Staff Writer - CheersandGears.com
December 11, 2012
If you’re a car company and you’re planning a new compact luxury sedan, sooner or later someone will bring up the elephant in the room: How is it going to fare against the BMW 3-Series?
For the past twenty-plus years, the BMW 3-Series has been the benchmark of the compact luxury car class. Why? Because the 3-Series provided a balance of performance and luxury in one complete compact package. It was the vehicle that many automakers wanted to beat and some would actually call it out in their ads. Most of them though would fail at their mission to beat at the 3-Series.
But with the new 3-Series, there appears to be some change. The new model is trying to be all things to all people; a luxury sedan, a sporty sedan, and a fuel efficient sedan. With this new model, the impenetrable armor previous generations of the 3-Series wore is beginning to show some chinks. The competition has taken notice of this and has begun to work on either refreshing its current models or introducing new contenders to beat the 3-Series.
The first of these efforts is from Cadillac. Since 2003, the wreath and crest team has made serious efforts into becoming a homegrown contender to Germans with such vehicles like the CTS, CTS-V, and SRX. Now the latest vehicle is directed at the heart of BMW - the 3-Series. Named the ATS, Cadillac worked from a clean sheet to produce this new RWD sedan. On paper, it has the goods: light-weight, balanced chassis, a range of engines, and filled with technology.
So the ubiquitous question remains, can the new ATS give the 3-Series a run for its money?
To answer this question, I got my hands on a 3.6L AWD Luxury model that came equipped with the cold weather and the Cadillac User Experience & Navigation packages.
Next: The Outside & Inside
The new ATS is very much a Cadillac in its design, looking very much like what the CTS could have been if GM decided not to make it larger.
The front end features head lights that extend into the front fenders, a short front overhang, and long hood with a ‘power bulge’. The side profile features chrome running along the windows and a set of seventeen-inch wheels. Around back, the ATS copies certain parts of the CTS’ rear end, most notably with the vertical LED taillights and trunk lid design. There is also a wide, center brake light mounted in the spoiler, and twin, large exhaust ports mounted in the rear bumper.
The one exterior feature that is missing on our ATS is the strip of LEDs that run along the outside edge of the headlights and LED fog lights. This is due our ATS being the 3.6 Luxury model. The 3.6 Performance and Premium models come equipped with it.
If you were to ask me to describe the ATS’ interior in one word, I would say snug. No matter where you sit in the ATS, you feel encapsulated. Most of this feeling comes from the ATS’ design with a low roof line and not much glass used. Surprisingly, interior measurements as shown in this table show the ATS sitting dimensionally in the middle of its class.
Despite what the measurements say, the ATS could be one of the first 2+2 sedans on the market. Climbing into the back seat, I found that I had a decent amount of legroom. Headroom is another story; I found that my head was touching the roof. This was a bit surprising considering that I’m 5’7. The back seat is good for kids, not so much for adults.
Situating yourself into the front seats, you find that Cadillac has really stepped up its game in materials. There is a mix of black and red leather, and carbon fiber trim used on the dash. For the touch-capacitive controls, Cadillac’s interior designers put them into a piece of black acrylic, which also lies around the transmission. The seats were swath in red leather that provided good support and comfort. Build quality was top-notch with no trim pieces loose and no abhorrent panel gaps.
The interior also features Cadillac's new CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment system which uses a eight-inch fully capacitive touch screen, capacitive touch buttons, and voice recognition. You do have to spend some time learning how to use the system. Once you do, the system brings out a lot of positives. The eight-inch screen is very bright and easy to read at quick glance, while CUE's voice recognition was able to understand my voice and perform the commands I asked for. But CUE brings a lot of negatives to table which include the capacitive touch buttons not always responding to your touch, the system showing some sluggishness when moving around, and the system being a large distraction when on the move. I've only scratched the surface on CUE and have an in-depth look at the system coming tomorrow.
Next: Moving and Turning
Cadillac has given the ATS three engines, two transmissions, and two drivetrain options. Your base ATS is a 2.5L direct-injected inline-four producing 202 HP and 191 lb-ft of torque. The only transmission is a six-speed automatic down to the rear-wheels. Next up is a 2.0L turbo-four producing 272 HP and 260 lb-ft of torque. The 2.0L has the choice of either a six-speed manual or automatic, and the choice of rear-wheel or all-wheel drive (Note: 2.0T with AWD can only come with the auto). Finally there is the venerable 3.6L direct-injected V6 producing 321 HP and 275 lb-ft of torque. This goes through a six-speed automatic and you have the choice of either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. Our test ATS was equipped with the 3.6L with AWD.
The ATS 3.6 is a vehicle that is very fitting of the Cadillac badge. Whenever you step on the accelerator, the power is immediate and effortless. Also, the 3.6L makes a very meaty noise, something very appreciated in a sports sedan like this. The six-speed automatic does an excellent job of making sure you’re right in the power seamlessly and quickly.
The optional AWD system does a great job of making sure you have the traction without you really noticing. The only time you feel the system working is when you decide to floor the pedal or enter a corner way too quickly.
Fuel economy for the 3.6 AWD is much like the ATS’ interior measurements; in the middle of competitors’ numbers.
The EPA rates the 3.6 AWD 18 City/26 Highway/21 combined. During my six day loan, I averaged around 19.6 MPG. This was due to me driving it hard for a good amount of the week. On the highway, I got around 25.7 MPG.
Ride & Drive
General Motors has been making big deal about the work done underneath the skin of the new ATS. How it’s the lightest car in the class; how it has perfect 50/50 weight balance; how it was benchmarked against the BMW 3-Series during the development; so on and so forth.
On paper, the ATS has a lot going for it. Curb weight ranges from 3,315 lbs (2.5 with the automatic) to 3,629 lbs (our 3.6 AWD test model). This is in part to the ATS’ structure using a combination of high-strength steel, aluminum, and magnesium. Also, engineers sweated in the small details to save weight, going as far as to punch holes in the structure.
The suspension is an interesting bit of kit for a Cadillac. Up front, the ATS uses a multi-link double-pivot MacPherson strut setup that Cadillac says provides a balance of precise handling and a comfortable ride. The back-end features Cadillac’s first five-link independent rear suspension.
The ATS also features a ZF electric power-steering system and a set of Brembo brakes standard across the whole range except for the base 2.5 model.
So how does it fare on the road? Surprisingly well. Taking the ATS onto one of the rare curvy stretches of road in the Detroit, I found it to be very capable. The suspension keeps the car stable and balanced when going through a turn. Steering is very quick and direct with just the right amount weight. Steering feel is also very good, providing a good amount of information about road you’re driving on. The Brembo brakes were excellent, providing enough bite to slow down the ATS very quickly.
Driving the ATS on regular roads and the freeway, I found the ride almost being too stiff. The suspension tries its best to cope with road imperfections, but the standard all-season run-flat tires don’t have enough give when going over imperfections. I do wonder how much of a difference would come if you do swap the run-flats for all-season or summer/winter tires. Wind noise is kept to a minimum while some road noise does make it into the cabin. Visibility is good up front, but side and rear is difficult thanks to thick c-pillars and a small rear window. Cadillac does have a rear-view camera standard on the 3.6 Luxury model while a blind-spot monitoring system is optional.
Next: The Verdict
The long held beliefs of Cadillac being a nobody or a pretender in the luxury class are being push out the door by vehicles like the new ATS. The ATS brings a lot to the compact luxury class; a very impressive chassis, daring styling, load of interesting tech, and the meaty 3.6 V6 engine.
There are problems with the ATS though. You can’t really put anyone in the back seat unless they are kids, not really being able to see out of the back, and some other minor concerns. There is still one big problem with the ATS, Cadillac’s history. While the ATS is helping move the brand forward, there are still many people who have a bad taste in their mouth when you mention Cadillac. Whether it’s due to the vehicles of the past, reliability concerns, dealers, or number of other reasons, Cadillac still has a long way to go in this regard.
Now to the big question that people have on their minds; is the ATS a 3-Series killer? Honestly, I cannot say that either one is better for one very simple reason; I haven’t spent enough time in the 3-Series. If I was to say right now that the Cadillac ATS is better than 3-Series, than I’m not providing a fair analysis of the vehicles to you.
What I can say is this: Cadillac should be very proud of what has it accomplished with the new ATS. It might be the perfect sparring partner to the 3-Series.
Run-Flat Tires don’t help in ride quality
Side and Rear visibility
Disclaimer: General Motors provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gasoline.
Year - 2013
Make – Cadillac
Model – ATS
Trim – AWD 3.6L Luxury
Engine – 3.6L Direct-Injection V6
Driveline – All-Wheel Drive, Six-Speed Automatic
Horsepower @ RPM – 321 HP (@ 6,800 RPM)
Torque @ RPM – 275 lb-ft (@ 4,800 RPM)
Fuel Economy: City/Highway/Combined - 18/26/21
Curb Weight – 3,629 lbs
Location of Manufacture – Lansing, Michigan
Base Price - $43,195.00
As Tested Price - $45,985.00* (Includes $895.00 Destination Charge)