Cadillac wants you to know that it is very, very serious about just how important the success of the 2013 Cadillac ATS entry-level luxury sedan is to the company. The vehicle has been described to us as a 'make or break' vehicle for the luxury brand, one that is being counted on to go forth into the premium wilderness and convert as many BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz buyers as possible by way of its ultra-competitive charms.
We were given the chance to put a significant number of miles on several versions of the new 2013 Cadillac ATS this past month, and we came away suitable impressed. The ATS is unlike any other model in the current Cadillac lineup, yet it feels like the natural evolution of a design language and engineering architecture that has finally come around to the idea that it's not enough to merely be 'good' in order to compete on a global scale - excellence is in fact required.
For almost a decade, Cadillac has fielded a single model to do battle in both the compact and mid-size luxury sedan segments. The Cadillac CTS was a brave step forward into an entirely new world of performance and refinement when it was first introduced, and subsequent models expanded into the coupe and wagon segments in order to bolster the corporate stable. Unfortunately, the CTS was seen as something of a 'tweener' by luxury buyers, a sedan that was bigger than a compact but smaller than a mid-size, which was a confusing situation for those trying to cross-shop the car against the competition.
The 2013 Cadillac ATS eliminates any ambiguity concerning its position in the market by falling firmly into the entry-level, compact premium sedan category. The Cadillac ATS rides on a fresh platform that was designed specifically to challenge the BMW 3 Series, which means that not only does the ATS match up well with its German rival in terms of length and width, but it also undercuts the base BMW 328i in terms of mass, checking in with a starting curb weight of 3,315 lbs. Throw in a rear-wheel drive architecture (with the option of all-wheel drive), 50/50 weight balance, and sharp styling that accurately shrink down the Art & Science cues that dominate the Cadillac landscape, and it becomes clear that the ATS has all of the elements needed to make us all forget about the ill-fated Cadillac Catera that preceded the sedan in the mists of time.
It would be a mistake to think that Cadillac was satisfied with developing a carbon copy of the 3 Series and merely stamping ATS across the trunk lid. The 2013 Cadillac ATS offers a driving personality all to its own - several, in fact, depending on which trim level the vehicle is found in.
We were given the chance to pilot two of the three available drivetrains offered with the Cadillac ATS - the 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, and the 3.6-liter V-6 - in both street and track environments. The 2.0-liter unit represents the only small-displacement turbo to ever have been offered in a Cadillac sedan, and it provides 272 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, making it one of the most 'power dense' engines on the market. When matched with the FE3 Sport Suspension Package (Magnetic Ride Control suspension, heavy-duty cooling, 18-inch summer tires, mechanical limited-slip differential, rear-wheel drive models only) and its optional six-speed manual transmission, the turbocharged ATS made for an engaging dance partner through the undulating curves of the Mosport road course. Although the vehicle's engine note is muted from inside the ATS' cabin, the turbo four begged to be unwound down the straights and stayed on-boost at almost all times, which meant we never found ourselves wishing for more grunt under the hood. On the street, matching the 2.0-liter mill with a six-speed automatic tranny and all-wheel drive provided civilized cruising with the ability to surge forward at will to snag an empty gap in the traffic ahead.
Of course, should additional thrust be required, the 3.6-liter V-6 that represents the top-tier power plant for the ATS is willing to oblige. Rated at 321 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque, and paired exclusively with a six-speed automatic transmission, the V-6 ATS offered a more visceral experience on the Mosport circuit thanks to its growling exhaust and broader power band. We quickly abandoned the tranny's paddle shifters and let the autobox do its thing out on the course - a task it accomplished with remarkable skill, selecting the correct gear even when cornering or braking. The V-6 we drove on the track also came with the FE3 package, but when street-driving more placid all-wheel drive models one has to keep an eye on the tachometer to note more than a subtle difference in drivability between the six-cylinder and the turbo model.
The most salient aspect of the experience offered by both versions of the Cadillac ATS - especially when being flung through high-speed curves and braking hard downhill into a chicane - was balance. The all-new five-link rear suspension offered with the sedan, combined with its lightweight design, made for remarkably controlled track sessions in a car that surprised us at almost every turn. This is no 3/4 CTS in disguise - the ATS offers dramatically-revised sporty handling that doesn't at any time infringe on the level of comfort it delivers when plodding along at the posted speed limit.
In true compact luxury tradition, the 2013 Cadillac ATS delivers a cozy cockpit that caters primarily to the needs of the driver and front passenger. The forward leather buckets require some adjustment to provide the required support, but the dashboard and center stack are well thought out. Simple wood and metallic accents are surrounded by a leather wrapping (that could stand to be a little softer in certain spots), and overall the effect is pleasingly understated. Those riding in the rear of the ATS should be prepared for less-than-generous legroom, but this is endemic throughout the entry-level luxury segment and short trips will not be uncomfortable for adult riders.
The Cadillac ATS is also available with the CUE interface. Based around an eight-inch LCD touchscreen, CUE introduces several enhancements to what most drivers have become accustomed to in terms of entertainment and communications controls. For starters, the CUE screen offers 'haptic' feedback, which is a fancy way of saying that the LCD pushes back slightly when a menu selection or icon is touched by a finger. This is a nice way of knowing that one has pressed firmly enough on the screen to make a selection. We were even more pleased by the way the screen responds to hand gestures. For example, in many of the navigation or satellite radio sub-menus, we were able to return quickly to the main menu by rapidly flaying our fingers at the screen, without making any actual contact. This is extremely useful when operating the system on the fly. CUE is capable of interfacing with a wide range of mobile phones and other devices, as well serving as a conduit for internet-related services.
The 2013 Cadillac ATS stands out amongst its corporate siblings as the first building block in what promises to be a new effort from Cadillac to tackle the realities of the modern premium market head-on. With a solid compact sedan base offered by the ATS - complete with excellent performance, good comfort, eye-catching styling, and a range of powerful, yet efficient engines - the company is now free to up-size the CTS and make it a true contender that can slot in just underneath the large Cadillac XTS sedan.
Think of the ATS as the linchpin upon which all future products from the brand will be built, and you're not far off in understanding just how critical the ATS is for Cadillac. After having put the car through its paces - and with a starting MSRP of $33,095 - we tend to agree that Cadillac's confidence in the competence of this first entry-level luxury salvo certainly isn't misplaced.