2013 Cadillac ATS, Road Smarts

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There’s never been a Cadillac like this one. The ATS is, in many ways, a Bimmer-beater.
There’s never been a Cadillac like this one. The ATS is, in many ways, a Bimmer-beater.

The new ATS would be a huge shock if we hadn’t already been conditioned by its bigger brother, the CTS.

Both of these talented rear-wheel-drive sedans are the result of Cadillac’s having contracted Nürburgring Syndrome. The ‘Ring is that famously complex 12.94-mile road-racing course deep in the woods of eastern Germany where manufacturers refine their performance cars.

With bumps, hills, 73 corners and straights long enough to let the big dogs run close to 200 miles per hour, the ‘Ring is much more like an ultimate country road than a modern racetrack laid out for TV coverage.

Carmakers use the ‘Ring as a field laboratory, a place to see whether the computer simulations are correct. A few years ago, even Cadillac began flogging its development mules around those 73 corners and 13 miles. The first ‘Ring-born Cadillac was the almost-outrageous CTS, which we called the best American-made driver’s car ever. The smaller, lighter, more nimble ATS is better yet.

Cadillac offers the ATS in four styles—Luxury, Performance, Premium and standard—with a 202-horsepower 4-cylnder engine, a 272-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder or a V6 rated at 321 horsepower. A standard ATS starts at $34,000. Our test car, an all-wheel-drive V6 Luxury with $3,000 in options atop an already well-stuffed toy chest, listed for $46,980. A comparable BMW 335i would be thousands more, but slightly less powerful.

It’s clear that Cadillac put the BMW up on a pedestal and said to its engineers, “Here’s your target.” In size, weight, balance, suspension, accessories, comfort and performance, the two come within whiskers of each other. What’s astonishing, though, is that this ATS feels crisper and more aggressive than any 3-Series short of the $70,000 M3—even with a 6-speed automatic as the only transmission option.

Like many automatics, this one can be shifted manually with the stick or paddles on the wheel. Unlike many automatics, this one never seems to be in the wrong gear and never gets flustered under a heavy foot. Shifts are rapid, distinct and positive. In manual mode, the transmission lets the V6 spin to 7,000 RPM and then patiently awaits orders; on its own, it will downshift in corners for more thrust coming out the other side.

While cruising, the ATS is quiet and composed; open the throttle and the engine growls and speed builds quickly. Leapfrogging traffic is easy and feels unhurried. The ride is beautifully controlled and comfortable, with precise turn-in and flat, neutral cornering. There are three suspension modes—Touring, Sport, Winter—but it’s hard to tell them apart, especially as Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control automatically adapts the dampers to new blacktop or old potholes. Dead-stable in a straight line, the ATS can change direction like a cutting horse. The steering is taut and perfectly weighted at any speed.

An ATS owner with a season’s pass to the Nürburgring (about $1,800 for unlimited laps on public days) might order the available high-performance Brembo brakes, but the stock anchors are more than powerful enough for normal, even heavy-duty road use.

Dynamically, then, the ATS is a star, an all-around player that could hardly be less like your daddy’s Caddy. (Let’s not even mention the vile, hideous mid-‘80s Cimarron, the company’s only previous stab at a small car.) What about refinement and creature comforts? The back seats are a bit tight, but everything else is very nearly outstanding, with only hints of old-school gaudiness. The touches of chrome, wood veneer and carbon fiber look almost Bentley-good and the leather trim could be hand-stitched. And then there’s CUE, Cadillac’s unique “comprehensive in-vehicle user experience,” which puts the infotainment controls on a brilliant iPad-like screen. The icons are large and bright, and they respond to a fingertip with a slight bump, like a strong pulse. It’s really weird, but you get used to it.

If the ATS disappoints anywhere, it’s in the sheet metal. From the nose back, the styling is almost nondescript, far short of the distinctive look of the CTS. Surely the ATS also deserves to stand out; word is that it can lap the ‘Ring in less than 8 minutes 30 seconds.