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Many have tried, and failed, to steal BMW's enviable place in the hearts of sport-sedan enthusiasts. The 3-Series isn't just a perennial leader--it's a totem by which all other luxury sedans are judged.
But this isn't about the Bimmer. It's about the 2013 Cadillac ATS, a car that comes so close to BMW's lofty handling standards and so audibly thumps it on cabin quality and technology, it fogs over the 3er's default status as the class leader. Of course, the ATS owes plenty to the Infiniti G35, which broke that ground first, and to the Audis that softened it up more until even Mercedes-Benz felt comfortable enough to tread on the hallowed ground. The ATS just does the most convincing, most thorough job yet of warming up the grille for some sacred cow.It's doing so largely without the impact of the Art & Science styling theme that relaunched the Cadillac brand back in 2003. That first CTS sliced into memory with a hard-edged style that electrified the nameplate, and gave it something all its own when it desperately needed it. Art & Science probably saved Cadillac from Lincoln's fate, but on the 2013 ATS, it's been polished off--watered down?--to be palatable to the people that lease A4s and C Classes by the score. There's enough crispness in its profile and in a few V-shaped details to distinguish it as the Cadillac of the set, but the look has relaxed a lot from those hungry early days. The cockpit is most self-assured: it's dominated by the soft blue glow of CUE, the transformative, iPad-like controller that replaces knobs and buttons with a smooth glass touchscreen that responds to swipes and taps.
Cadillac is impatient to be taken as seriously as BMW is, and it's willing to go to extreme engineering lengths to get there. The ATS wraps its angular body around one of GM's lightest bodies and a choice of four-cylinder, turbo four, or six-cylinder engines; manual or automatic six-speed gearboxes; rear- or all-wheel drive; and conventional or magnetically-controlled suspensions. The base four-cylinder doesn't inspire or turn us off, but it's packaged in such a way that it's sure to be a lease-friendly special, at best.
No, the meat of the lineup is the turbo four, rated at 272 horsepower; paired up with a Tremec six-speed manual, left with rear-wheel drive and specified with a Performance package that omits the fine, expensive Magnetic Ride Control, this ATS is our choice for the most entertaining value in the lineup. The high-cholesterol crowd will have to make do with the 321-hp six in the ATS Premium with all-wheel drive and a paddle-shifted automatic, good for 0-60 mph times of about 5.4 seconds, a few ticks less than the turbo four. There's no V-8 offered at all--but in place of that American luxury-car hallmark, Cadillac's substituted exceptional BMW-like handling, with little body roll and with great straight-ahead tracking from electric power steering, and very good gas mileage.
The ATS' interior is awash in fine finishes and on most versions, leather trim and a choice of wood, metal, or carbon-fiber accents. The front seats fit the firm sport-sedan mold--even more so when they're upgraded to the performance seats, with a slimmer profile and power bolstering. Up front, interior space is fine--but in back, the ATS lets on its smaller dimensions, with rear-seat leg room that's the least generous in its competitive set, and a trunk that's a gym bag or two smaller than anything else it's shopped against. It does have ample small-item storage, most cleverly concealed behind the CUE screen, accessible at the tap of a metal arrow on the dash.
For safety, the ATS sports eight standard airbags, including front knee airbags, with an option for rear side bags--and it's earned the NHTSA's five-star overall rating. It also can be fitted with a lane-departure warning system that buzzes the driver seat with a haptic warning; with adaptive cruise control that can slow the car to mitigate an impending crash; and with a rearview camera. Other features include standard Bluetooth; Bose audio; power features; and climate control. Options range from a navigation system, to a sunroof, to a full leather interior, to carbon-fiber trim, to a package that bundles USB ports, SD card readers, Bluetooth audio streaming and HD radio with CUE. CUE's worth a deep dive all its own; we think it's the most advanced mass-market infotainment controller of all, and though we've experienced a hitch or two using it on production-ready cars, we'd be enthusiastic about adding it to our ATS, while we have mixed feelings about other systems like MyLincoln Touch, Remote Touch, MMI, iDrive, and COMAND.
Prices start from $33,990, including destination, for the base four-cylinder ATS. The turbo four carries a base sticker of $35,795, while V-6 versions begin at $42,090. After our day of driving on the street and on the track, and a few weeks of armchair judgement, we think Cadillac has broken through the BMW veil of invincibility. The 2013 ATS strikes right at the 3-Series when it's vulnerable on a few fronts, styling and interior fit and finish among them. The student's become a teacher--and there's more in the lesson plan, with ATS coupes and V-Series cars yet to come.
- Excellent turbo four or V-6 powertrains
- Poised handling is a high-water mark
- Smartly arranged cockpit
- CUE's step-ahead infotainment
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- Tight back-seat room
- Small trunk
- Art & Science's slow dissolve?