That the 2013 Cadillac ATS exists at all is a profound statement about the American brand's obsession with beating the Germans at their own game. That the ATS exists with a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine and a six-speed manual transmission also should be enough to make old Henry Leland — Cadillac's founding father — turn cartwheels in his burial plot at Woodmere Cemetery in Detroit.
Or, maybe not.
By the time of Leland's death in 1932, Cadillac had moved on from its original single-cylinder buggy with a tonneau roof and had begun mass production of a road-crushing 90-mph thunder sedan powered by a V16 and featuring a pioneering three-speed manual transmission.
None of this, of course, means the 2013 Cadillac ATS will achieve its goal of being the best sport sedan in this segment. But it certainly means Cadillac isn't afraid to try.
In this market segment, a relatively small four-cylinder engine with a turbocharger is the go-to solution for achieving both EPA mpg ratings and reasonable performance. Both the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class feature engines built to this formula this year, while Audi's A4 has had turbocharged four-cylinder power for more than a decade.
Cadillac's answer is the newest generation of same boosted, direct-injected 2.0-liter inline-4 found in (wait for it) the Buick Verano and other GM products. In the ATS, this engine is oriented longitudinally and fitted with new intake and exhaust plumbing. It's coupled to either a six-speed automatic or the (optional) new Tremec-built six-speed manual transmission. And yes, you can also get the ATS with a normally aspirated 3.5-liter V6, which we've tested previously.
Rated at 272 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, Cadillac's turbo mill is rated for more power than the engines found in its German competition. Of course, once you take this engine to a chassis dyno known for vaporizing GM fairy dust as we did, the output of the ATS engine looks identical to that of a BMW engine rated for 32 fewer ponies.
Even so, the 2013 Cadillac ATS is adequately motivated most of the time by its small mill. But if you catch it off boost, you'll find yourself in a state of panic as the grille of the tractor trailer behind gets larger in your rearview mirror, but the delay in the resumption of power delivery is brief. Thanks to a torque peak low in the rpm range, the engine is quite drivable. It provides usable passing power in 6th gear and enough grunt to launch off freeway transition ramps with authority.
EPA numbers are still unavailable for this powertrain, but GM estimates 20 city/30 highway mpg. Use the available power, however, and you'll pay at the pump. Over 811 miles of mixed driving, we recorded 21.2 mpg. Our best tank, recorded exclusively from highway driving, was 23.9 mpg. In comparison, we measured 23.6 mpg during 1,455 miles of combined driving in the BMW 328i.
At 3,451 pounds in Premium trim like this test car, the ATS weighs only 24 pounds more than the last BMW 328i we tested. So it's tough to explain the ATS's 6.3-second 0-60 time (6.1 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip), which is 0.3 second slower than the Bavarian. The quarter-mile also arrives later in the Cadillac, some 14.5 seconds at 95.9 mph in the ATS versus 14.2 seconds at 98.2 mph in the 328i.
Our test car came to a halt from 60 mph in 113 feet, which is a few feet shorter than the 328i. Four-piston fixed calipers yield solid, consistent brake feel — every single time.
There's little point in building a sport sedan to compete against the BMW 3 Series if the car isn't capable of measuring up to the German car's handling standards. The Cadillac has the hardware to do so, as it features a MacPherson strut front suspension and a five-link rear suspension. GM's magnetorheological dampers are also part of the package when the car is fitted with the FE3 suspension package like this test car, and there are two damping modes: Sport and Tour.
With our test car, we found the Tour damping setting to be adequate in nearly every situation, even hard driving on imperfect roads. Sport mode is tuned for surfaces so smooth that they must exist only in the dreams of enthusiasts (or perhaps freshly paved racetracks). You'll be punished with ride harshness when you select Sport mode on most roads, and we found that the Tour setting provides adequate body control without the awfulness. The ATS's best slalom speed of 69.1 mph — better than the speed set by the 328i — was achieved in Tour, which also delivered better stability during rapid transitions.
The bottom line is, the 2013 Cadillac ATS wants to turn and it does it well. A mechanical limited-slip differential is part of the equipment package when you choose an ATS with the manual transmission (or choose an automatic-equipped car with the FE3 suspension), and this helps make the challenge of balancing the ATS on the edge of oversteer both a rewarding and controllable task. Turn-in is rapid and the electric-assist steering does a terrific job of communicating the messages from the front tires. Our ATS pulled 0.90g on the skid pad, which also betters the 0.88g performance of the BMW 328i.
The ATS has a nice interior — even nicer in many ways than the cars it competes against. (The black lacquer-like finish on the center console and dash reminded us of a Big Sur waterbed we once owned back in 1984.) It's evident that time was spent to make the interior both functional and fashionable.
There are, of course, all the features you'd expect — standard Bluetooth, two USB ports and an aux port. Our test car also had several safety features — lane departure warning, front collision alert and the safety alert seat — which functioned well without being intrusive.
When it comes to space within the cabin, the ATS is marginally smaller in the rear seat than both the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. Larger occupants will want more space on long journeys. Still, we were able to put a rear-facing child seat behind a 5-foot-9 driver without a problem.
It's also quiet, which might be the only upshot of an engine lacking both intake and exhaust notes.
CUE, which is Cadillac's infotainment center, dominates the center stack of the ATS to the same extent that blind allegiance dominates American politics. Unlike American politics, however, CUE is utterly devoid of knobs.
And that's not such a good thing. One of CUE's strengths is its flexibility. For example, changing the volume can be done using the buttons on the steering wheel, tapping the touchpads on the dash or sliding your finger between them. But it cannot be changed using a knob, which is a mistake. Precision and speed suffer as a consequence, even though the system is otherwise reasonably good at delivering both.
Tell CUE to tune to National Public Radio and it does it. No problem. Blurt out an address and it will parse the information and find a route, and then ask you to split up your input if need be. The Pandora app plays actual music and the system paired to our phone every time, no questions asked. We genuinely like CUE's haptic feedback, which confirms requests with a pulse that can be felt through your finger.
We'd change two things about CUE if we could. First, it needs two knobs — one for volume control and another as a navigation tool between menu items. Second, it needs permanent, dedicated buttons for the primary functions of Audio, Navigation, Phone, etc. Constantly pushing the home button so these appear on the touchscreen adds an unnecessary step.
If the point of the 2013 Cadillac ATS is to be a top-quality sedan with capable handing, then mission accomplished. That it is. Still, there's something about the ATS that doesn't seem as refined and polished as we'd like. For example, the manual transmission's shift lever doesn't move between gears very smoothly, and the kind of rushed shifts that we only employ during testing are regularly rejected.
There's also a distinct sense that what happens at the ATS's throttle pedal is only tangentially related to what's going on at the throttle plate, which is an always infuriating disconnect to a driver.
These idiosyncrasies aren't exactly deal-breakers — especially for buyers who won't demand every tenth from their sedan's performance. But they detract from what is otherwise the kind of stunning packaging that real drivers appreciate.
Will They Come?
The real question, though, is whether the 2013 Cadillac ATS will win conquest buyers from the German brands that dominate this segment. For a pragmatic buyer, the answer comes down to price. And at $44,315, the ATS Premium that we've tested here is not significantly less costly than a similarly optioned BMW 328i. This makes it hard to build a case for Cadillac on value alone, which would be a useful advantage against what is acknowledged to be the best car in segment.
Still, there are plenty of reasons to buy a Cadillac ATS. It's a good-looking sport sedan that is rewarding to flog down the road, and it's both honest about its mission and largely successful in achieving it.
That the ATS is not yet capable of bettering the class benchmark in its first generation should surprise no one. Leland, we suspect, would still be proud.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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