Cadillac ATS — Lux sport sedan gets it right

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

More than a decade ago Cadillac kicked off a reclamation program with the introduction of a new mid-sized sedan, the CTS, using what it called an "art & science" design philosophy to better compete in the entry-level luxury sport sedan segment dominated at the time by the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4.

Cadillac hoped to attract new customers by offering sport-sedan performance with the room and comfort of a mid-sized. The CTS with its edgy appearance (for the time) was a clear improvement over the aging German-built Catera and proved the foundation of a new direction for GM's premium brand. But for all its success, the CTS did not provide a definitive answer to the age-old question: how to effectively compete with the Germans.

Enter for the 2013 model year the smaller and more sport-oriented ATS. It was designed from the ground up with the clear goal of pulling Cadillac even with the world's best compact sport sedans. The rear-drive ATS — which can also be ordered in all-wheel drive format — has hit the sweet spot in size and weight compared to the 3-Series: (ATS vs. 3-Series) length, 182.8 vs. 182.5; wheelbase, 109.3 vs. 110.6; and curb weight, 3,315 pounds vs. 3,295 pounds.

With a level playing field in terms of size, it now becomes a matter of performance, handling dynamics, interior design including fit and finish, safety, infotainment technology, and overall bang for the buck.

The new Caddy does not have the European feel of the BMW or Audi, but more an American kind of persona that serves it just as well with quick acceleration, point-and-shoot handling, responsive steering and stop-on-a-dime braking. Add to those impressive traits the latest in technology with the Cadillac CUE system, and the ATS is an impressive package.

There are three engine sizes — a standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder with 202 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque, a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 272 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, and a 3.6-liter V-6 that features 321 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque.

We would want our ATS to be on the sport side of the equation so we would quickly disregard the base engine, something Cadillac probably included to provide an introductory price under $34,000. Both the turbo four and the hefty V-6 offer up performance commensurate with the ATS goal of competing with the best.

We tested the 2.0-liter turbo and found the car had a wonderful balance between handling and power with a great toss-ability quotient. Our test car came with the very good six-speed automatic, but we found ourselves at times wishing for the available six-speed manual. The 2.0 is not a rocketship, but it compares favorably — although a tick or two slower according to a major auto publication — compared to the turbo 4-cylinder BMW 328i, which dispenses 240 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. The same publication called the ATS the best handling sedan on the market today.

By the numbers, the ATS turbo completes a 0-to-60 run in 6.3 seconds and a quarter mile in 14.5 seconds at 95.9 mph. The ATS V-6 we drove compares favorably with BMW’s 335i with a 0-to-60 time of 5.4 seconds and a quarter mile time of 14.0 seconds at 102 mph.

There's no letdown inside the ATS. Its cabin comes with high-quality materials including wood and metallic accents. The optional CUE infotainment system features large icons and operates much like an iPhone or iPad making it instantly familiar to a large number of buyers. It has something called "Haptic" feedback letting you know when you've pressed a "button" by pulsing at the touch. On the off side it is still a distraction.

We found the front seats user-friendly, and it was not difficult to reach an optimum driving position. On the downside rear legroom is a bit tight and the ATS has a rather small trunk with just 10.2 cubic feet of storage capacity.

The Cadillac is loaded with safety technology, and we recommend the $3,645 driver assist package which includes adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic alert, head-up display, front and rear automatic braking, and automatic collision preparation. Also the excellent navigation system can be purchased as a stand-alone option reasonably priced at $795.

The ATS turbo Luxury trim starts at $38,485 and the ATS 3.6 with Premium trim at $47,590. But be warned there are some very desirable options that can run the price up well into 50 grand territory; for instance our 2.0 turbo Premium trim test car carried a bottom line of $50,020 with $7,230 in options.

Base price: $33,990; as driven, $50,020
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four -cylinder
Horsepower: 272 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 1,700 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 182.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,373 pounds
Turning circle: 36.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 10.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 31 highway, 21 city
0-60: 6.3 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: BMW 328i, Mercedes C-Class, Lexus IS 250

The Good
• Good performance
• Outstanding handling traits
• All-wheel drive available
• Well-appointed cabin

The Bad
• Small trunk

The Ugly
• Forget the base engine