There is no escaping the luxury all-wheel drive empire Audi has built for itself over the past 15 years. While nearly every high-end marque has at least one offering with power at all four corners, the hardware can't help but play second fiddle to Ingolstadt's Quattro kingdom. Leather-lined all-wheel drive is simply Audi the way minimum wage is an English degree. But General Motors seems hell-bent on raiding as many established fiefdoms as possible with the 2013 Cadillac ATS. Engineers and designers made no secret of the fact that the baby Cadillac was penned specifically to take on the BMW 3 Series, but Audi should be no less concerned about the newest luxury prince from Detroit.
GM has been stuffing all-wheel drive systems under their vehicles for years, but the effort hasn't come without nasty side effects. Unfortunate understeer, extra ride height, smallish wheels and porky curb weight meant opting for all-wheel drive was like signing your driving pleasure's death warrant. Would you like polished brass or brushed nickel hardware for your right foot's coffin, sir?
But the 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6 AWD is remarkably bereft of those unattractive traits. Is this neutral-driving powerhouse enough to punch a hole in the Audi front line?
Cadillac has done a smart job of keeping the ATS AWD nearly indiscernible from its rear-wheel drive brethren outside, and the optional 18-inch polished aluminum wheels of our tester help make the two machines functionally identical aesthetically. Make no mistake, this is a damn-fine looking car. Properly aggressive features like the LED headlamps that stretch from front fascia to fender top and a mini cowl hood hint to the amount of power and handling prowess on hand, and the subtly flared haunches help hide a slightly wider rear track. With a familial grille and taillamp treatment, the ATS is entirely Cadillac in the best way possible.
And that theme continues indoors. The ATS delivers an interior capable of punching anything the Audi A4 or BMW 3 Series has to offer in the face. The red leather and genuine carbon fiber of our tester flirts with lewd in the way a status symbol should, and its front seats offer enough bolstering to keep you planted when sawing on the wheel with a purpose. Speaking of the steering wheel, we're smitten with the tiller's backlit redundant controls and small diameter, though we miss the swank paddle shifters we toyed with on our First Drive.
And what of Cadillac CUE? The touch-capacitive infotainment system clearly has its limitations. While the voice recognition software is superior to that of MyFord Touch or other systems, it can be confounded with basic commands. The center stack looks drop-dead gorgeous with its sleek, glossy panel and crisp illumination, and after a little time with the device, we no longer found ourselves struggling to get the controls to do our bidding. Mash the volume or fan speed with a purposeful finger and CUE will play along. Still, the tricks are more distracting than a classic button or dial, and we can't help but feel Cadillac sacrificed some functionality for the sake of style.
CUE isn't the only sore spot indoors, either. The ATS suffers from a troubled back seat in terms of usable passenger volume, ingress and egress. At 33.5 inches of rear legroom and 36.8 inches of headroom, the back bench offers occupants 1.5 fewer inches of leg space and a full inch less headroom than the 2013 BMW 3 Series, a car not known for its rear seat accommodations. Combine that with a cramped trunk with 10.2 cubic feet of cargo room and it's clear that owning the 2013 ATS will require a few sacrifices.
Still, buyers looking for an expansive back seat and cavernous trunk space have plenty of options in the Cadillac line, and the ATS more than makes up for those faults on the road. Engineers have managed to keep the machine's curb weight down to under 3,700 pounds, even with the added heft of the all-wheel drive system onboard. What's more, that weight is balanced nearly perfectly front to rear. If that sounds familiar, it should. It's the same recipe BMW has been following for years now. The result is the best-driving Cadillac in the brand's history that doesn't carry a "-V" at the end of its name.
Tackling a set of twisties reveals a remarkably rigid platform with none of the body roll or understeer of bygone Cadillac all-wheel drive models. Our tester came with the optional FE3 Handling Package, and while the hardware will probably be a bit too stiff for buyers accustomed to the plush wafting of Cadillac cruisers of yore, we found it perfectly capable of walking the line between hard-hitting pavement pounder and comfortable highway frigate.
The result is the best-driving Cadillac that doesn't carry a "-V" at the end of its name.
When we first tested the FE3 Sport Mode, we found the tech to be a little too downshift happy for use on public streets. Engineers seem to have assuaged that issue in the final release, however. Kick the machine to Sport Mode and the six-speed automatic gearbox is a perfect dance partner, dropping you into the right gear at the right time with blistering shifts. Drive like a responsible adult and the transmission delivers nearly imperceptible gear changes, both up and down the pattern. GM says the slusher can match or beat most dual-clutch units in shift speed, and we're inclined to believe it.
While the Cadillac PR machine has raised plenty of racket over the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and its optional six-speed manual, the real dynamic duo of the ATS model range is the 3.6-liter V6 of our tester and its six-speed automatic transmission. The 3.6 has long been happy to do the grunt work of the GM family, schlepping around everything from the Chevrolet Camaro and Cadillac SRX to the bloated Chevrolet Impala and Buick Lacrosse, but the engine feels like it was built specifically for the ATS. Power builds in an appropriate linear swell, with the gearbox making the most out of the admittedly absent low end torque. The full 321 horsepower piles on at an atmospheric 6,800 rpm, but the engine's 275 pound-feet of torque arrives at a somewhat more reasonable 4,800 rpm.
With the all-wheel drive system on board, the ATS pops off of stoplights with authority, and getting excited with your right foot will introduce you to the triple digits sooner rather than later. We were fortunate enough to give the all-wheel drive system a workout during the East Coast's first real snow storm of the season, and the hardware proved a suitable step up from previous GM efforts. Even so, it's clear the ATS is working hard to keep itself pointed in the right direction, with the traction control and all-wheel drive system dancing at the same time. The mechanicals aren't quite as unobtrusive as what we're familiar with from Audi or Subaru, but the dry-pavement neutrality is a marked improvement over the Crest's less impressive history.
We racked up over 1,000 miles in the ATS during our week with the sedan, and during that time, the machine returned a maximum of 26 miles per gallon highway, even with the thirsty V6 and parasitic all-wheel drive system onboard. Punching around town and through some of our favorite back roads saw that number drop to 18 mpg, though we averaged around 21 mpg overall. For once, those figures fall dead on the Environmental Protection Agency estimates, but they just miss the BMW 335i xDrive at 20 city and 28 highway. The tally balances out a bit once you take into account that the BMW requires premium fuel, while the ATS does not.
And what of the Audi A4? Matching the power available from the 3.6-liter V6 in the ATS will require you to step up to the significantly sportier S4 with its supercharged 3.0-liter V6. That driveline matches the ATS in fuel economy with slightly more power, but living the dream will cost you. Starting at $49,000, not including destination, the dual-clutch S4 is more than stone's throw from the base MSRP of the ATS AWD at $43,195. Our tester came loaded with a Cold Weather Package, fancy wheels and paint as well as CUE for a grand total of $3,740 in options. Throw in $895 for destination, and our final figure sat at $47,830. For comparison, the base 2013 335i xDrive will hit your wallet for $45,150, not including destination.
Is the ATS perfect? Certainly not, but the compact sport sedan is beyond impressive for a first effort.
Is the ATS perfect? Certainly not, but the compact sport sedan from Cadillac is beyond impressive for a first effort. It's easily as stylish and capable as rivals like the 3 Series and A4, and anyone who says otherwise just hasn't had enough time behind the wheel.