In targeting the BMW 3-series, the development team for the new Cadillac ATS compact luxury sedan hit the Bavarian legend in all of its most tender spots. First, as anyone who has driven BMWs over time will tell you, the 3-series isn't quite as involving from the driver's seat as it used to be. I'm sorry, it's true. The cars have grown larger and heavier, with less feedback in the wheel and slightly more relaxed reflexes, a consequence of a campaign to dial up the refinement to win over more conquest sales and, the company freely admits, more women.
To do that, they went in the other direction, dialing up the sporting orneriness, and rather splendidly, too. The ATS's most notable dynamic quality is the sharp, almost twitchy responsiveness of its electric-power-assist steering. Grab a big handful of steering angle (with the ATS's racy, small-diameter steering wheel) and the car will give you a surprisingly strong yank in that direction. This thing changes direction like a Jack Russell terrier. Yes, the ATS feels a little busier at the wheel at highway speeds, and that won't appeal to everybody. Indeed, that seems to be the very point Cadillac is underlining.
Once turned in, the ATS's tensed, tarpaulin-tight suspension and 50/50 weight distribution (abetted, in the case of our test car, with adaptive magnetic dampers) helps the ATS shoulder through corners with minimal body roll and with significant Teutonic grip. Cadillac spent a lot of time flogging the ATS around Germany's 14-mile Nürburgring test course, and the character of that track—with its multitude of midspeed, constant-radius turns—has shaped the car in recognizable ways. Nowhere is this car better than midcorner, in third gear and about 3,000 rpm, around 60 miles per hour, with lots of steering input and steady throttle, with the mechanical limited-slip rear end helping it to carve a perfect, tire-squawking parabola.
Gradually and very progressively, the ATS—at least the one shod with our test car's 18-inch summer tires—surrenders front grip and pushes wide. When you breathe the throttle, the front tucks in and the rear steps out with a few degrees of sweet, pivoting, progressive oversteer. In some corners, the ATS feels more like a Lotus than a BMW.
The ATS's ride does not have the fluid suppleness of the 3-series', and certainly nothing like the BMW's management of noise and vibration. The acoustics of the ATS's optional 3.6-liter, direct-injection V6 (267 pound-feet of torque) are particularly heinous. And yet, insofar as the ATS chassis guys privileged cornering poise and sporting feel over ride compliance, favoring emotion over the numb averaging that afflicts a lot of cars' handling, I second that emotion.
The 3-series' other vulnerability is also a consequence of its incumbency: It is safe, almost rote, in the styling department. You can read the 3-series' conservative exterior design a number of ways. This is the most massive of BMW's mass-market cars, representing 30% of the company's sales volume world-wide. The car's global reach has, over time, imposed a rather bland internationalism on the styling, in order to appear to many markets and sensibilities, particularly China's.
Cadillac's ATS doesn't have any such territory to defend, and as a consequence the ATS's design could be bolder, more expressive, more interesting. As 100 out of 100 surveyed will tell you, if you park an ATS next to the comparable 3-series, the BMW simply wilts, visually.
So the ATS is a little more venturesome in design than the BMW 3-series and, surprisingly, a little more fun to helm. Does that make it a better car? Well, no.
The ATS's major flaw—and it's practically a black hole that devours the rest of the car—is the 3.6-liter's low-speed, low-rpm powertrain noise. Wow. That sounds terrible! The injectors rattle like a sewing machine that's lost a cog. As soon as you pick up the throttle and the revs rise above around four grand, the induction, valve-train and exhaust notes come together in a rising, melodic chirr, and at full throttle, shuffling up through the gears, the powertrain sounds amazing (0-60 mph in 5.4 seconds). But in a parking lot, it sounds like my old Chevette. Ai.
So, not perfect, but again, compelling, daring and, here and there, outrageous. I like those words better than the musty old "Standard of the World" anyway. Cadillac is not the standard anymore. It's the challenger. And the ATS is, well, challenging.