Cadillac isn't saying that its goal with the 2013 ATS sport sedan is the equivalent of kneeing BMW's 3 Series in the stomach, putting it in a headlock and wrestling it to the ground.
But there's not a shred of doubt that Caddy's new baby is aimed squarely at the most competent compact sport sedan in the history of the world. That the small Bimmer served as the ATS's benchmark is unquestionable. Not just in Cadillac's statement: that the ATS will "challenge the world's best compact luxury cars." But the spec sheet shows, dimensionally, that the 2013 Cadillac ATS is a near carbon copy of the 3 Series: It's within 0.3 inch in overall length and within 0.2 inch in width.
Corporate posturing and marketing hype aside, a Cadillac official later admitted to us, "Honestly, we'll just be happy to be considered in the same sentence as the 3 Series."
After a day driving around Georgia and lapping the brand-new Atlanta Motorsports Park, we can say, yup, the ATS is legit. Just to be sure, we hooked up our test equipment to a pre-production model while we were there.
No More Cimarron Jokes
Make no mistake, the 2013 Cadillac ATS is a completely brand-new, from-scratch rear-wheel-drive design (all-wheel drive is optional). True, the three available direct-injected engines have been seen before in various iterations, and the fantastic CUE infotainment system debuted in the XTS. But as a whole, this is a brand-new Caddy.
And it's light. There's lots of high-strength and ultrahigh-strength steel, and the chassis is scalloped out and utilizes lightening holes to shed pounds where possible. There's also an aluminum hood, magnesium engine mount brackets and aluminum front suspension arms. End result? The base model tips the scales at 3,315 pounds, while the 3.6 V6 test car comes in at 3,461. The last BMW 328i we tested, which utilizes a 2.0-liter turbo engine, hit the scales at 3,427 pounds.
One Out of Three
The base ATS, which starts at $33,990 including destination, comes with a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder putting out 202 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque (the 2012 BMW 328i starts at $35,795 with destination, but its turbo-4 puts out 240 hp). Earning 22 city/33 highway/26 mpg EPA combined, this engine is clearly little more than the ATS's mileage and price leader — a fact that is obvious the first time you apply real pressure with your right foot. It's quiet and smooth enough, and the six-speed automatic is a worthy companion with its silky operation but, no lie, we checked to see if the parking brake was on a couple of times.
Even though it's not billed as the top engine, the 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder had us most amped up going in because it's the only power plant that's available with a manual gearbox. And we like forced induction. The numbers are there: 272 hp at 5,500 rpm, 260 lb-ft of torque from 1,700-5,500. There is minimal turbo lag but midrange is plentiful. Remarkably, when paired with the automatic, Cadillac estimates (although it's not yet official with the EPA) identical fuel economy for this engine as it does for the 2.5-liter four. Reality, we suspect, will prove otherwise.
Either way, it never stirred our soul — there's no real punch, and its completely nondescript whirring noise is uninspiring. Then there's the all-new Tremec six-speed manual, which has longish throws and is a bit clunky.
The 3.6-liter V6, on the other hand, is a fine piece. Unlike the turbo-4, it does its best work up high, churning out 321 hp at 6,800 rpm and 275 lb-ft at 4,800. Cadillac says it will earn 19 city and 28 highway mpg, however, proving that you'll pay for the additional power.
Even so, it makes genuinely sexy sounds at high revs, but it's Cadillac-quiet at low speed. The sole transmission is the six-speed auto with magnesium paddle shifters. This transmission is so "smart" that on the track we experimented with leaving it in Drive and it held revs perfectly when needed and automatically downshifted and blipped the throttle when we braked for corners. As such, we preferred the V6/auto combo over the turbo-4/manual on the track.
The Numbers Game
Acceleration testing on a pre-production ATS Premium 3.6 at an unfamiliar test venue resulted in 60 mph in 5.7 seconds (5.4 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as at a drag strip) and the quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds at 101.9 mph.
For reference, the last BMW 335i we tested, a 2010 sedan with a six-speed manual and a turbocharged inline-6, hit 60 in 5.2 seconds (4.9 with rollout). The 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 posted a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds (5.4 with rollout). Translation: As nice as Caddy's V6 is, it's no match — in pure numbers or in terms of refinement/usability — for BMW's turbo-6.
Cadillac factory racer Johnny O'Connell didn't mince words when he told journalists at the launch of the 2013 Cadillac ATS: "This is the best car I've driven around the proving grounds in my 12 years at General Motors."
Say what? Perhaps he already forgot a certain famous sports car. You know, the Corvette? Or the CTS-V?
O'Connell elaborated further while he gave us hot laps in an ATS: "Oh sure, the Corvette has higher limits," he explained, "but the ATS is more forgiving when it reaches the limit." In other words, when the Corvette begins to oversteer, it happens very quickly and it isn't easy to save, whereas the ATS can be driven up to and beyond its limits all day. Even by us average folk.
The balance the ATS exhibits comes via a 50/50 weight distribution and well-tuned standard FE2 suspension, including Cadillac's first-ever five-link independent rear setup. The quick and precise electric steering offers adjustable weight and has high effort in Sport mode. As a result, the ATS proved a more-than-willing dance partner on Georgia's twisty back roads. It's very tied down, with minimal body roll and minimal understeer at the limit.
Premium models, like our test car, come with the FE3 sport suspension and magnetorheological dampers. Not only is the ride quality driver-controlled, but these high-tech dampers constantly adjust to the road...in milliseconds. Summer tires helped, too. The car's balance lets you teeter on the brink of understeer/oversteer, working the throttle to eliminate push. Power-on oversteer isn't easy to achieve, even with the V6, but when it happens it's extremely controllable.
Around the skid pad at Road Atlanta, the ATS matched the 0.92g lateral grip of the 3 Series, while it stopped 1 foot shorter from 60 mph — 108 feet. Brembo brakes come standard on all ATS models above the base car. Fade was nonexistent, although pedal feel out on the road was a bit soft.
CUE It Up
Cadillac's CUE infotainment system, which debuted on the 2013 XTS, has found its way into the ATS, too. CUE, which stands for Cadillac User Experience, integrates phone, audio and navigation into an 8-inch LCD touchscreen. It can pair data for up to 10 Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices. Perhaps most important is that CUE's interface operates like an iPhone or iPad — by tapping, flicking, swiping or spreading, which gives it a welcome familiarity for many users.
"Haptic" or pulsed feedback on the fully capacitive faceplate lets you know that your finger is, in fact, changing settings on the HVAC controls — unlike in the Chevy Volt and Ford Explorer. There's a learning curve with CUE, of course, but the capability of the system is quite amazing.
The front seats do a nice job of holding you in place and it's easy to find a comfortable position. Optional sport seats don't provide the needed lateral support, but the bolsters are electrically adjustable.
Rear-seat headroom is actually pretty decent, but knee room is tight. Despite a wide aperture, the ATS's 10.2-cubic-foot trunk is small for the class — especially between the wheelwells.
Better Than the 3 Series?
Taking on the established German and Japanese players in one of the most difficult-to-infiltrate segments in the country takes guts. And it shows even bigger cojones for Cadillac to come right out and say the 2013 ATS is capable of challenging the world's best compact sedans.
But the ATS has a lot going for it. Most specifically is its genuinely capable handling. And the CUE infotainment system shows real progress in an area that's hugely significant to many buyers.
But does it knock the BMW 3 Series off its comfy perch? Not yet. Not with these powertrains. Still, the 2013 Cadillac ATS, which will begin shipping to dealers August 1, is an exciting rear-drive alternative to the compact sport sedan establishment. That it's as good as it is, and that it's American-made, should be enough to bring new, young buyers into Cadillac dealers.
Even better, Cadillac officials did everything other than confirm that an ATS-V performance model is on the way. Give it a real engine, and maybe, just maybe, it can take on the M3.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.