Cadillac's first real 3-Series fighter is a good one.
June 19, 2012
By: Luke Sorro
Photograpy: C. Charles Hahn
For years, many brands have tried to dethrone the BMW 3-Series to become the king of sports sedans, The General’s own Cadillac included. And while the current Cadillac CTS is a valiant effort, it falls short in many categories, and with a new 3-Series launching now – it was back to the drawing board for Cadillac. At the drawing board, a set of General Motors’ best were selected to design a whole new rear-wheel drive architecture with nimbleness, agility and a high fun-to-drive factor being their main goals. The result was the Alpha platform, with the Cadillac ATS being the first product to reach gestation from the new innards. Cadillac engineers designed the new baby Caddy to be nearly identical in size to the 3-Series, a departure from the “more for less” packaging Cadillac offered with the CTS.
Cadillac wasted little time in getting the ATS ready, going to tracks all over the world, including Germany’s famed Nürburgring in order to calibrate the car as best as possible. The car was tested and driven hard on the ‘Ring and could be seen in teaser videos released by Cadillac known as “ATS: The Journey.”
When revealed at the 2012 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the new ATS surprised many people, including many German auto enthusiasts who swore loyalty to BMW, Audi and Mercedes. Its light weight of under 3,400 pounds promised nimble handling and agility; the 2.0-turbo producing 272 horsepower, outclassing the new Bimmer’s 240 horsepower. The 321 horsepower provided by the 3.6-liter V-6 was said to propel the ATS from naught to sixty in well under six seconds, so the Cadillac ATS, on paper at least, has all the credentials to be a valid 3-Series fighter from Cadillac.
On the exterior, the Cadillac ATS is a stunner. A midnight chrome accented egg crate grille with a prominent Cadillac wreath and crest greets the driver as they walk up to ATS, as do standard projector beam headlamps, with Xenon bulbs standard on higher trims. Naturally Cadillac’s signature vertical LED accent lighting, which is standard on Performance and Premium Collection ATS’s only, is also in tow. A long, chiseled hood with a generous dash-to-axle ratio leads the eyes to the doors, which feature subtle sculpting and a character line that runs from the front wheel arch all the way to the vertical tail lights. The ATS sits on standard 17-inch wheels, with 18-inch wheels optional. The rear of the ATS is uniquely Cadillac, with signature vertical taillights and a boomerang center high mount stop lamp functioning as both a third tail light and a fuel economy boosting spoiler.
The interior of the Cadillac ATS is a pleasant place to be. Materials are best in class, and the overall design is both luxurious and bold at the same time. The interior greets occupants when they first open the door with a leather wrapped dashboard, real wood, metal, or carbon fiber accents, and Cadillac’s signature CUE, or Cadillac User Experience system. Seats are all-day comfortable and, although thin, provide generous support for all parts of the body. The steering wheel is perfectly matched with the interior, and is just the right size for a comfortable and confident grip. Standard interior features include a fully capacitive-touch center stack topped by a large high-resolution touch screen, with CUE available. Leatherette seats are also standard, while supple leather with memory and heat are available as an option. Interior dimensions are on the smaller side, but not once did the ATS’ cabin feel claustrophobic. In fact, front seat head and legroom seems to be on par with larger sedans. Rear legroom and headroom is not the ATS’ driving point, but is adequate for two people. While the ATS’ trunk seems miniscule on paper, it is laid out very well and is deep enough to swallow a moderately sized suitcase.
What good is a sports sedan if it is not fun to drive? All ATS models come standard with electric power assisted steering, which many enthusiasts have a grudge against. The ATS’ system is quite possibly the best system to ever come out of General Motors, which means yes, it outclasses the Camaro and even Cadillac’s own CTS-V by providing perfectly weighted, responsive steering with good driver feedback for a feeling of “oneness” with the car. The ATS also boasts Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control, which can read and adjust the car’s suspension components up to 1,000 times per second. Throttle tip in is excellent, and feels very German, with a nicely balanced accelerator requiring just the right amount of pressure to move the ATS. Body roll is minimal and well controlled, with balance seemingly unaffected by powertrain choice, and the chassis inspires the driver to push the car harder, and is far from jittery, even when driven hard on cars without MRC.
The standard 2.5-liter produces adequate power and is sufficient for the majority of ATS buyers with plenty of refinement, making smooth power all the way to the near 7,000 RPM redline. The 2.0-turbo was not available to drive since it is still being calibrated for final production tuning.
The range topping 3.6-liter V-6 is a truly impressive motor when paired to the ATS. Not only is it fast, it is refined, quiet and linear in terms of power delivery. The ATS 3.6, when hammered from a stop, throws you back in your seat and pulls hard all the way to 7,000 RPM, with a healthy kick at around 5,000 RPM. The 0-60 estimate of well under six seconds seems accurate, and may even be underestimated. To stop the ATS, available Brembo brakes are called to duty and stop the ATS with authority under a smooth, linear braking motion felt both in the car itself and through brake pedal.
Even though the ATS is a light car, it still feels solid. Road and wind noise are impressively hushed, and ride quality is just right, with a not-too-hard, not-too-soft feel even with the optional 18-inch low profile rubber. Bumps and road imperfections are soaked up by ATS’ multi-link, double-pivot MacPherson strut front suspension with direct-acting stabilizer bar and standard five-link independent rear suspension out back. All-wheel drive is available on 2.0-turbo and 3.6-liter equipped ATS', while the 2.5-liter is available only in rear-wheel drive configuration. Standard on ATS is Cadillac’s familiar six speed automatic transmission, which does not seem to suffer from the awkward ‘gear-hunting’ behavior many others in the General’s fleet tend to exhibit. A six speed manual transmission is offered as well, but only on rear-wheel drive, 2.0-turbo equipped ATS models.
We already knew the ATS had the goods to be a formidable competitor on paper. After driving it, it appears that GM's dream team managed to churn out a car that does not just look good on paper, but also performs like its spec sheet suggests it should. The ATS has all the goods and grandeur to dethrone the 3-Series. However Cadillac’s fate rests on whether or not people will accept this new entry into the entry-level luxury car market, which is the most contested segment in the luxury automobile market. Regardless, for the first time ever, Cadillac has a legitimate compact luxury sedan.
Ed. Note: Unfortunately GMI will not be able to have drive impression on the ATS 2.0T until later this year. The above cars were driven at the Lansing Grand River assembly plant as part of a community festival, Luke and Charles were gracious enough to formalize their drive impressions from GMI. - Nick Saporito