• Jul 25th 2012 at 5:45PM
  • 64
The 2013 Cadillac ATS (Credit: Autoblog).
It's the Cadillac of compact cars: The 2013 ATS. Not long ago, that would have been an insult to compact cars.

Cadillac, for all of the luxury and performance the name denotes, has had an image problem. It's had one for decades. Once the aspirational brand for the world, it slowly moved away from iconic to geriatric. But the all-new ATS sedan could well be the car that re-establishes Cadillac as a viable choice for a new generation of financially successful car buyers, as well as attract some of the previous Caddy owners who have defected to other brands.

The Crest & Wreath for much of the last thirty years has lacked genuine luxurious qualities, and provided only mediocre performance. Through the '80s and '90s, Cadillac became the car your grandfather drove and one you swore you never would. It was more likely to appear in Sports Illustrated "Where are they Now?" edition than your driveway.

Building an image one mile at a time

But about 12 years ago, something happened. Cadillac checked itself into rehab. It shed some weight and gained some moxie based on product instead of reputation. Ever since, it's been taking things one mile at a time, improving with every offering. And more people are beginning to take notice.

Before the new ATS came the CTS. Then, we saw an even better CTS. (Next year, will come an even better CTS.) But the brand isn't a one trick pony car. For better or worse, Cadillac's flagship model is the Escalade, a giant vehicle that has managed to seduce the affluent with its size (it's huge) and sumptuous interior. And the SRX, a highly capable and luxurious crossover with one of the best all-wheel drive systems available from any carmaker, continues to lead sales for the reinvented brand. The XTS sedan just arrived, and it too looks like it will put Cadillac on shopping lists that have never before included Caddy.

The ATS will arrive in showrooms next month with a lot of expectations on its hood. Cadillac needs this car to go head-to-head with the likes of the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes C Class in a war of American know-how versus German engineered excitement. The ATS arrives in three versions, each loaded with niceties.

From the base model 2.5-liter direct injection four-cylinder ATS to the premium 3.6-liter DI V6 model that provides 321 horsepower, the ATS is a driver's car that anyone can toss through corners, cruise down the highway or have a Sunday drive that includes the word "exhilarating."

Rear drive at last

The ATS earns those chops with an all-new rear-wheel drive platform that incorporates a lightweight design--it weighs just 3,400 pounds--and a 50/50 front to rear weight ratio that allows you to push this car through hard corners and tight turns. Rear-drive is key. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have built reputations and loyal followings on the rock-steady handling of their rear-drive cars. Cadillac can do the same. The Germans may have eaten Cadillac's lunch for a few years, but the ATS wants to take it back.

While driving the ATS on a track in Georgia last week, the ATS packed more smiles per cubic liter than any car I've driven this year. The 2-liter turbo-charged model that cranks out 272 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque especially impressed me. This car was infinitely tossable, with taut steering that held its lines through every turn. There is no sawing the wheel like a lumber jack in an attempt to hold onto a corner, or the lack of feedback and never feeling the road that ruined Cadillacs of yore. The ATS felt like its German contemporaries: Confident, clean and powerful.

The vehicle's driving dynamics are well balanced at any speed we reached on the speedometer. For the most advanced models, engineers included "Magnetic Ride Control," which allows the car to adjust its shocks to the road in five milliseconds. To give you an idea how fast that is, if the ATS is driving at 60 mph the car can evaluate the road literally every inch. It can completely change the shock's feel from hard to soft in the span of 5 inches. Before a tire could drive over the length of a dollar bill, every setting can change and provide the driver with a clean, smooth ride. This is what micro-chips and micro-processors hath wrought on our rides.

As for the car's ATS exterior, there are pluses and minuses. If you don't like Cadillac's styling of late, you won't like the ATS. But the distinctive family appearance makes a statement. The big open grille and high-intensity headlamps with a sliver of glass that stretches halfway back from the quarter panel help it to stand out.

The wheels are pushed out to the corners like they should be for a good sport sedan, and the ATS has a confident stance on the ground. The 17-inch wheels look a little small, but there are optional 18-inch wheels. The best parts of the exterior include the crisp lines on the car's sides and the tall lamps that Cadillac has reclaimed as a signature mark. The advantage to the family design, like it or not, is it makes every Cadillac easy to recognize. It remains conservative without too much flash from any particular angle. But there's a muscular attitude new Cadillac's possess that instills confidence for anyone hopping behind the wheel.

Under the hood

On the road, all three models perform well, but have different driving characteristics. The base model tends to whine a little too much for my liking when it's pressed hard into service. The 202 horsepower four-cylinder engine provides enough power, but it just works a little harder than the other models.

The 3.6-liter model has gobs of horses under the hood and a great launch, but it also feels heavier than the others on the road.

The turbo version was the baby bear of the Cadillac ATS: Just right. On the highway, it was quiet. On the curvy roads near Atlanta, it felt precise and well planted as it growled. Cadillac rightly expects this model to be its top seller. It's certainly the one I would buy.

The six-speed automatic transmission was extremely smooth and engineers calibrated it nicely on all three versions. The transmission in general has become a little over calibrated on many cars, forcing a vehicle into sixth gear too quickly in an attempt to improve a car's gas mileage. The ATS transmission holds gears well and seems to anticipate the driver's next move better than most. It enhances the experience instead of hindering it. A six-speed manual is available on the turbo mode and a manual override on some models is available to provide manual shifting on demand.

Inside the cabin

Inside the ATS is all luxury. The leather seats are comfortable for the daily commute and long weekend drives. Every touch point is soft and every piece feels well crafted. The instrument gauge is clean and well lit, making it easy on the driver's eyes. The genuine wood trim is elegant, and the optional carbon fiber or metal trim adds a much more modern look to the ATS. There was nothing I didn't like inside this car, including the second row that provides ample legroom for up to three passengers.

And then there's Cadillac's infotainment system known as CUE. It's one of the best systems available complete with an 8-inch touch screen and more connectivity options than a Google office. It can connect via Bluetooth, USB jack or SD card reader. The screen is easy to navigate and the hard controls on the center stack below the screen only require the driver to touch the raised bar on it to activate a control. It took just ten minutes to get accustomed to the system and even less time to connect my iPhone to it.

There are also some neat features such as the lifting screen to expose a space behind the head unit to store things like your phone. (There's also a USB plug back there to keep your phone charged.) The capacitive touch creates a sense that you've touched a button on the screen and is key to providing feedback to a driver and helping cut down on distracted driving. The system is so good, expect other car makers to copy it.

The voice recognition system worked very well, easily recognizing commands and allowing me to make phone calls without ever taking my hands off of the wheel.

Most of all, the ATS undercuts BMW and Mercedes by thousands of dollars, making it a viable option for consumers looking for something new and different. It has a starting price of $33,900 including destination. Consumers should flock to it. In time, they will.

However, many luxury car buyers still don't have Cadillac on their radar. Their prejudices from the past cloud their vision of the present. To them, the ATS will be a total surprise because of its superub performance, 33 mpg highway capabilities and luxurious interior. Cadillac's road to recovery began more than a decade ago, the ATS just continues it.

The ATS is an overnight success, 100 years in the making.

Bottom line: Cadillac targeted the BMW 3 Series and created a legitimate contender. Good show.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      Mr. ROC
      • 3 Years Ago
      I have owned both Lincolns, Jaguars, Caddys and Mercedes. The best of any of them has been the rear drive. Front wheel drive in a big car just does not provide the stability, ride and control of rear drive platform. I just pruchased a 2005 Lincoln LS V8. I love the car. It's performance is unmatched in it's class.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I Ordered A New BMW 355i On May Ninth And As Of This Date I Am Still Awaiting For It To Arrive At BMW In The Dealership In Mt Laurel NJ.So Far A Total Of 16 Weeks. I Am On The Cusp Of Canceling And Wait For The ATS. How Long Before The ATS Is Avaiable For Purchase???
      • 3 Years Ago
      Real men drive mini-vans
      • 3 Years Ago
      i like the big luxurious caddies there great on the wide open interstates and you cant beat having all that room and big plushy seats on road trips... i have a deville, seville and eldorado, the styling on the late 9os early 20s years was great i get complements all the time except from the younger guys and people from the west indies where there used to the smaller compact cars.. after an engine rebuild (head gasket failure) i easily get 350 Hp and im sure the powerful Northstar could crank out more. these cars are no joke and their not slow. the biggest problem was the headgasket failure of the Northstar GM should have addressed this much better... people by acuras and BMWs because they had a used one previously when they got more money there next car of course was an acura or BMW... its hard to buy a good used cadillac the car will be mint but the engine will be done....so most in this new generation dont get to experience them..and just go by what they hear.. car companies shouldnt neglect the used car market Honda and toyota have a great used car market most peoples first car is a used car if they like well enough they will stick with the brand... but you need reliability... i can find caddies all day in beautiful condition at the scrap yard all day with 50k on the dash and blown heads.. and those people went out and bought a Honda.. because for 15k they will last twenty years with no check engine light coming on..but i cant give up my northstars not yet... this ATS sounds nice spec wise but without the big trunk where will i fit my 5000w sound system and that 3rd seat upfront always comes in handy.. these new cars all look the same no style round eggs with wheels..but thats what the people want...
      • 3 Years Ago
      Once again, another clone of my beloved Audi. Even the KIA Optima has tried to imitate Audi with its high beltline and angular styling (and stolen former Audi design engineer). The most recent car that started all of the Audi copycats was the Chrysler 300 several years ago. But if you go back a couple of decades, Ford stole their first and wildly successful Taurus' styling from Audi. Too bad the copies are always a redesign of the new Audis!
      • 3 Years Ago
      AOL, please stop using the old, dumb sounding slang term "ride" for a car in your lead-ins. It's passe. Can't you just write "car" or "automobile"?
      • 3 Years Ago
      Since it looks like yet another rebadged Opel, it should do well against German cars.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Jack As long as automobiles sell for these prices in this depression, there isn't going to be a big haliboo no matter what they do to them ! Besides all price ranges of new cars look the same from a hundred foot away.
      • 3 Years Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      It's ugly, and doesn't look anything at all like a Cadillac should. I'm sure it's a fine performer, but I'm personally sick and tired of cars that look like they were designed by an origami artist on LSD. No grace, no flow, no charm- wrinkled bricks with fat rear ends.
      • 3 Years Ago
      We were hit with a $500 insurance increase for my wife's Honda. Both of us have a perfect driving record with no claims ever. Shocked by this increase I went online to get some quotes for her car. The two sites I first visited were actually more expensive than our new rate, but then I found ( http://bit.ly/SaveonInsurance ) I got a quote within minutes and ended up saving over $300 on our car insurance!
      • 3 Years Ago
      WOW! Another 4-door sedan!
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