Cadillac finally goes head-to-head with the likes of the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4. Is GM's premium brand ready? Read on.

Nearly a decade ago, the motoring world called the Cadillac CTS the crest-and-wreath brand's most important car since its founding.

And now, on the eve of a debut arguably just as crucial, we find ourselves rehashing old phrases. Forced to survive on just three vehicles over the last few years (no, we're not counting the slow-selling STS and DTS), Cadillac has decided to reach in the other direction with its latest Euro-fighter.

For years, Cadillac has proposed and delivered Euro-fighters (Catera and Cimmaron, anyone)? But the CTS has long delivered as a value-packed alternative to the BMW 3 and 5-Series. Now comes the ATS, which is priced and sized almost on top of the 3-Series. Is Cadillac ready to compete head-on with Bavaria's finest? We headed to Atlanta Motorsports Park to find out.

Is it tough enough?
It's a tough niche, this luxury sport compact segment. Obviously, to be competitive, the brand needs to supply all the customary accoutrements that other players offer. Think powertrain choices, interior themes, high-tech features and performance. No poseurs need apply, especially when the competition includes the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Lexus IS.

And, by the way, Cadillac engineers were told, "let's try to keep the weight down, too." The end result is a rear-drive architecture that managed to skirt below the magic number of 3,400 lbs.. In fact, equipped with the 2.5-liter base four-cylinder, the ATS has a curb weight of just 3,315 lbs..

Taking a cue from BMW's 3-Series groupings, Cadillac has settled on four individual collections: Standard, Luxury, Performance and Premium levels. They can be mixed and matched according to engine type and trim-level offerings.

For the North American market, three direct-injection engine choices are offered :A 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder, making 202 horsepower and 191 lb-ft of torque; a 3.6-liter V6 with 321 horsepower and 274 lb-ft; and what Cadillac suspects will be the volume choice, a 272-horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque-producing twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder.

And lest anyone suspect differently, the 2.0 is not quite the same engine that finds its way into the Buick Regal GS.

All will come with the a six-speed automatic transmission, but the turbo will go one better with an optional Tremec six-speed manual transmission. Using the normal rear-wheel-drive architecture as a jumping off point, the ATS can be optioned in 2.0T and 3.6-liter versions with full-time all-wheel-drive. A Brembo braking system is optional on the 2.5 and standard otherwise

The ATS's weight distribution is a perfect 50:50 split, which is one of the benefits of putting the platform on a weight-restricted diet.

Zero to 60 mph times range from 7.5 seconds for the 2.5 to just shy of 6 seconds for the turbo and a mere 5.4 seconds for the V6. Speaking of numbers, the EPA has not given its official numbers, but GM estimates 22/32 mpg for both of the four-bangers and 19/28 for the V6.

For the first time, Cadillac's suspension kit includes a multi-link double-pivot MacPherson strut set in front and a five-link setup out back. A ZF-built variable-assist power steering rack is included, which varies the steering effort and road feel depending on speed and conditions.

For those of the sporting persuasion, ordering the manual transmission, and/or the FE3 Sport Suspension also nets a mechanical limited slip differential to help torque go to the tires in hard cornering situations. Speaking of FE3, that includes the third-generation of GM's rapid-response Magnetic Ride Control, which reads wavering road conditions for rapid responses. Comfort and sport settings are available at the touch of a button.

Inside out
The interior of the ATS is one of Cadillac's best, matching nearly every offering from the other guys. This time, we have a real horse race. It features something for everyone, including rare woods, etched aluminum, and carbon fiber. There are two base leatherette choices or five real hand-stitched leather seat coverings and an eight-inch LCD that is the basis for the new Cadillac Cue infotainment system shared with the big-brother XTS.

Think of Cue as an in-dash iPad with haptic feedback and proximity sensors that react as your hand approaches. Touch the slider potentiometers and they gently "touch" you back to let you know that your command has been executed. The system requires a small learning curve, though, since we occasionally touched past an intended item or app. The screen is also prone to finger prints, although Cadillac includes a wiping cloth.

All the forward moving haptic and visual technology would easily be negated if outside noise were able to intrude into the cockpit. Bose, famous for its headphones, has gone one better, making the entire interior a huge noise-cancelling chamber with active circuitry that works even when the audio system is turned off. During our drive through the Atlanta area, we found the result is a very satisfying ride that is short on fatigue and long on comfort.

Head-up displays also make their way into the cabin. Just make sure your non- polarized lenses do, too, because they will cancel out the images of the numbers reflecting into the windshield.

Seating ranges from basic, moderately bolstered seats, to full sport buckets with adjustable bolsters, and thigh supports. Also on board are the same subtle reminder pulsations of the ATS's lane departure warning system that work when you swerve over the center line or the lines on the outside of a turn. Thusly, the car can discretely advise that you are bad driver without alerting all the passengers of that fact.

Behind the wheel
With the baseline 2.5-liter, we found power comparable with the entry-level side of this segment. Acceleration is good, but sometimes too-tall gearing of the automatic gets the best of things until you either mash the go-pedal or row-it-yourself with the manumatic lever.

The turbo's 272 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque make it one of the more power-dense offerings in the business, at 136-ponies-per-liter. Power is absolutely linear and just kept coming when using the pure automatic as well as the sport shift functions found in the six-speed slushbox. It's a totally livable system.

GM's ubiquitous 3.6-liter V6 is the obvious choice for those "bigger is better" hand raisers. Pumping out 321 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque, it is both the quickest and the heaviest ATS, transforming this compact premium sedan into more of a luxury-oriented model.

Driving the turbo on the track with the six-speed stick shift truly showed the thorough sorting out that the ATS' platform received on its way to production. Well-spaced gearing offered plenty of pull regardless of which cog was selected. It did possess a lighter touch than the CTS-V, for instance, but it was truly right on the mark for the performance side of this segment. The magnetic ride control of the FE3 suspension kept the chassis firm throughout the 1.8-mile course, offering little in the way of body lean for true tracking up and over the rolling terrain of Atlanta Motorsports Park.

The same engine with the automatic and all-wheel-drive displayed good manners overall when accelerating through the winding and elevation-changing back roads north of Atlanta. The system seems to allow users to keep their feet in it just a split second longer. Pulling the alloy paddle shift levers results in rev matching downshifts that keep things lively underhood. It's just the thing for when slingshotting out of a turn.

Back on the road, the mid-level FE2 kit offered a firm-ride with excellent steering feel through the ZF-spec'd system. Even with the standard automatic transmission, it was still a ride that instilled confidence in the driver, and like the fraternity pledge in the movie classic Animal House, it begged, "Thank you sir, may I have another."

Leftlane's bottom line
Cadillac ups the ante once again with its new ATS, which is finally ready for direct comparison with those pesky German "default" rivals.

We think it's a success story in the making.

2013 Cadillac ATS base price range, $33,990 to $42,090.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.