By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Cadillac is not known for its small cars. Er, that is, not known favorably.
The last one — the ’97-2001 Catera — rose to the mediocre. The ones before that — like the infamous Cimarron — must (like a “funny” Uncle) never be mentioned again.
But this latest small Cadillac — the 2013 ATS — is a comer. And, a goer. (Excepting the base model, which is afflicted with an engine unworthy of the rest of the car.)
For the first time — ever — there is an American alternative to a BMW 3 and all the rest of them.
A good alternative.
WHAT IT IS
The ATS is Cadillac’s new entry-luxury sport sedan, slotting under the CTS.
Like the CTS, it’s based on a RWD layout — and offers AWD as an option. Unlike the CTS, the ATS comes only in sedan form — for the present, at least. (The CTS is sold as a sedan, coupe and wagon).
Also, since Cadillac has dropped availability of a manual transmission from the CTS’ options roster for 2013, the ATS is the only new Cadillac available with a manual transmission.
Prices start at $33,095 for the base trim with 2.5 liter engine, six-speed automatic transmission and RWD. For $34,900, you can upgrade underhood to a turbocharged 2.0 liter four — and a six-speed manual transmission.
Adding AWD to the mix pushes the MSRP to $36,900.
Top-of-the-line is a Premium trim with 3.6 liter V-6, six-speed automatic and AWD. It stickers for $47,795.
The ATS is a new addition to Cadillac’s model lineup, targeting entry-level luxury-sport sedans from BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Infiniti — among others.
Though it is Cadillac’s smallest car the ATS — like the current BMW 3 — is almost mid-sized. Both cars bridge the gap between true compacts like the Benz C-Class sedan — and truly mid-sized models like the Cadillac CTS (and BMW 5).
No rebadged Chevy (or Opel) this time.
An American (the only American) alternative to a BMW, Benz , Lexus and the rest of them.
Lots of engine — and transmission and drive — choices.
Very cutting edge technology, such as finger-swipe controls.
Mad Men attitude.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Only one body choice. Competitors offer coupe — and wagon — options.
Base 2.5 engine is a underpowered — and overly thirsty.
Cutting edge controls don’t always operate seamlessly.
Manual transmission only offered with one engine — and not the engine that needs it most.
UNDER THE HOOD
The base ATS engine is a 2.5 liter four rated 202 hp, teamed up with a six-speed manual. Next up is a performance-mined 2.0 liter turbo four boosted to 272 hp. This engine can be ordered with a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic. It is the only ATS engine that’s offered with a manual.
The third engine choice is a 3.6 liter, 321 hp V-6. It is automatically paired with the six-speed automatic.
All ATS engines, though, can be ordered with either RWD (standard) or (optionally) full-time AWD.
Including the 202 hp 2.5 liter engine.
In addition, there’s a Performance package that adds dual exhaust (but not with the 2.5 engine). Summer tires, a limited slip differential (RWD models), a Track package with oil cooler and upgraded brakes — as well as an adaptive, auto-adjusting suspension similar to Corvette’s may also be ordered.
The ATS offers the widest range of drivetrain choices (and combinations) of any car in its class. For example, the 2013 BMW 3 sedan ($36,500- $49,300) only offers two engine choices — a turbo (240 hp) 2.0 four or a twin-turbo six (in two states of tune, 300 and 320 hp). The Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan ($35,350-$41,400) also has two engines — a 1.8 liter turbo four (201 hp) and a 3.5 liter V-6 (tuned to either 248 or 302 hp) and only one transmission with all of them (a seven speed automatic).
However, the ATS’ performance — even with its top two engines — is just par. Or even slightly below par. The top-of-the-line 3.6 liter model, for example, does 0-60 in about 5.7 seconds. This is quick, but not quite as quick as the Benz C350 (5.6 seconds) and much less quick than a BMW 335i (5.4 seconds) or 335is, which has a more powerful — 320 hp — version of the twin-turbo straight six. This version of the BMW 3 can get to 60 in a very speedy five seconds flat.
This disparity is noteworthy because the two cars’ engines put out virtually the same power (320 hp for the BMW vs. 321 for the V-6 Caddy ATS). So why is the V-6 ATS about three quarters of a second less quick? The obvious guess would be — the BMW has to be lighter. In fact, it’s heavier than the ATS — and not just a little bit: 3,545 lbs. vs. 3,373 lbs. The Caddy is nearly 200 pounds lighter — and slightly more powerful — on paper — yet it’s noticeably less quick than the 335i.
It’s got to be gearing (maybe the Caddy has a less aggressive final drive ratio) or — much more likely — BMW is soft-pedaling the true output of its twin-turbo six. Because the math does not otherwise add up.
Nonetheless, the Caddy isn’t slow — well, so long as you order either the 2.0 turbo or the 3.6 V-6. If you order the base 2.5 engine, however, you’ll be looking at 7.2 seconds to 60. With RWD. If you order AWD (heavier) it’ll be slower still. Too slow, arguably, for a premium car — much less a premium car so otherwise sporty as the ATS.
The 2.5 engine is fuel efficient, though: 22 city, 33 highway. However, the more appropriately powerful 2.0 liter turbo four matches that exactly when it’s teamed up with the automatic transmission — and beats it (22 city, 34 highway) when ordered with the manual.
Another ouch — for the Cadillac: The turbo 2.0 BMW 3 ($36,500 to start) can zip to 60 in a respectably quick 5.9 seconds — only a blink of an eye less quick than the V-6 (and $41,195 to start) ATS.
The V-6 ATS is also fairly fuel-inefficient: 18 city, 26 highway with AWD. The 335i delivers 23 city and 33 highway — exceptional numbers — and even more exceptional given the other numbers mentioned already.
Luckily for Cadillac, the ATS is not the thirstiest — or the least quick — car in this class. That dubious honor goes to the Benz C250 sedan, which needs 7.4 long seconds to manage 60 MPH — and still only gives you 22 city, 31 highway. Its performance — and economy — is on par with a new Toyota Corolla’s.
Double ouch — for Mercedes-Benz.
Another item in defense of the 2.5 liter ATS engine is that it’s a regular unleaded engine. Most — if not all — the engines in competitor models (base as well as optional) require premium.
Over time, the extra 20 cents or so per gallon — regular vs. premium — will definitely add up.
My only critique is that this Caddy is such a sporty-minded car that such considerations probably don’t matter — or rather, not in the way Cadillac might have thought. The typical ATS prospect probably doesn’t care about saving 20 cents per gallon at fill-up time. But likely does care what happens (or doesn’t happen) when he floors the accelerator pedal.
On the other hand, none of the Cadillac’s engines have the super-annoying (and probably super-expensive to repair when it craps out) Auto-stop function that is now standard equipment in the BMW.
ON THE ROAD
Cadillac’s return to RWD layouts beginning in the late ’90s (when the Opel Omega-based Catera was launched, followed shortly thereafter by the much better CTS) marked a turning point away from placid — and let’s face it, elder-oriented — boxy boats it had been making since the mid-late 1970s … and back toward the kind of Cadillacs it had been making before that. In the ’60s, especially — when Don Draper-mobiles like the ’67 Eldorado were the chariots of successful young up-and-comers, not rheumy-eyed over-the-hillers.
This ATS is a car like that — or at least, it is trying hard to be. And, for the most part, succeeding.
Though not quite as athletic (or agile) as a BMW 3, it’s very close. It accelerates almost as snappily. It corners nearly as adroitly.
And much more so — in all those ways — than the ploddy, stuffy (and yes, old-mannish) Benz C-class.
Imagine saying that about a … Cadillac!
The 2.0 turbo engine/six-speed combo is — in my opinion — the one that fits the car’s nature best. It makes the ATS feel and drive most like a BMW 3 — and that is clearly Cadillac’s benchmark target. The big V-6, on the other hand, is a good companion and works well with the six-speed automatic. But — my opinion, freely admitted (and yours may differ) it also makes the ATS feel like a heavier, less on-its-toes car. It’s probably the go-to drivetrain for buyers who will be spending most of their driving time stuck in traffic — or doing long-hauls on the highway. But though it’s got thrust, it doesn’t sing like Caruso at (or near) redline like the magnificent BMW straight six turbo does. Especially the “is” version — which allows temporary overboost (and 370 lbs.-ft of torque vs. the Caddy 2.6 liter’s 274 lbs.-ft.) during those WOT moments we — like Don Draper — all crave and savor.
What’s really needed, 3.6-wise, is a manual transmission option. Or a better automatic transmission. There is nothing wrong with the Caddy’s six-speed automatic. However, the competition offers seven (and eight) speed automatics, as well as automated dual-clutch manuals — which confer an edge efficiency and performance-wise. Automatics need not be so… automatic. A sterling example is the Subaru BRZ I reviewed last week (see here). If the ATS had an automatic like that, there’d be less reason to lament the absence of a clutch.
It’s kind of odd when you think about it — given how aggressive Cadillac has become — that the CTS’ manual transmission has been dropped for 2013 — and that the ATS only offers a manual with one engine.
AT THE CURB
When it comes to their aesthetics, the new Cadillacs conjure the best of the Don Draper era. It’s a very different look, but there’s the same unapologetic arrogance expressed in the severe angles and facets, the skyscraper stacked taillights, the toothsome, leering grillwork. This is not a shy man’s car. Or a shy woman’s car. Cadillac is to be credited for that. It’s no easy thing to make a car look macho — and sexy.
Both Don Draper — and Charlize Theron — would look right in this thing.
Dimensionally, the ATS is almost exactly the same size as the BMW 3 sedan: 182.8 inches long vs. 182.5 for the BMW, but rides on a slightly shorter wheelbase: 109.3 vs. 110.6 inches. This may explain why the otherwise same-size Caddy has noticeably less backseat legroom: 33.5 inches vs. 35.1 for the BMW. That’s a definite downside — for Cadillac. Though a big/tall person ( I use myself as the guinea pig; I’m 6ft 3 and 210 lbs.) will fit in the back of the ATS, it’s not a comfortable fit.
The Cadillac also suffers from not-much headspace — relative to others in this class. There is 38.6 inches of front seat headroom in the ATS — as opposed to 40.3 in the BMW 3. That’s before you factor in the optional sunroof. Taller drivers may find it’s already a close shave without it. With it — forget about it. The Caddy’s seats, however, are very adjustable — and you can drop them down enough to make up for the headroom clearance issue without dropping you too low.
It must also be mentioned (again) that the Benz C is even smaller inside — with only 33.4 inches of backseat legroom. This is a consequence of it being a smaller car than either the ATS or the BMW 3. It — the Caddy C sedan — is almost three inches shorter overall (180.8 inches) and rides on a 108.7 inch wheelbase. It is a compact sedan, while both the ATS and the BMW 3 edge closer to being mid-sized.
The ATS has “touch” (or finger-sweep) controls for secondary functions such as increasing or lowering the stereo’s volume, raising or lowering the climate control settings — and so on. Kind of like the bridge of the Enterprise on Star Trek: Next Generation. It’s a neat idea — but the real-world function is sometimes less so in that it takes more time to do things like increase the temperature settings this way than it would using a more old-school button or knob. I found the system sometimes didn’t sense my finger’s touch — or required me to repeatedly tap the pad (for example, to go higher or lower for temperature). There is also an audible thump sound (and “Haptic” feeback) each time you increase or decrease a given setting. It takes some getting used to.
The main LCD display is set up to operate like an iPad — and its operation is less fussy.
You can use a radar detector with the ATS. Even though it has a bevvy of gadgetry — including a Driver Awareness package (gawd) that includes forward collision alert, rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning — for whatever reason, the radar/laser/sonar (or whatever) emanations used to make these things work don’t mess with the workings of radar detectors, as they do in other high-end, gadget-afflicted cars — including, most notoriously, Audis and BMWs and Lexuses, which drive my Valentine V1 nuts with false alerts. The “leakage” from some of those cars is so bad you don;t even have to be in them to experience them. I’ve noticed that when I am in the vicinity of a new-ish BMW or Audi, my radar detector will go berserk — even though (as far as I know) cops are not driving BMW fives.
Small gripe: The center console cupholder has two cupholders but realistically only one is usable at any given time. Put a small-sized Starbucks coffee in one and there’s no room for your passenger’s cup.
Big thumbs up: The interior is sumptuous — and sexy. My test car had deep burgundy red and charcoal leather accented with piano black and carbon fiber trim plates. This entry-level Cadillac compared very favorably to high-end Cadillacs — and high-end cars, period. If only the back seats had a bit more legroom — and the base engine a bit more power.
Oh, and maybe a third pedal, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Cadillac made the transition from also-ran to contender several years back. Now it’s gunning for champ.
Eye of the tiger.