Driven: 2013 Cadillac ATS

By John Beltz Snyder

July 22, 2012

—Atlanta, Georgia
We gazed upon the Cadillac ATS in person, with the words “It’s gorgeous” on the tip of our tongue. It looks quite a lot like the macho CTS sedan, only smaller, and with an overall image that feels simply more elegant. With elements like the high, rising beltline combined with an arching roof and sweeping lighting features, it definitely shares a lot of the same DNA as other Cadillacs, but with a personality all its own: the smart, athletic younger sibling with a promising future ahead of it.
Through General Motors’ strained recent history, Cadillac kept the ATS project as pure as possible, shielded from possible cutbacks or changes that could get in the way of or alter the original idea the company had for the all-new compact luxury sedan. Cadillac had a vision for the brand’s future, and it hinged in no small part upon the goals they had for the ATS. It wants to change its image, attract younger buyers, and become a brand associated more with achieving success and rewarding oneself than with growing older. “This is not your grandfather’s Caddy,” would be the shift the brand was looking for.
And, from our experience with the ATS, this new car is a major stride in the right direction.
[Click here to read our review of the 2012 BMW 328i.]
Just as the exterior of the ATS is a pleasure to behold—especially in person—the interior looks and feels like a top-quality space in any of its various color combinations. Soft materials cover almost every surface inside the car, and the stitching on the seats and dash accents the shapes nicely. Inevitably, an occupant’s eyes will be drawn to the elegant and angular center stack, glossy and clean-looking with touch-sensitive controls in lieu of traditional buttons. A hidden cubby situated beneath the controls automatically opens vertically to reveal a USB input when one touches the underside of the panel. This last bit is a great party trick, but it also helps to keep the cabin uncluttered and mitigate the temptation to play with one’s phone while driving.
2013 Cadillac ATS - Interior Cadillac’s new CUE (Cadillac User Experience) infotainment system plays no small part in the ATS’s interior experience. The centerpiece is the eight-inch color LCD touchscreen. Complementing that is a 5.7-inch configurable color display on the instrument cluster, which puts a lot of the same information right in front of the driver, controllable via steering-wheel-mounted controls. The touchscreen has a very organized look, and employs a lot of the swipe and drag gestures with which many of us are already familiar. Both the screen and the touch controls below it offer haptic feedback—a small vibration at the tip of your fingers to let you know that a “button” has been pushed. It all works to help one focus on the most important and entertaining thing about the ATS: driving it.
Three engines are available on the ATS, two of which are all-new four-cylinder engines. The entry-level motor is a 2.5-liter I-4 offering 202 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. The next step up is a 2.0-liter turbo four, which we’ll get into more in a moment. The top motor is a 3.6-liter V-6, good for 321 peak horsepower. The 2.5 is only available with rear-wheel drive, but the two more powerful engines can drive either just the rear, or all four wheels. All models have a six-speed automatic transmission, but the rear-drive 2.0T also offers a proper six-speed manual.
Left to its own devices, the six-speed automatic transmission takes care of swapping the gears nicely, as most modern automatics—especially those in luxury cars—do. Put into Sport mode, it feels especially ready to adjust to the driver’s mood—much like an intelligent horse reads and reacts to its rider. When driven aggressively, it will really hold onto the gear at higher revs, and the sound of automatic downshifts high into the rev range during braking is the stuff dreams are made of. In lazy driving, though, it’ll keep quiet and let you enjoy the scenery. It’s not often we equate “automatic” with “smart,” but this is a well-tuned, smart box.
With the automatic transmission, the wheel-mounted magnesium paddle shifters are available. At first they feel just a bit out of reach, with our hands just touching the edge of them when gripping the wheel at nine and three. It helps, though, to keep them out of the way, preventing unwanted shifts when turning the wheel. We could always feel exactly where they were when we wanted to use them, and it really didn’t take much effort to get our fingers on them. As we grew used to it, we appreciated the uncluttered feeling of having the paddles tucked neatly behind the wheel.
During our track time, we had the chance to drive the 2.0T with the available six-speed manual transmission. We never got it up into the higher gears, but we found it to be a good companion. The clutch uptake was smooth and terrifically easy to manage (no way were we going to embarrass ourselves by stalling out in the pit lane), and the shifter fell into hand nicely. It felt really sturdy when switching gears, falling into each gate solidly and palpably. As good as the automatic gearbox treated us, we’re glad this one is offered with this engine to add another arena of driver engagement to the ATS package.
The turbo 2.0-liter had dual personalities, which seemed fitting with the overall character of the ATS. On our drive routes to, from, and around it felt peppy, but smooth in acceleration. This didn’t seem to matter whether we drove the all- or rear-wheel-drive version of the car. It was almost a bit surprising to feel this sort of easy power flowing freely from an I-4, turbocharged or otherwise. Still, it didn’t seem to exhibit a peaky feeling when we mashed the pedal to the floor from a stop sign.
2013 Cadillac ATS - Profile On the track, though, with other distractions filtered out, we were able to focus more on the pure visceral experience of acceleration. Sure enough, there were some rare moments when the ATS would slingshot forward as the boost built up. It was a fleeting feeling in an otherwise civilized acceleration experience, but it was there to be found if we worked at it a bit. We get the feeling this all-new engine has other tricks up its sleeve—we just need the seat time to experiment (and we definitely look forward to more of that in the future).
We got the chance to drive the 3.6-liter V-6-powered rear-drive ATS on the track as well. It is a more familiar engine, but it puts down a lot of power. Its 321 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque make it slightly faster than the turbo motor (5.4 second to 60 miles per hour, versus 5.7 second from the 2.0T), but it felt more predictable and less robust. That’s not to say it felt weak—it is an impressive performer. The smaller, blown engine just seemed more cerebral, causing us to enjoy it for more than just its speed.
With either engine, the ATS felt very balanced, and exhibited impressive handling on both road and track. The drive to the venue took us through the green Appalachian foothills on scenic, turning roads. The ATS carved these curves very nicely, and without drama, even when we pushed the car pretty hard. It transitioned nicely from right to left to right, and so on, as we climbed the mountains to our destination.
At the track, we got to experience similar driving, only in fast-forward, and felt the same sort of eagerness to transition from one turn to another. Carrying a constant speed through a turn, the ATS feels very balanced front-and-rear. The car’s 50/50 weight distribution ceased to be just a figure, and it translated nicely into the real, physical world. There was even a bit of forgiveness in that balance, and pushing the car through a corner or braking a bit late didn’t do much to upset the proceedings. Under hard braking via the equipped Brembo brakes, the ATS remained very stable, without much in the way of dive.
Back on the road, as we descended the Appalachian foothills back into the City of Atlanta, our drive was nicely calm and comfortable. In Sport mode, just a bit of road information came through the steering wheel. It responded well to input, and it weighted up nicely and progressively as we rolled through the corners. It’s sporty-feeling, and after our time at the track, it was nice to know that an enthusiastic and agile experience is just an intention away. In Tour, a lot of the vibrations through the suspension and steering were filtered out, making it feel just a bit more luxurious. Either way, the ride was smooth and quiet, attesting to the thoughtful hard work put into creating this new model.
With the ATS, Cadillac has successfully created an excellent competitor in the compact luxury segment. Even better, it is a huge step toward molding the brand into the vision Cadillac has for itself. Honestly, though, the best way to understand the ATS is to experience it for oneself. We don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v
Output: 272 hp/260 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 5.4 sec
Weight: 3373 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 22/32 mpg
Base Price: $34,615
On Sale: Late Summer 2012