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2013 Cadillac ATS: Agile sport competitor

Highway and Road TransportationBridgestone Corp.U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyCindy CrawfordNational Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The 2013 Cadillac ATS is GM's luxury brand's latest attempt to compete in the compact sport sedan class. This is a company whose previous compact efforts included the Cimarron (the 1980s poster car for "badge engineering") and the Catera (a rebadged Opel that counted among its spokes-mammals both supermodel Cindy Crawford and a cartoon duck). Kids, I truly wish I were making that up.

With its excellent dynamics and quality interior, the new 2013 ATS finally drives Cadillac into the ranks of world-class compact sport sedans, driving memories of its previous debacles into the recesses of your mind.

You might be experiencing déjà vu, because Cadillac previously presented its CTS sedan as a player in the class dominated by BMW's 3 Series. Well, the CTS was always larger, and in preparation for the ATS, which starts at $33,990 (including an $895 destination charge), Cadillac has discontinued the base CTS sedan, which for 2012 was priced at $36,810. For 2013, the CTS sedan line starts with the Luxury trim, priced at $39,990.

To use the BMW 3 Series for comparison, there's now a 328i and a 335i, each of which has a turbocharged engine (a four-cylinder and six-cylinder, respectively). Cadillac introduces the ATS 2.0L Turbo and ATS 3.6L, named for their turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder and normally aspirated 3.6-liter V-6 engines. The ATS also has a base engine, a normally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Compare the ATS and 3 Series versions of your choice here.

All ATS engines mate to a six-speed automatic transmission, but only the 2.0L offers a manual as a "delete option" that knocks $1,180 off the price of lower trim levels, $1,280 off the Performance and $1,475 off the Premium. All-wheel drive is optional on the 2.0L and 3.6L. The 2.5L is rear-wheel drive only. In addition to the base ATS, the car comes in Luxury, Performance and Premium trim levels — or "collections," as Cadillac calls them. The 3.6L starts with the Luxury trim. I drove almost every combination. See the most affordable versions of each compared here.

Choice of Power
Endowed with 202 horsepower and 191 pounds-feet of torque, the 2.5L accelerates from zero to 60 mph in roughly 7.5 seconds. It's a decent clip, but it feels poky sometimes because the car's suspension can harness much more. The 3 Series no longer includes an engine this modestly powered.

The ATS 2.0L makes 272 hp and 260 pounds-feet of torque, and it feels similar to BMW's turbo four: plenty of low-rev torque and quick sprints. When equipped with rear-wheel drive, the 2.0L hits 60 mph in 5.7 seconds with the automatic and 5.8 seconds with the manual, according to Cadillac.

The 3.6L's V-6 generates 321 hp but only 275 pounds-feet of torque, so it didn't feel much quicker than the 2.0L in normal driving. The 2.0L's turbo engine hits its torque peak around 1,700 rpm and stays there through 5,500 rpm while the 3.6L's V-6 peaks closer to 5,000 rpm — in a car with a 7,200-rpm redline. Only when it was truly wound out did the V-6 earn its keep. Cadillac estimates its zero-to-60 time at 5.4 seconds.

If the acceleration estimates are correct, the ATS' more powerful variants essentially match the 328i and 335i sedans, even though the ATS has horsepower and weight advantages over comparable automatic BMWs: The 2.0L has 32 more hp and is 88 pounds lighter than the 328i, and the 3.6L has 21 more hp and is 133 pounds lighter than the 335i. However, the 3 Series' eight-speed transmission is an advantage in its own right.

The base ATS 2.5L has EPA-estimated mileage ratings of 22/33/26 mpg city/highway/combined. The 2.0L is rated 21/31/24 mpg, and the 3.6L is 19/28/22 mpg. (All mileage specs cited are for automatic, rear-drive versions. With all-wheel drive, the combined mileage is the same for the 2.0L and 1 mpg lower for the 3.6L, at 21 mpg.) BMW's EPA-estimated ratings are 23/33/26 mpg for both the 328i and the 335i. Another advantage for Cadillac is that the 2.5L and 3.6L use regular gas. The 2.0L prefers premium for full output but can also run on regular, Cadillac says.

The ATS's standard automatic transmission is a no-nonsense unit with Touring, Sport and Snow modes. You can also shift manually by moving the gloriously conventional gear selector to the left and then pushing it forward and back. (Metal steering-wheel shift paddles come only on the Performance and Premium trim levels.) The transmission upshifts smoothly and doesn't dally when you call for passing power. It's more responsive than the CTS' automatic, which I've criticized for excessive lag.

Although I love manual transmissions, I'm lukewarm on the execution of the 2.0L. When you hit the clutch and let off the gas to upshift, the engine speed drops so lazily that it's not rev-matched enough when you let the clutch back out. The transmission bucks back as a result in the lower gears. I also found it too easy to catch the Reverse gate, which is to the left, when going for 1st or 2nd gear. You can rev-match better on the downshift because the accelerator doesn't exhibit too much lag, especially when Sport mode is engaged, as it makes the throttle more sensitive.

The ATS does a pretty good job of damping out engine sounds — always a concern with the capable but raucous Ecotec engine family. BMW's turbo-four sounds faintly diesel at idle but improves with speed. Of the three ATS engines I drove, the sound of the 3.6 stood out to me — and not in a positive way. I quickly tired of the engine's droning sound when cruising on the highway. Otherwise, the ATS' cabin is admirably quiet, with the main source of noise being the tires, plus the occasional wisp of wind noise.

Ride QualityThe ATS' ride quality is confident and comfortable. A difference of 1 inch in wheel diameter isn't always noticeable, but I found the 2.5L with its 17-inch wheels to ride a little softer than the other versions I drove, which had 18-inch wheels. The difference was felt mainly over rippled surfaces and tar patches.

All engines and trims come with the same suspension, except for the Premium trim level with rear-wheel drive, which includes Magnetic Ride Control, or MRC. This adaptive suspension automatically adjusts shock-absorber firmness on the fly to match road conditions. It teams with upgraded Brembo brakes and Bridgestone Potenza summer performance tires.

It seems unwise that all-season tires aren't offered with MRC. At minimum, all-season tires should be a no-cost option. Cadillac recommends winter tires for use in appropriate climates, and dealerships should be happy to oblige, but I don't see why these or all-season tires aren't an official option.

HandlingThe ATS's handling is the car's claim to potential fame. Several Cadillac models have been introduced since the 2003 CTS sedan set the company's new tone for world-class athleticism, yet none has come close — until now. With its balanced weight distribution, light weight (hardly a GM strong suit) and meticulously tuned suspension, the car has great reflexes both on the road and on the track.

I took a few blistering laps in a 2.0L manual and a 3.6L automatic at Atlanta Motorsports Park. The Bridgestone summer tires were fantastic and very well-matched to the cars, both of which had the MRC suspension.

Robbing the ATS 2.0L Turbo of its composure was like trying to get a reaction out of a Buckingham Palace guard. I kept adding more and more speed through the hairpins, trying to unsettle it, with limited success. Only with the added power of the V-6 was I able to induce some under- and oversteer. Were it not for the electronic stability system's Competition mode — a provision that comes only with the MRC suspension and allows more sliding — the dynamics would have been so good as to be boring.

The V-6 immediately felt more nose-heavy to me than the four-cylinder cars. Cadillac says it shifts the weight distribution forward to 51.5/48.5 percent front/rear, versus 50.1/49.9 with the 2.0L manual. That might not seem like much, but it was my first impression both on the track and on the road.

The electric power steering is precise and well-tuned — not the best feedback I've experienced, but certainly not the worst. The brakes were similar — also not the best feedback and pedal feel, but fine controllability, very linear on application and decent on release. That held true with both the standard and Brembo brakes.

In the CabinWithout a doubt, the ATS feels a lot like the recently redesigned 3 Series sedan, with comparable attributes inside as well. The backseat has more than an inch less legroom than the 3 Series, feeling similarly snug, and my legs were raised more than I would like. Mostly I noticed the 0.9 inch less headroom, which made it just workable for me at 6 feet tall. The long front-seat travel, however, provided legroom for people taller than me.

The cabin is well-appointed, with high quality materials like aluminum, wood and carbon fiber. The optional Cadillac User Experience system with its advanced touch-screen is sure to appeal to people wary of multifunction controller knobs, but I don't think history will be kind to the touch-sensitive "capacitive" non-buttons it also uses. I know I won't be.

SafetyIn National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tests, the Cadillac ATS received top scores of five stars out of five in every category — frontal and side-impact crash tests and rollover resistance — for a five-star overall score.

As is required of all new cars as of the 2012 model year, the ATS has antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. Also standard are frontal, knee and side-impact torso airbags for the front seats, as well as side curtains alongside the side windows. Side-impact torso airbags are optional for the backseat starting with the Luxury trim level.

Optional active-safety features include forward collision warning, lane departure warning, a backup camera, and front and rear parking sensors. OnStar is included with one year of free service.

Parents who might ferry children in the ATS should check out our Car Seat Check here. View all the safety features here.

ATS in the MarketOverall, Cadillac seems to have done a good job squaring up against BMW, for better and for worse. For example, you can get an advanced head-up display … and you can also pay extra for items like leather upholstery and a folding backseat. That's definitely meeting the competition on its own turf.

BMW's compact-luxury king has been "gone after," "gunned for" and "taken on" more than any model in the market, and still his highness remains on the throne, his anteroom littered with bones. We'll need more time with the ATS to know whether it's merely a pretender to the throne. So far, it looks as close as any challenger to date.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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