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2013 Cadillac ATS First Drive

Is the 2013 Cadillac ATS the new "standard of the world?"

What It Is
The 2013 Cadillac ATS is a compact luxury sport sedan, aimed at those who might consider a BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
Best Thing
At least as good as, if not better than, the class-leading BMW 3 Series.
Worst Thing
Your friends will never believe your Cadillac is as good as a BMW.
Snap Judgment
After all the corporate smack-talk, Cadillac really did build a sport sedan worthy of a BMW buyer's money.


I've never seen The Godfather. Yes, yes, I know. It's great. A cinematic classic. The movie to which all other movies are compared and judged. I'll laugh, I'll cry, I'll learn something about myself...on and on the praise goes. And every time I hear it, whatever desire I may have to see it diminishes further. Why? Overselling. There's no possible way it could live up to the hype. I'm sure to be disappointed.

I was feeling the same way on my way to Atlanta to drive the all-new 2013 Cadillac ATS. All the speeches, commercials, and corporate smack talk from GM about how the ATS would beat the German sport luxury sedans that rule the segment was simply too much, I thought. The car was getting oversold. This is General Motors, after all, a company almost defined by its broken promises. Surely, there was no reason to get excited. I mean, sure, the ATS was pretty, and the interior was pretty sweet, I'll admit. The spec sheet looked good, too: it weighed less than its competition; its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and 3.6-liter V-6 outmuscled its rivals; the CUE infotainment system was pretty nifty. But there's no way GM could have turned it all into a sharp-handling, smooth driving, luxurious feeling competitor to cars like the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and most especially the BMW 3 Series.

It wasn't until the next day, on a little racetrack north of Atlanta, that the last wisps of my cynicism finally blew away, and I accepted that the 2013 Cadillac ATS is the real deal. It's a better all-around luxury sport sedan than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. It's a better driver's car than the Audi A4, and gives up very little to that brand's vaunted interior design. But most importantly, it's so close to the BMW 3 Series, the perpetual class leader, that it's honestly too close to call.

The fact that this all-new, small, four-door Cadillac can run with the big dogs -- and may even lead the pack -- speaks volumes. Its all-new chassis, its updated and redesigned engines and transmissions, its high-quality materials and attention to detail add up to a car that's the equal of any of its German competitors.

It even looks great in silver.

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Walkaround

Cadillac's so-called "Art and Science" design philosophy has matured since the first Cadillac CTS made the scene more than a decade ago. That car's Lego-like styling woke people up to the brand, but its brashness was too crude for the long haul, and Cadillac has since toned down the angles and upped the elegance. The ATS may be the best example of this so far. Its proportions are dead on, with a long hood, short trunk, and generous-looking expanse of glass. It's still aggressive, but the softer edges and smoother contours are nowhere near as in-your-face about it.

While its design is definitely toned down, it's not boring. Elegant details abound, with hidden Cadillac script worked into various pieces of brightwork, a cool LED light strip that runs along the outside of the headlights into the foglights below, and an interesting interplay of angles and shapes where the trunk, the rear fender, and the rearmost pillar come together. As you reach for the door in the Cadillac ATS, a lighted strip on the door handle suddenly lights up. Check out how the exhaust pipes and the backup light have been integrated, or how the trunk-mounted LED brake light doubles as the car's wind spoiler. There's more, but suffice it to say, you won't get bored looking at this car, either from a distance or up close.

Under the hood is one of three different engines, all coming standard with a six-speed automatic. A 202-horespower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine anchors the bottom of the lineup, and it's fine in its role as a price-leader. However, the $1,800 extra you'll spend for the 2.0-liter turbo with its 272 horsepower will be worth it to anybody in a hurry. At the top of the engine lineup is a 3.6-liter V-6 with 321 horsepower. All-wheel drive is available with the turbo and V-6 engines, and enthusiasts will rejoice that the turbo is also available with a slick six-speed manual transmission.

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Sitting Down

Slip behind the wheel of the 2013 Cadillac ATS, and you see that here, too, Cadillac pulled no punches. The driver's seat is very comfortable, with adjustable side bolsters around your waist to accommodate varying girths, and a seat bottom that extends to give extra support for long-legged types. The steering wheel feels good in your hands, the gauges are easy to see, and it's even comfortable for your elbows.

You can get comfortable quickly, and start exploring Cadillac's new CUE infotainment system. Its big, rearrangeable icons remind us of an iPad, and you can even you sweep your finger across the display to slide from one screen to the next. Yet Cadillac takes it a step further with "haptic feedback." Tap pan icon, and it gives a tactile "bump" letting you know you've actually done something. It's far more intuitive than a beep, and less intrusive to your driving environment as well. The big multicolor screen is beautiful to look at as well, and the navigation system automatically zooms in as you approach turns, and then out again when your next turn is far away. CUE uses a proximity sensor, hiding navigation icons when you're just cruising along, but immediately bringing them into view when your hand draws near to the screen. Many of CUE's displays are replicated on a small color screen below the gauges. There's too much to go into here, but about the worst thing we can say at this point about CUE is that the screen smudges way too easily...but at least it comes with a faux-chamois cleaning cloth.

The interior's one serious drawback is rear seat space. While the rear seats are just as nicely upholstered and sculpted as the front, head room for tall passengers is merely adequate, and leg room is definitely lacking, especially with a tall driver. It's slightly better than the cramped rear quarters of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but nowhere near as good for adult passengers as the new BMW 3 Series. In fact, you could argue that your groceries get better treatment. The trunk opening is big enough to slide big items in without a problem; the rear seatbacks also fold down, to help accommodate large items for a short trip home.

But the trunk's plush carpeting exemplifies the remarkable attention to detail in the ATS. The hidden compartment behind the climate control panel is fully lined, as is the center console bin under your elbow. The door bin is also fully lined, including the soft-touch plastic that extends all the way down the door panel. Almost everywhere you touch, the surfaces are either padded, covered in leather, or both. The only hard plastics were in places where it makes sense, such as the bottom of the door panel, or the lower part of the center console.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Driving

While it's gratifying to see that Cadillac sweat the details on the 2013 ATS interior, cynics will correctly argue that making the inside of a car pretty is low-hanging fruit when it comes to building a luxury sport sedan. To be taken seriously, the car literally needs to run with the category's big dogs, and only time behind the wheel would determine if Cadillac had put as much effort into making the ATS feel as good as it looked.

We started our journey in a 2.5-liter model with the second-tier Luxury package, the nicest equipment level available with the base engine. This $39,085 combination gave us our first taste of what the little Caddy was like on the road. While the engine could charitably be called "peppy," the 7.5-seconds it takes to get to 60 mph felt longer.

Despite the low-powered engine, the ATS quickly proved to be a joy to drive on the back roads north of Atlanta. The steering felt quick, but never made the car feel darty or nervous, either. The ATS's active sound cancellation shut out a lot of road rumble, but the ATS is nothing like the Cadillac isolation chambers of yore. Even though this model wasn't equipped with the magnetic suspension system, the car had no problem soaking up bumps. Yet again though, if you're coming to the ATS with an old-school idea of a floating Cadillac ride, you'll be surprised by the amount of road you do feel. You'll also be surprised at how nicely trimmed the interior is, even for this lower-end model.

“Does the ATS live up to all the Nurburgring-themed hoopla that Cadillac has been feeding us for months? Yes. Yes it does.”

But we craved more power, and eventually moved into a Premium package ATS powered by the 3.6-liter V-6 engine, the most powerful version available. What a difference an extra 119 hp makes. While it cost nearly $10,000 more than the first car, it's money well spent. The V-6 surged forward with great low-end power, solid high-end, and plenty in between. The Premium package added even more to the features list, including a navigation system, high intensity headlights that turn with the steering wheel, a 12-way driver's seat, and a color head-up display with multiple screen selections. But foremost among the upgrades was the sport suspension, which included Cadillac's magnetic ride control, a limited slip rear differential, and high performance tires. With the Sport driving mode selected, we tackled Georgia's curving back roads, and were astonished when the car's automatic transmission downshifted like an expert racecar driver as we were braking for a turn. Yet traffic intervened, as well as a few scattered raindrops, leaving us with only a taste of what was in store when we arrived at the Atlanta Motorsports Park.

This private track had just opened a couple months before Cadillac's arrival. Half the landscaping was still piles of red Georgia dirt, but the multiple turns and elevation changes made it an excellent venue to push this sport sedan to the limit. Why take the ATS to a track? Two reasons. First, on-track performance is an analogy to how a car behaves in emergency maneuvers; the more confidence-inspiring it is here, the more comfortable you'll feel swerving around a deer that jumps out in front of you. But beyond that, there's the ATS's street cred. Where the BMW 3 Series beats its Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class rivals isn't in its luxury or on-road poise, but the fact that it maintains its composure at the very limit, even on a purpose-built road course like this. It was our chance: Does the ATS live up to all the Nurburgring-themed hoopla that Cadillac has been feeding us for months?

Yes. Yes it does.

After taking a quick series of laps with ATS powertrain integration engineer David Mikels to help learn the track, I was able to push the car to its limits, and my cynicism finally crumbled. The company's emphasis on low weight not only makes it the lightest car in its class, but also gives it near-perfect balance. The magnetic suspension made the car feel poised and confident, even over a high-speed bump in one of the worst possible places on the track. The ATS soaked it up, never going wild, never doing anything untoward. The automatic transmission downshifted with precision, and upshifted with smooth authority...and that was when it was in D. The automatic's steering wheel paddle shifters worked just as well, but enthusiasts should take note: The six-speed manual in the 2.0-liter turbocharged models is a jewel, with a smooth and perfectly weighted clutch, short and accurate shifter, and excellent gearing. Downsides? The side supports on the seats could be a bit better, but it was hardly a dealbreaker. This is, by any measure, a rewarding driver's car.

The return journey to our hotel in Atlanta was in another 2.0-liter turbocharged model, this time with an automatic transmission. The car's lane-keeping assist nudges the left or right side of your seat if it senses you're drifting left or right from your lane, a far more intuitive alert than the beep or steering wheel shake other cars use. The freeway driving allowed us to try out the adaptive cruise control and automatic braking. and even when traffic came to a complete stop, the system compensated by bringing the ATS to a halt. When traffic resumed moving, the haptic seat gave a short buzz, as if the car was saying, "c'mon, GO!" CUE's navigation system guided us back to the hotel with ease, and even quickly rerouted us when the traffic got heavy, guiding us through the unfamiliar territory as if we were in our own backyard.

Summary

Maybe it seems like we're minimizing the ATS's shortcomings, and there are a few. The small rear seat is the worst, but the lane-keeping assist was sometimes too aggressive, occasionally cueing in on lines in the asphalt. The CUE screen and piano-black trim on the center console quickly became a smudgy mess. And there was a bit more road noise than we'd expect. But unless you must have a huge rear seat (in which case you're shopping the wrong class of car), there's not a dealbreaker among them.

At the end of the day, and on the flight back to Los Angeles, it was clear that the ATS lived up to GM's hype, and maybe even exceeded it in some ways. As for the which-is-best question, that will be answered in the coming weeks, when enthusiast magazines take them on the test track, plot graphs, analyze data, and ultimately determine a "winner." Sometimes it will be the BMW, and we're confident that other times it will be the Cadillac.

Yet just the fact that the ATS merits a serious comparison is enough. Cadillac hasn't oversold anything. Instead, it built exactly what it set out to: a compact sport sedan that rivals Germany's long-standing class leader. By making us wonder if it could be superior to the BMW 3 Series, the ATS has already won.

Maybe I should watch The Godfather after all.

Basic Specs

2.5-liter inline-4, 6-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 202-hp, $33,990, 22 mpg city/33 mpg hwy
2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, 6-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 272-hp, $35,795, 22 mpg city/32 mpg hwy (est.)
3.6-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 321-hp, $42,090, 19 mpg city/28 mpg hwy (est.)

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