Topping out third gear I’ve got just enough time to think about grabbing fourth when the first braking marker is past my front tire and I’m pushing hard on the four piston Brembos. The lightest car in its class, it slows with ease as I downshift to second, applying prodigious amounts of throttle as I crest the right-hander. The rear steps out slightly as I continue to roll on the throttle and then it happens… stability control.
|1. Base 2.5L 4-cylinder models make 202 hp and 191 lb-ft of torque, with the 2.0T rated at 272 hp and 260 lb-ft and the 3.6L V6 at 321-hp and 275 lb-ft. 2. 0-60 times for each motor list at: 7.5, 5.7 and 5.4 seconds. 3. Fuel economy is 22/32 mpg for the 2.5L and 2.0T, or 19/28 mpg for the V6. 4. Optional extras include Cadillac’s CUE system, lane departure warning and forward collision alert with the vibrating safety seat, as well as adaptive cruise control, a heads up display and front and rear auto braking. 5. ATS models start at $33,990 for the 2.5L, $35,795 for the 2.0T and $42,090 for the V6.|
Quickly headed down the next short straight I’m pointed forward, not by my own volition, but the machine’s. Now confident in the car’s capabilities, not to mention my knowledge of the 14 corners of a track I’ve never heard of, let alone driven on, it’s time to step beyond Cadillac’s “Competition mode”.
Heading out of the pits at the super new Atlanta Motorsports Park I approach the same sequence with equal enthusiasm and this time it happens. The rear comes out, and keeps on coming, and then… well, I lift lightly and it steps back in line, the rear-wheel drive ATS sports sedan showcasing its balance, precision and ease of use.
But the impressive attributes of Cadillac’s new BMW 3 Series fighter don’t stop there, earning it that title and the honor of being legitimately classed in the same league as the German four-door that for decades has defined the term “sports sedan.”
LIGHT WEIGHT, POWER-DENSE ENGINES
There are many reasons for the ATS’s impressive driving dynamics, though it begins with light weight. Cadillac has boasted since the car’s reveal six months ago that at 3,315 lbs it’s the lightest vehicle in its class. Hardly an apples-to-apples comparison, that base curb weight for the ATS is for an entry-level 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, a model well below what any of the German competition would even consider offering. A fair matchup comes with the Cadillac’s mid-range 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injection engine, and surprisingly the Cadillac retains the title, weighing 3,403 lbs – or less with the automatic transmission.
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If Cadillac had a base engine ATS with its 202 hp and 7.5 second 0-60 time on hand, we didn’t see it, and only the turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder and brawny 3.6L V6 were on track duty.
Here, each impresses in its own unique way, the 2.0T equipped with a manual transmission is more a precision tool and the 321 hp 3.6L V6 mated to a six-speed automatic (sadly the only way it comes), an equally dynamic performer but more of a blunt instrument by nature of its muscular engine and stab-the-throttle automatic. To be fair, however, the 6-speed auto-box shifts quite fast with the paddles, though its best left to its own devices with the car switched into sport mode, it eagerly gearing down under long braking to prepare the car for the next straight.
And the sound! We didn’t know GM’s V6 could sound this great, though the downside being it emphasizes just how little character the exhaust note of the turbocharged engine has.
On the track there’s simply no replacement for changing gears yourself, however, and while the six-speed stick is smooth and quick, it also requires a more methodical operation, completing a heel-toe in steps, rather than one fluid action.
The ability to ride the top of a gear as the tires dance on the edge of friction is blissful and the ATS’s near 50/50 weight distribution (as close as 50.1/49.9 on this particular model) makes it an easy task to achieve and sustain.
Remarkably similar to the 2.0-liter powertrain in the new BMW 328i, it makes 32 hp more for a total of 272 hp at 5500 rpm. Full torque arrives slightly later at 1700 rpm, but the 260 lb-ft of it is steady to that max power rating meaning it’s always supplying the exact amount of torque, delivering a consistency to the driving feel that we thought only BMW could offer.
Steering is precise and responds immediately to inputs. While the many turns on this short 1.8 mile track test its abilities to act quickly, an extensively long sweeping section on the back side showcases its subtleties, with no change in steering input resulting in a perfect arc – if you’re brave enough to stay on the throttle.
Helping to eliminate dive under braking or even smooth out your highway drive is Cadillac’s latest generation Magnetic ride system, which comes equipped on the top level Premium package. (Trim levels include: Standard, Luxury, Performance and Premium). At a speed of 60 mph it can read the road every inch and fully react in the space of just 5-inches.
But that’s only the start of Cadillac’s technology showcase with this new car, vitally important in attracting new, young customers. All but the base model comes with the brand’s new CUE infotainment system, seamlessly integrated into the monolithic gloss black center stack. First tested on the XTS, added time with the system is showing some flaws, mostly in regards to the speed to which it reacts. Apart from the beautiful graphics, what makes CUE unique is that it features operations much like your iPad, meaning you can swipe though menus, drag navigation destinations or radio stations into your favorites, and even zoom in on the screen by pinching your fingers together.
Included in the Luxury and above trim level, buyers also get a back-up camera, full leather seats, remote start and keyless access with a push-button ignition. Upgrade to the Performance model and along with LED lights and those better bolstered seats there’s a driver awareness package that includes lane departure warning and forward collision alert, paired with Cadillac’s safety seat that will vibrate on the side to alert you to where the danger is.
Optional then is a Driver Assistance package with full speed adaptive cruise control, rear cross traffic alert, a heads-up display, plus a front and rear auto brake feature that will actually stop the vehicle if a collision is deemed imminent.
Yet another feature, and one that’s consistently becoming the norm in such segments, is a drive mode button, with the ATS offering both a Touring and Sport mode. While the latter is more engaging, it doesn’t deliver quite the level of sensitivity that the BMW system does. An even more responsive setting would be the single best way Cadillac could further improve the engaging feeling of the ATS.
TRUE LUXURY INTERIOR WITH REAL CARBON FIBER
The interior itself is well laid out with everything where it should be and an easy-to-find position for performance driving. Though the leather on the shifter does seem cheap, the coating on the seats most certainly isn’t, looking particularly first-rate when wrapped around the optional sport seats.
With an extensive list of interior packages, one can choose everything from organic Caramel with Olive wood accenting to deep Morello Red seats with the first use of genuine carbon fiber trim in a Cadillac.
One of the things that helps set Cadillac apart is its lack of product sharing with the rest of the GM lineup and yet even a product like the ATS, which doesn’t share a platform with any other GM model, still has some parts bin items – and they show. Included in that list are the stalks and the window control buttons. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the quality, it’s just that sharing parts with “regular” cars is decidedly unbecoming of a premium brand.
Occupants will appreciate the smooth highway ride and exceptionally quiet cabin, plus rear seat legroom is surprisingly good and will fit 6 footers with ease, though ingress and egress is difficult in the back with the sloping roof.
But forget passengers; getting drivers behind the wheel is the real concern for Cadillac, with brand marketing boss Don Butler telling journalists that the ATS launch that they haven’t had product that was relevant to young luxury buyers. “We haven’t been cool,” he admits.
While the styling of the relatively subdued ATS won’t draw buyers in, it also won’t scare them away – something the CTS was criticized for.
Aesthetics may be subjective, but the pricing is attractive, starting at $33,990 for the base 2.5L while the 2.0T model starts at $35,795, undercutting the 328i. Those eager for the V6 can get it for $42,090 while AWD can be added on.
Technology, luxury and innovative safety features will all help, but what makes the ATS a winner is the fact that it delivers on its promise of being a rival to the untouchable BMW 3 Series; a perfect luxury sports sedan to get you to the office and one that, should you wish, will deliver on the track.