Hitting The Right Notes While Missing The Beat

2013 Cadillac ATS

Let's face it: The BMW 3 Series is more vulnerable now than it has been in over two decades. The poster child of the sports sedan community is currently in the throes of some unpleasant growing pains as it tries to balance efficiency, mass-market appeal and the machine's impressive heritage. Though lighter than its predecessor, the F30 feels heavier from behind the wheel, thanks in part to suspension tuning designed to coddle first and satisfy second. The German wunderkind is larger in every direction with more interior room. But with one surprisingly noisy cabin and a polarizing exterior design, the mighty 3 is in danger of alienating the very audience that made it king.

None of this is news to Cadillac. The overlords at General Motors have been quietly working to carve out a corner of the compact luxury segment for over five years. In that time, a horde of engineers bent under the pressure of constructing a clean-sheet design intended to give hardware like the Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti G line and yes, even the BMW 3 Series something to sweat over.

The fruit of those efforts is the 2013 Cadillac ATS – a front-engine, rear-wheel drive sedan with all of the lusty lines of the larger CTS. Light-weight, properly balanced and loaded with some of the best connectivity tech in the industry, GM has something to be proud of here, but the ATS may not be the Nurburgring-conquering, 3 Series-slaying white knight we've all been hoping for.

2013 Cadillac ATS side view2013 Cadillac ATS front view2013 Cadillac ATS rear view

Ask David Masch, the chief engineer behind the ATS, why he sees this sedan as significant, and he'll cut straight to the chase. Masch says the compact luxury segment is the most important market for any automaker that wants to engage the well-monied brands of the world. Models in this class fall into a certain sweet spot that's unlike anything else in the automotive industry, serving as a catchall for buyers moving up to a luxury purchase for the first time and those stepping down from a more expensive model for something a little more engaging to drive. Masch fully expects the ATS to serve as the volume model for Cadillac moving forward, out pacing the SRX and even the CTS family in short time.

Cadillac fully expects the ATS to serve as the volume model moving forward.

Take one glance at the ATS exterior, and Masch's goals don't seem all that far fetched. The newest addition to the Cadillac fleet was penned in part by Brian Smith. If you don't know the gentleman's name, you likely know his work. Over the years, Smith has dotted his resume with heart-stopping projects like the Cadillac Converj and Sixteen Concepts, and the ATS benefits from many of the same design elements found on those creations. Up front, every trim level wears dramatic LED light elements that stretch from the top of the fender to the bottom of the head lamp array. Vertical LED fog lamps continue the line visually, lending the sedan a striking face that appears taller and more proud than it actually is. With an incredibly short overhang and relatively long hood, complete with its own mini "power bulge," the ATS can't help but look poised and brawny in the flesh.

That impression gets carried to the side thanks to a slightly wider rear track and quietly bulging rear fenders. Around the back, the ATS borrows heavily from the CTS with vertical LED tail lamps and a wide third brake element integrated into the rear spoiler. While the base model, equipped with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, is forced to make do with an awkward-looking single exhaust outlet, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder models and those blessed with a 3.6-liter V6 come equipped with large-diameter dual exhaust.

2013 Cadillac ATS headlight2013 Cadillac ATS grille2013 Cadillac ATS side mirror2013 Cadillac ATS taillight

Indoors, buyers can have their ATS in a number of color combinations, from plain black on black to red leather with carbon-fiber trim work. The somewhat less mental tones of our tester served up a quietly attractive cabin. Comfortable leather seats with adjustable side bolsters and a small-diameter leather-wrapped steering wheel give the impression this is a car that wants to hustle. Higher trims equipped with either the forced-induction four or the V6 and a six-speed automatic transmission boast some of the best paddle shifters we've ever put to our finger tips. Hammered from chrome-plated magnesium, the pieces are impossibly solid and reward the driver with an addictive metallic clink that could be at home in the firing mechanism of our favorite Ruger.

Our favorite aspect of CUE has to be the voice command system.

But the cabin's center piece has to be the new Cue infotainment system. Cadillac ditched the company's tired touch screen interface for an all new system with multiple tiers of interaction. When the car is off, the center stack appears as one solid black piece of trim work. Hit the start button, and the acrylic touch screen illuminates, as do the touch-capacitive climate controls below. That's a handy trick, but it's certainly nothing new. The Ford Edge Sport has offered similar eye candy for a good while now, but the Cue system rolls in additional functionality borrowed from our favorite handheld devices. Leave the screen be, and it will default to a simplified lock screen to reduce distraction. Simply wave your hand in front of the display, and the various menu options appear on command.

Pairing even our ancient smart phone to the car was simple, quick and beautifully straight forward, but our favorite aspect of CUE has to be the voice command system. We don't need to expound on just how wrong voice-activated tech can go. Perhaps the best compliment we can pay the Cadillac team is to say the Cue system simply works. Press the steering-wheel-mounted button, tell the car to play a song or call a contact and it does its job, simple as that. The commands themselves are remarkably intuitive and flexible, meaning the driver doesn't have to learn some special sequence just to get the machine to switch radio stations.

Autoblog Short Cuts: 2013 Cadillac ATS

According to Cody Hansen, Cue Interaction Designer, much of that functionality stems from the fact that Cadillac didn't force the command structure to operate every system on the vehicle. By limiting the voice command architecture to hands-free calling and audio, engineers decreased the odds of Cue getting confused by what the user says.

The truth is that this base powerplant has no business being anywhere near the Cadillac line.

Space-wise, the ATS lands smack in the middle of its competitors. While the 3 Series delivers slightly more head room, the Cadillac takes the crown in overall leg room up front, though the Infiniti G37 Sedan walks away with both categories by slim margins. The Audi A4, by comparison offers 1.2 fewer inches of front leg room than the ATS but makes up the difference with 1.7 more inches of rear leg room.

And then there's what's under the hood. General Motors lent the base Cadillac ATS a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 202 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque. If those numbers seem slight, even for a 3,315-pound sedan, they should. Buyers may only have the base engine with a six-speed automatic transmission, and those delicious paddle shifters we love so much are nowhere to be seen. While the gearbox does its best to keep the engine livable, the unfortunate truth is this powerplant has no business being anywhere near the Cadillac line. The naturally aspirated four-cylinder idles smoothly enough, though that's thanks largely to some cleverness in the engine mounts.

2013 Cadillac ATS interior2013 Cadillac ATS gauges2013 Cadillac ATS audio system display2013 Cadillac ATS instrument panel

Cadillac uses a new vacuum-actuated hydraulic engine mount system on the ATS. Depending on engine speed, vacuum draws on a small diaphragm inside the mount itself, which in turn acts on the fluid inside. At idle, the mounts soften up to soak up as much thrash as possible. The faster the rpm, and thereby the more vacuum on hand, the stiffer the mount. But a smooth idle is hardly enough to give the 2.5 reason to lie behind the crest on the grille. When equipped with the 2.5, the ATS delivers acceleration that is absolutely unacceptable for this class. As hard as Cadillac continues to fight to establish itself as a serious player in global luxury, this engine is a setback.

The ATS also bows with a 321-hp 3.6-liter V6 making 275 lb-ft of torque.

Fortunately, buyers don't have to suffice with just one engine option. The 2013 Cadillac ATS is also available with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 272 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Those are solid numbers, and enough to shuttle the machine to 60 mph in a very respectable 5.7 seconds. Power gets put to the rear wheels by either a Tremec six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel drive is also available, though only with the automatic. If that's not enough grunt for you, the ATS also bows with the same 3.6-liter V6 found elsewhere in the GM stable. Expect to find 321 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque on hand, dumped to either the rear or all wheels through the six-speed automatic transmission. There is no manual option for the V6.

There is an astonishing amount of engineering under the belly of the ATS, all designed to even out weight distribution and keep as many pounds off as possible. The sedan uses an aluminum engine cradle and transmission crossmember in place of stamped steel, and engineers worked to balance the sedan's pounds at every turn. As a result, the ATS benefits from a 50/50 weight distribution.

2013 Cadillac ATS engine

A unique MacPherson strut suspension works to keep the ATS planted up front. Cadillac opted for a double-pivot design that utilizes two ball joints in place of a traditional wishbone. The manufacturer says the set up allows for a better balance between precise handling and a comfortable ride. Out back, the new sedan uses the automaker's first-ever five-link independent rear suspension, complete with a rigid steel cradle. Interestingly enough, engineers opted for a cast-iron rear differential instead of a lighter aluminum chunk. According to Chris Berube, lead development engineer on the ATS, cast iron offers a number of benefits over aluminum. Chief among those is the fact that aluminum expands and contracts to a greater degree with changes in temperature. Opting for the cast iron design allowed engineers to run tighter bearing tolerances, which resulted in better fuel economy, less lash and better throttle response.

Brembo brakes are standard on every model with the exception of the base ATS.

The ATS borrowed a page from the mighty CTS-V by using unequal-diameter half-shafts in the rear axle to reduce wheel hop. Having a lighter axle on one side than the other results in the kind of oscillation that engages the vehicle's mechanical rear differential under hard acceleration, resulting in a positive launch.

Once you're done sprinting to 60, the ATS can confidently bring you down from speed. Brembo brakes are standard on every model with the exception of the base ATS. With 12.5-inch corrosion-resistant vented rotors up front and 12.4-inch vented discs out back, the stoppers can haul the sedan down from 60 mph in 129 feet. Not too shabby.

2013 Cadillac ATS wheel

The result of all this engineering is an unquestionably remarkable chassis. We were fortunate enough to sample nearly every drivetrain configuration on public roads outside of Atlanta, and while the 2.5 delivers quiet highway cruising, it simply feels winded everywhere else. The complete lack of acceptable acceleration makes it clear you're driving a price point model despite the six-speed automatic transmission's best efforts and the nicely executed cabin. Here is a car desperately hunting for a better engine.

The majority of buyers will find their way into models equipped with the 272-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder.

Even without the optional Brembo brakes, the base model offers a confident pedal paired with an excellently-balanced and rigid chassis. Under hard driving, the ATS pushes into a little understeer before gradually giving way to easy oversteer. Fortunately, the vast majority of buyers will find their way into models equipped with the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, complete with its 272 horsepower.

All that muscle comes on at 5,500 rpm, which means drivers need to be comfortable ringing the car's neck in order to access maximum thrust. Fortunately, the full 260 lb-ft of torque piles on from as low as 1,700 rpm, which helps get the machine to the upper octaves. We fully expected the turbo four-cylinder to be the sweet spot in the ATS line, and while it feels properly quick, the engine still lacks the buttery refinement of offerings from Audi or BMW. Fortunately, what the engine lacks, the six-speed automatic more than makes up for. Left to its own devices, the gearbox quietly and confidently puts the engine where it needs to be in the rev band without any drama or fuss.

2013 Cadillac ATS front 3/4 view

Click those fancy paddle shifters, however, and the ATS rewards you with impressively fast shifts. How fast? GM says the action is on par with that of most dual-clutch units, and we're prone to agree. Snap back that paddle and the transmission will do the deed nearly before you can release it. That's good enough to hustle the ATS through its gears down a mountain road, and Cadillac was sure to allow the driver to run the engine all the way up against the limiter should you so desire. That's not to say all is right in the automatic kingdom. Cadillac seems very proud of the machine's Sport Mode, which incorporates a system to detect steering angle and g load to tell the transmission when to offer more rapid downshifts and when to hold gears longer out of a corner.

On the street, Sport Mode simply devolves into a button to make the transmission worse.

The system would be right at home on a track. Unfortunately, we expect exactly zero ATS owners to use the machine as their weekend apex clipper. On the street, Sport Mode simply devolves into a button to make the transmission worse. The overly sensitive programming will kick down a gear and hold it on mild freeway onramps, sticking the transmission in third or fourth gear and keeping it there long enough for us to wonder if we've broken something. In the end, it does exactly what shift logic shouldn't do: make the driver aware of the transmission.

Throw all-wheel drive into the equation and the ATS feels a bit heavier but no less poised. That initial understeer is a bit more pronounced, though we doubt most consumers will notice or care. Blindfold us, stick us behind the wheel and hold on and we'd be hard pressed to accurately discern between the two drivetrains. Then there's the Tremec six-speed manual. Unfortunately, we only got to sample the row-your own gearbox on the track, where its gearing, soft throw and vague clutch felt out of context. We'll wait for more time on public streets before we throw down a final opinion.

2013 Cadillac ATS logo

If there's a powertrain in the ATS stable that feels becoming of the Cadillac name, it's the 3.6-liter V6 and six-speed automatic. While the six-cylinder engine doesn't offer all that much more torque than the four-cylinder, the ready horsepower changes the ATS from high strung to more confident. That's true for driving on both public streets and the track. Technically, V6 models weigh in at just 88 pounds more than their turbo four brethren, and we were hard pressed to discern any difference in handling between the two.

If there's a powertrain in the ATS stable that feels becoming of the Cadillac name, it's the 3.6-liter V6 and six-speed automatic.

The Environmental Protection Agency hasn't officially released fuel economy figures for the ATS just yet, though GM estimates the 2.5-liter engine to be good for 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway on regular fuel. The turbocharged 2.0-liter, meanwhile, should post identical numbers in rear-wheel drive guise when equipped with an automatic gearbox, and the V6 should yield 19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.

The 2013 Cadillac ATS starts at $33,990, though that figure will only buy you a 2.5-liter four-cylinder. With no fuel-economy benefit over the turbocharged 2.0-liter and a hefty performance penalty, there really is no reason to opt for the base ATS. Choosing the more powerful four-cylinder will set you back $35,795, including destination, though we feel the ATS to own is the more potent 3.6-liter V6. Unfortunately, this is where the trouble starts. At $42,290, the V6 ATS is within $895 of its larger brother, the CTS sedan. Throw in a $1,295 Navigation and Surround Sound package, a $600 Cold Weather package, a $395 Advanced Security package and an $845 Driver Awareness package with lane departure warning and you have our $47,325 tester.

2013 Cadillac ATS rear 3/4 view

That's a fat stack of dollar bills, and while the ATS is nicely appointed, we have to feel sorry for the salesman trying to push this V6 model over the bigger CTS. Fortunately, there is enough breathing room between the turbo four-cylinder and its larger brother to make a sales case, and Cadillac has made it clear the 2.0-liter will be the company's volume mover. That may be true, but it's also the model that feels decidedly less premium.

Once GM figures out the engine bay, the 3 Series may have something to worry about.

Let's be clear: This isn't the car to waltz up and dot BMW's eye. The lackluster entry four-cylinder and loftily priced V6 are stumbling blocks on that path, but knock-out aesthetics, truly world-class technology and a well-executed chassis make the ATS worth a look. Buyers will undoubtedly respond to those attributes, especially given the fact that the 2.0-liter starts within spitting distance of a topped-out Honda Accord.

There are certainly hitches in this sedan's giddy up, but the ATS is an impressive effort from a brand still struggling to shake off the cobwebs of the past three decades. Once GM figures out the engine bay, the 3 Series may have something to worry about. Until then, the ATS will find favor with the crowd that always wanted a CTS but couldn't come up with the cash.