From couch potato to party animal, Cadillac’s evolving place among luxury vehicles has faltered until now in a most significant category: compact.
The Cadillac ATS arrests a chain of indignities. Whereas earlier Cadillac pretenders competing with European compact sedans corroded the brand – the Cimarron of the 1980s and Catera of the 1990s were rebadged versions of Chevrolet Cavalier and Opel Omega – the ATS is a Cadillac and nothing but.
This car was designed from the bottom up, sharing its platform with no other vehicle. Its engines also appear in the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick LaCrosse, but that’s no longer the negative it once may have been, not in a time when some Porsche Cayenne and Panamera models utilize Volkswagen engines.
Current introductory advertisements situate the ATS in fabulous Monte Carlo, far from its factory at Lansing, Mich. These ads speak of the car being fine-tuned at Germany’s Nordschleife, the race circuit Jackie Stewart called the green hell. All very rarefied.
“We’re going to beat the BMW 3-Series,” said Kevin Williams, GM Canada president and managing director. “We at GM used to talk about what we’re going to do. You judge for yourself.”
In the flesh, the ATS impresses, particularly in white. The new car compresses lines and silhouette of the existing CTS. It’s 221 mm shorter than the CTS though – 8.7 inches in traditional Cadillac talk – and looks tougher. Inside, seven different combinations of leather or leatherette, with trim in woods and metals, reflect current European style.
One provision on that judgment Kevin Williams called for. Base versions of the new Cadillac that sell for $35,195, were not on offer at this press preview. Premium and performance models were in abundance.
Of course, all manufacturers promote their more expensive models. But it would have been useful to drive the base ATS because even the least-expensive BMW 3-Series – $35,900 – is a driver’s delight with its trademark supple ride and nimble handling. On this the BMW’s reputation is founded, as much as for pricier, high-performance models.
What can be said on the basis of this day’s driving is that the ATS can compete with the world’s best at the $50,000 level. The $35,000 level remains another question for another day.
The white test car we drive totals $53,450. All-wheel-drive, all-premium, all-nanny, it is powered by the 3.6-litre engine that will be the first choice of traditional Cadillac buyers who figure the most cylinders and largest size is always best. Traditional European buyers are more likely to prefer the 2.0-litre turbocharged, direct-injection, four-cylinder engine.
Old-time Caddy customers won’t like the way this ATS rides over side roads on the way to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. It rides firmly, in the manner BMW customers endorse – which is GM’s intention in attracting customers who previously have bought German. Even after selecting the Touring suspension mode as opposed to Sport, you feel the road, bumps included. Violent impacts are absorbed but not negated. Floating to your destination disappeared along with the Cadillac de Ville.
At the track, rear-drive models are provided for lapping. The ATS intended for the sport-driving enthusiast combines the 2.0-litre turbo with a six-speed manual transmission. Another couples a V-6 with the six-speed automatic.
Both cars take to the track as though they’ve been set up for production sedan racing. They do not tilt, they do not plough, they turn with precision.
The ATS’s low curb weight is GM’s greatest achievement in engineering the new Cadillac. Agility, fuel efficiency and power-to-weight ratios benefit. The BMW 320i is still lighter by 8.7 kg, but the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C250 are heavier. Targeted use of cast magnesium (rear suspension carrier) and cast and forged aluminum (front suspension) helped the weight watching.
The automatic transmission is a step behind competitors’ in that it has only six forward gears. The pause between gears during foot-to-the-floor acceleration in some circumstances is disconcerting. Look for an eight-speed in the ATS’s future. For now, the automatic earns demerit points.
Electrically assisted steering is sourced from ZF, the German specialist that also supplies ATS competitors. This type of steering insulates the driver from the road and is criticized for being less communicative than hydraulically assisted steering, but in the case of the ATS at least it is notably precise.
Another European connection has Brembo brakes fitted to the front wheels. One wonders whether it was a cost issue that GM chose not to employ the prestigious Brembos on the rears.
Cadillacs need to be fast. Their history demands it, as does their competition. Cadillac V-8s powered hot rods and Le Mans aspirants following the Second World War. In its 1950s heyday, Cadillacs boasted titanic engines as well as soaring tail fins.
The Corvette-powered CTS-V in 2004 was a first indication that GM finally understands its past and its future. The ATS confirms the good news. In other than base form, this is a fast, agile, first-rate luxury compact, one that will enhance Cadillac’s stature rather than butcher it.
2013 Cadillac ATS
Type: Four-door compact sedan
Price range: $35,195-$53,450 excluding destination/pre-delivery charges
Engines: 2.5-litre four; 2.0-litre turbocharged four, 3.6-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 202 hp/191 lb-ft for 2.5L; 272 hp/260 lb-ft for 2.0L turbo; 321 hp/275 lb-ft for V-6
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic with manual paddle shift; six-speed manual available only with rear-drive 2.0-litre turbo four
Drive: Rear-wheel with 2.5; AWD or rear-wheel with other engines
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.0 highway for 2.5L; 9.9 city/6.3 highway for 2.0L turbo; 11.1 city/7.1 highway; premium recommended for 2.0L turbo, otherwise regular gas
Alternatives: BMW 320i; Mercedes-Benz C250/C300; Audi A4: Lexus IS