better than the more complex CTS.
Taut metal with a minimum of excess bulbousness gives the ATS an almost reptilian look further magnified by its swept-back headlamps. At the rear, tall lamps and a chrome garnish below the license plate put the ATS more in line with its ancestors, although the closely-spaced dual tailpipes clearly indicate that this is not
On the detail front, we liked the way our test car's standard 17-inch alloy wheels rode and handled, but they look a bit dinky inside the big wheel wells.
And on the inside?
Clean and elegant, our test ATS' business-like interior could have been plucked from any German car company's parts bin. If the almost stark decor isn't enough to convince you, the firm and well-bolstered driver's seat darn well should. This is a driver's car done up for those who want their local interstate to feel like a German autobahn.
Functionally, we found little reason to fault the ATS' interior until we wanted to start pressing buttons. The captain's chair and meaty three-spoke steering wheel are perfectly aligned for driving and outward visibility is top notch thanks to a low belt line and thin roof pillars. Rear seat space won't remind you of the big DeVille the octegenarian down the street owns, but what's there is well-finished and certainly class-competitive. So to is the trunk with its large opening aside from a narrow well and curiously non-folding rear seatback.
But then we wanted to change the radio station. Or adjust the climate control. Traditional push-in buttons for the latter have been replaced by touch-sensitive lights. Though they might look nifty in the showroom, they lack the eyes-off-the-road usability of old school buttons - in other words, you might not realize you've turned down the temperature until it's rather chilly in the cabin.
The big, beautiful screen at the top of the dashboard was the subject of much ire during our evaluation. Its simple Apple iPad-style icon-based screens, which present only the most necessary information most of the time, but the system is far from perfect. Despite recalibrating our tester's screen several times, we had a hard time navigating the screen's icons. Instead of seeking, we wound up on preset number three even though our finger looked like it was on the seek icon.
Moreover, CUE offers an odd haptic feedback - tap the screen and it vibrates harshly. We likened it to the tactile version of hearing fingernails screeching across a chalkboard. And the screen collected fingerprints - our photos show it after limited use.
The flat climate control panel proved similarly frustrating. Requiring deliberate, specific taps and an often lengthy glance away from the road, the panel is as attractive as it is challenging to operate.
The ATS' redundant steering wheel switches work mostly as intended, but they aren't perfectly ergonomic and their back lighting got rather toasty on extended drives. The voice controls were a highlight, though, since they allow for essentially natural language commands rather than hierarchical menuing like the much-maligned MyFord Touch system.
In short, CUE is elegant and generally a step in the right direction, but it's rather lacking in distraction-free real-world functionality. It's standard on most higher-spec ATS models. We wish it was optional.
But does it go?
The pint-size Cadillac is the perfect home for this 3.6-liter V6. Saddled with an acceptably lithe 3,500 lbs. to tote around, the 3.6-liter makes the most of its 321 horsepower and 274 lb-ft. of torque. The six-speed automatic gearbox might be down a gear or two compared to some rivals, but it is well-suited to the V6. Acceleration is brisk from any speed and perhaps the most overriding sensation is the engine's utter refinement. Silent at idle and possessing only a muted growl as the tachometer needle works its way counterclockwise, the V6 has a genuinely world-class feel.
Though it lacks the thunderous torque curve of the boosted six-cylinder units seen in BMW and Volvo's offerings, the ATS' V6 does have the added advantage of being able to run on regular fuel. Officially, Cadillac rates the rear-drive model at 21/28 mpg, but we saw upwards of 30 mpg on a highway jaunt and never saw below 22 mpg in urban slogging.
Credit a smooth-shifting six-speed that generally keeps engine revs low unless the gear lever is popped into sport mode.
And it's sport mode that allows drivers to get the most out of the ATS' highly-capable chassis. The little 17-inch Michelins might not be cheap at $200 a pop according to the Tire Rack, but they supply terrific cornering grip. Moreover, they do so without undue impact harshness over rutted terrain despite their run-flat design that gives them particularly stiff sidewalls. ATS' firm ride proved exceedingly well controlled, resulting in neither the thumping that plagues the Volvo S60 nor the wallowy feel seen in the BMW 3-Series.
The ATS' communicative steering isn't quite up to the benchmark-setting previous generation BMW 3-Series, but it is arguably the most enjoyable setup currently offered in the midsize sedan segment. Heft builds progressively, even if we wish there was a bit more feel to the steering to give drivers an idea of what's going on up front. And when it comes time to bring things to a halt, the Brembo front brakes included on the Performance trim are strong and easy to modulate. Simply put, the ATS relishes sporty driving.
It's clear that Cadillac's substantial efforts tuning the ATS on the challenging Nurburgring race track in Germany have paid off. In fact, the recently-softened BMW 3-Series makes us really wonder if the Cadillac is out German-ing
Leftlane's bottom line
Cadillac is more than ready to take on the big boys. If the crested wreath brand can draw buyers into its showrooms, we think they'll be smitten with what is absolutely the most thoroughly entertaining Cadillac ever built (aside from the honking CTS-V). Its brilliant chassis and robust V6 work together to make it a sports sedan that requires no excuses.
The only black mark on the ATS is its CUE infotainment system. CUE is beautiful, ponderous and distracting all at once, making us lament the death of the traditional button and knob.
2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6 Performance
base price, $43,695. As tested, $46,980
Crystal Red paint, $995; Cold weather package, $600; Navigation, $795; Destination, $895.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.