2013 Cadillac ATS Road Test Review
2013 Cadillac ATS is Cadillac's first full-fledged Entry Luxury Sport Sedan
Scores High: Inspired driving dynamics, compelling design, high-tech features and user interface
Scores Low: CUE interface needs to react faster
Total Car Score Analysis
It’s difficult to imagine a global luxury brand without an entry-luxury sedan in its line-up, especially given this is both the largest premium segment (in terms of sales volume) as well as the most common entry point for car buyers making their first luxury purchase. Put another way, if you want to be a serious player in the luxury arena you need a serious entry-luxury sedan. Yet Cadillac has never offered a true and proper compact sport sedan, until now.
With its all-new 2013 Cadillac ATS, GM’s premier division has thrown a brazen gauntlet in the face of those ever-dominant German brands that have (rightfully) laid claim to the entry-luxury segment for the last three-plus decades. Of course Cadillac isn’t the first luxury automaker to target a certain Bavarian marque’s most iconic model, and the ATS isn’t the first compact luxury sedan to claim parity with said ultimate driving machine.
But after some serious seat time in the 2013 ATS, both on public roads and at a race facility, it’s fair to say Cadillac has cracked the sport sedan secret code. That’s good, because the amount of pressure riding on the ATS’ lightweight and highly reinforced chassis can’t be overstated. With the aggressive rebuilding process going on at Cadillac the folks working behind the scenes knew they had to get the 2013 ATS right.
They can relax, because they did.
The trademark exterior design language seen on Cadillac models for the past decade continues with the new ATS. In fact, if you look closely at the compact luxury sedan you may mistake the ATS for it’s older, bigger brother (especially when viewing it from behind). But a more committed visual assessment reveals distinct exterior design cues, including headlights that sweep up over the top of the front fenders and a rising bodyline encompassing the door handles (instead of passing over them as with the CTS). It’s easy to think “CTS evolved” when studying the ATS’ exterior panels, suggesting it will certainly appeal to existing Cadillac fans. Of course, convincing (and converting) potential buyers outside the Cadillac fold is the ATS’ primary mission. Accomplishing it will only happen if this new Caddy can deliver more than just a familiar face.
The Cadillac brand has stood for many things over the course of its history, but “nimble” and “tossable” aren’t two of them. Yet these are the two phrases Cadillac’s vice president of marketing, Don Butler, used to describe the ATS after he drove a pre-production model.
Those words may sound like marketing speak, particularly given the competition Cadillac is targeting. But they are also an accurate reflection of how the ATS feels when attacking a twisty public road or a closed racing circuit. We did both over the course of several hours, and confirmed the engineering goals Cadillac set for the ATS.
These include creating a lightweight, yet structurally sound, sedan made up of aluminum and high strength steel throughout the chassis. That the ATS weighs 500 pounds less than a CTS may not be impressive, but that it weighs less than an equivalent Audi A4, BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class, is. An aluminum hood contributes to equal weight distribution (50/50) between the front and rear axles on the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder ATS, though it shifts to 51/49 on the mid-level 2.0-liter turbo models and 52/48 on the 3.6-liter V6 versions. Those figures are in line with the competition, and suggest an overall balance that is reflected in the ATS’ driving dynamics.
It’s this stiff and lightweight chassis, along with Cadillac’s first 5-link rear suspension, a double-pivot MacPherson strut front suspension and the optional Magnetic Ride control, that gives the ATS such cornering grace and stability. A new belt-driven ZF steering box allows for precise steering feel, letting drivers confidently take the ATS right up to its limit of adhesion during cornering maneuvers. When that limit is exceeded the car breaks loose progressively, in a controlled (and controllable) manner. If that description sounds a lot like a certain sports sedan from Munich, it should.
Also like the competition, Cadillac is offering more than one engine and drivetrain configuration in the 2013 ATS. The base 2.5-liter makes 202 horsepower and 191 pound feet of torque. It can only be paired with a six-speed automatic and rear-wheel drive. With zero-to-60 acceleration happening in 7.5 seconds this four cylinder is more than adequate for moving the ATS around. It also retains the ATS’ superb driving dynamics and delivers 22 city mpg and 33 highway mpg, but it may not satisfy serious enthusiasts.
At the opposite end of the ATS spectrum is the same 3.6-liter V6 found in other Cadillac models. In the ATS this engine delivers 321 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque while shaving two clicks off the zero-to-60 time (5.4 seconds). Connected to a simply brilliant six-speed automatic (no manual transmission is offered with the V6), the automatic delivers perfectly timed and executed upshifts and downshifts, whether left in full automatic mode (with the “Sport” setting engaged) or operated via the magnesium steering wheel paddles. Between the V6’s wide powerband and the transmission’s intuitive response this is the perfect drivetrain for weekend enthusiasts who face weekday stop-and-go traffic in their commute. It can also be had in all-wheel drive if inclement weather is a factor in your world. Fuel economy is estimated at 18 city mpg and 28 highway mpg.
Between the 2.5-liter four and 3.6-liter V6 sits what is the most interesting (and likely best-selling) engine in the ATS lineup, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo with 272 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Offered with either a six-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, the 2.0-liter provides a relatively wide powerband while being an excellent balance of performance (5.7 seconds for zero-to-60 acceleration) and fuel efficiency (estimated 22 city mpg and 32 highway mpg). The 6-speed’s manual shifter is precise, and the ATS’ pedal placement allows for easy heel-and-toe action, making the 2.0-liter a blast at the racetrack. As with the V6 ATS, the 6-speed automatic has a “Sport” mode that is quite effective at utilizing the turbo’s powerband while minimizing lag (or you can shift it yourself with the steering wheel paddles). All-wheel drive is available on 2.0-liter turbo models when paired with the automatic.
For performance fans looking to maximize their ATS’ capabilities an FE3 Performance Suspension package offers increased engine cooling, a mechanical limited slip rear differential, summer performance tires and Gen 3 Magnetic Ride Control. This latest version of Magnetic Ride Control can read the road every inch at 60 mph and adjust from full soft to full hard (or back) in five inches at that speed. There’s also a Brembo brake package with 4-channel ABS that delivers 60-to-zero braking in approximately 129 feet.
Interior Design and Function
If familiar describes the 2013 ATS’s exterior design, advanced and engaging are the themes inside. Cadillac conducted extensive user testing to refine items like the thickness of the steering wheel rim, the height of the armrests and the location of cell phone storage (in a concealed compartment behind the climate controls). The successful implementation of these elements, along with high-quality interior materials, comfortable and supportive seats and effective space utilization, make the ATS’ cabin extremely functional without feeling overly clinical. A range of available interior colors and optional accent materials, including wood, aluminum and carbon fiber, further allows buyers to personalize their ATS’ interior theme.
But where the 2013 Cadillac ATS interior really stands out is the implementation of advanced technology. The gauge cluster, for instance, uses LED lighting to produce crisp, easy-to-read needles and numbers in even the brightest lighting conditions. It also features a reconfigurable information window, below the speedometer, that can display audio, phone or navigation information.
More impressive still is the effective implementation of Cadillac’s CUE user interface in the ATS’ 8-inch LCD central touchscreen. The usual features are all here, including navigation, voice commands, music information (including cover art) and hands-free phone operation, but they all have a finesse and clarity that rises above competitive offerings, in part due to the effective use of capacitive touch feedback when hitting the virtual, on-screen buttons. Voice control has become increasingly important as more technology invades the modern car, and CUE's is highly accurate, picking up spoken artist names other systems often get wrong.
The vibrancy of the screen itself is also more compelling than others in the segment, which makes it that much more appealing to interact with (think Apple retina display). The navigation screen will automatically zoom in-and-out based on the level of detail required to clarify your next move, and the entire display will come to life, reconfiguring itself with additional control buttons, when it senses your hand in close proximity (but before you’ve actually touched it). Streaming Internet services, such as Pandora radio, are also part of the package, giving CUE and ATS a cutting-edge interface design that surpasses similar systems. The one downside to all this computing power is a sometimes-slow-to-react touchscreen that must pause for a second after a virtual button is pressed.
Primary Features and Options
At a starting price of $33,990 (including destination charge) the base 2.5-liter Cadillac ATS includes features like dual-zone climate control, cruise control, keyless push-button engine start, hands-free phone connectivity, keyless entry, one year of OnStar subscription services (including automatic emergency calling in the event of an accident) and an AM/FM radio with dual USB ports, an SD card slot reader, auxiliary audio jack and seven Bose speakers with noise cancellation.
The mid-level, 2.0-liter Turbo ATS starts at $35,795 (including destination charge) and the 3.6-liter V6 ATS starts at $42,090 (also with destination charge). Both models have essentially the same standard equipment as the 2.5-liter, so the extra money is really just buying the extra drivetrain performance (though the 3.6-liter comes with a 6-speed automatic as its standard and only available transmission).
A wide range of options and trim levels (Cadillac calls them “Collections” – like “Premium” and “Luxury”) will give ATS shoppers an excuse to play with the online configurator. Safety items, such as a lane departure warning system that vibrates the seat to alert the driver, are among the driver aids available. Technology fans will want to give serious consideration to the CUE and Navigation package, while a Performance Package, with HID headlamps, LED headlamp accents, illuminated outside door handles, magnesium steering wheel paddles and a color heads up display, further emphasizes the ATS’ technology pedigree. There’s also a $600 Cold Weather package, with heated seats and a heated steering wheel, or a $3,220 Driver Assist package with radar cruise control, rear thorax airbags, blind spot alert and rear cross traffic alert. It’s easy to make an ATS cost $40,000 or more, but even a base model is well equipped and at $40,000-plus you’re getting plenty for your money.
It’s Perfect For…
Fans of European sport sedans have long wondered when, or even if, an American car company would produce a worthy alternative to the iconic BMW 3 Series. More than a few attempts have been made, but the 2013 Cadillac ATS crosses the gap from attempt and lands well inside the zone of “full-fledged competitor.” If you want to learn more about how the new ATS stacks up against the 3 Series and the Infiniti G37, be sure to check out our Entry Luxury Sport Sedan Comparison Test that features all three.
Vehicle Tested: 2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0-liter Turbo
Base MSRP of Test Vehicle: $35,795 (including destination charge)
Options on Test Vehicle: Cold Weather Package (includes heated seats and heated steering wheel -- $600), Driver Assist Package (includes rear thorax airbags, rain-sensing wipers, lane departure warning, forward collision alert, safety seat alert, adaptive cruise control, rear cross traffic alert, side blind zone alert, automatic collision prevention, front and rear automatic brake -- $3,220)
MSRP of Test Vehicle (including destination charge): $39,615
The manufacturer provided Total Car Score this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Photos Courtesy of the manufacturer.