2013 Cadillac ATS Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
October 21, 2012

With unerring focus on handling, Cadillac finally has the 3-Series' number with the 2013 ATS.

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.

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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.


2013 Cadillac ATS


Art & Science? Not so much, but the sexy ATS glows from the inside out.

Cadillac detonated its notion of old luxury back in 2003, when it dropped the first CTS and "Art & Science" styling on an unsuspecting world. Since then, the theme's been much discussed, sometimes maligned, but always a point of distinction for the GM brand when it sorely needed anything to call its own.

With the 2013 Cadillac ATS, Art & Science gets milled down even more from its exuberant, raw beginnings into something less divisive. Put through the bench grinder one more time, the edge is almost honed off its now pint-sized grille and what used to be the boxlike folds of its fenders. The extreme graphic tension of the first CTS and even its follow-up act has been completely relaxed; the ATS' corners are smoothed like a contour sheet, and the roofline angles off into the Infiniti realm. Outright aggression is right out, but the ATS outlines a confident aura with long tapered headlights, LED fillips, deeply sculptured flanks, and a stance that's so close to that of the current C Class, it's not so much an homage, it's a flat-out challenge.

We're all about a theme, but the current CTS' "V" fascination creates some horrible ergonomics. The ATS lets function take over, without letting the form suffer. The sweep of wood or metal trim pieces wouldn't be out of place in a BMW or an Infiniti, but no other brand's so transformed the interior of their cars as completely as Cadillac does with CUE--though Ford comes close with MyFord Touch. CUE, which we'll talk about in our Features section, replaces many of the ATS' controls with a touch-sensitive screen. The layout resembles the one found in, say, a Lincoln MKX--but the beautifully rendered screens are a cut above those in Fords and Lincolns, and the gauge and center-stack screens coordinate better with each other, too.

Like Lincoln, Cadillac's made great leaps in fit and finish, and the ATS' cabin is warmer and better executed than any of its luxury competitors, save Audi. Stitched dash trim pieces, a choice of wood trims and finishes--or metal or carbon fiber--give the ATS the flashes of character you'll find in the latest A4, though the ATS' dramatically curved dash is more interesting than the Audi panel.


2013 Cadillac ATS


As nimble as a BMW--oh yes, we went there--the ATS serves Teutonic realness with rear-drive, six manual gears, and a turbo four.

The ATS performance story boils down to one question: is it the street-gripping, tach-ripping trump card to BMW's 3-Series, the car that just about every luxury brand calls its benchmark?

After a day of driving the ATS shortly after driving a full-tilt 335i, we can report two things with utter confidence. One? You'll never convince a Bimmerphile that any Cadillac will ever come anywhere close to their near-mystical handling. That roundel badge may as well be a Quixote-proof windmill.

Two? The ATS takes all the things the CTS did well in both generations, and amplifies them with lighter curb weight and better suspension design. It's the best balanced, most controllable, most tossable Cadillac, ever--unless you've had the privilege of tossing a Cimarron into the crusher.

The 2013 ATS also is the most fully realized Cadillac ever launched, in terms of its drivetrain configurations and handling permutations. There's a taste for any driver that warms to its bladed fenders and cool digital interfaces. Still, it's heavily weighted toward enthusiasts. The centerpiece of the lineup is a thrusty turbo four-cylinder coupled to rear- or all-wheel drive, manual or automatic six-speed transmission, base or FE3 suspension tuning and magnetic shocks. It's bracketed by an outspoken, muscular six-cylinder teamed with the automatic and rear- or all-wheel drive, and by a rear-drive, four-cylinder, automatic-only edition with plainer appeal to those who aim for the most friendly lease deal, and nothing more.

That base 2.5-liter four puts out 202 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque. It runs on regular fuel, changes gears with GM's Hydramatic six-speed automatic with tap control, and is rear-wheel drive only.  Cadillac estimates it'll clock a 0-60 mph run in 7.5 seconds, and deliver EPA-estimated gas mileage of 22 mpg city and 32 mpg highway. Objectively it's not slow or undesirable, but from so many perspectives--17-inch wheels, leatherette interior, automatic-only--it's clearly a vehicle that gives the ATS a low base price and more fuel-economy options.

A sizable chunk of the car universe is converging on the 2.0-liter turbo four for performance, and the ATS taps that setup for its mainstream offering. Here it's good for an energetic 272 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. It's the only ATS to offer a choice of six-speed automatic with tap-shift manual control or a real manual six-speed transmission, and rear- or all-wheel drive. The turbo four's optimized for premium unleaded, but engineers say it'll deliver more than 250 horsepower if regular is used. It's a ripe-sounding powerplant, with a mellow tenor growl that benefits from GM's active noise-cancellation hardware (it counters some engine noise with the opposite waveform, canceling it out to human ears). There's almost no turbo whistle--it's been tuned out as a matter of American taste--and the turbo four plus a pretty light-shifting Tremec six-speed manual delivers a 0-60 mph rush estimated by GM at 5.7 seconds. Coincidentally, BMW estimates its 328i at the same time. It's also estimated at 22/32 mpg with the automatic.

The four-cylinder turbo clicks with the ATS' mission and its moment in history. But if the idea of a Cadillac without a V-8--or even without a V-6--is just too slippery a slope to slide down all at once, there's a version of GM's 3.6-liter V-6 on the order sheet. It's rated stronger here than anywhere in the GM lineup at 321 hp; it's pretty vocal, as we've found in the latest applications, like in the GMC Terrain Denali, and it rarely lacks for mid-range or passing power, with GM's quick-shifting six-speed automatic the only gearbox paired with it. It's a more substantial-sounding powerplant, but because it adds a hundred pounds or so, acceleration times drop only to an estimated 5.4 seconds, while gas mileage falls to 19/28 mpg. Our first verdict? The turbo four/manual/rear-wheel drive combination is the one you'll see in endless head-to-head comparison tests; V-6s and automatics and all-wheel drive give the ATS broad appeal without distorting its lean character too far out of shape.

With lots of time and attention given to its steering and suspension design, the ATS outclasses all but the BMW in its class for dynamic fluence, and creates a fog around BMW's unquestioned number-one status. There's an pervasive sense of composure across the ATS lineup, no matter how it's configured, that's evident just a mile or two behind the wheel. A ZF electric power steering system gets some of the kudos; its motor rests on the steering rack, not up on the steering column, for better precision. There's a sport mode that adds heft, but doesn't change the steering ratio--it's just a matter of taste, engineers say, and we say it's fine with the "normal," lighter effort. If anything, the single ratio keeps things true to form off-center, and the ATS simply shadows minor steering changes without dodging or twitching.

The steering acts in concert with a sophisticated multi-link suspension for nuanced handling and straight-ahead stability that's a highlight of the ATS. In front, a MacPherson strut is flanked by multiple links that create a virtual axis for better response, while the shorter links have less tendency to flex in corners. For years, Audi crowed about similar designs in its front-drive A4; the ATS does it at the front and at the rear, where it has a five-link setup, with double control arms on each side and a toe-control link for better lateral stability. More taut than a C Class or an A4, the ATS still doesn't thrum or tramline over bad road surfaces like a G37. On ATS sedans with the Premium package and the FE3 sport suspension, the struts are swapped out for dampers with magnetically-charged fluid that changes resistance dynamically, for the same Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) found in the Corvette. MRC does flatten out transient responses and road patter a bit, but the ATS' basic setup doesn't generate excessive body roll or ride harshness to begin with, even with the upgrade 18-inch run-flat wheel-and-tire package. The ATS' "Performance" package doesn't include MRC: take that either as a revealing detail, or as just a Freudian slip.

There's a whiff of the future potential of the ATS as a weekend thrill ride--or probably, as a new member of the V-Series family. The MRC system is one piece of evidence; there's also the mechanical limited-slip differential that comes with the manual transmission and with the FE3-tuned ATS. There's also a package of Brembo brake calipers that's offered on the base car and standard on other models; it can be upgraded to a higher-performance lining. Seventeen-inch wheels with 40-series tires are standard; 18-inchers with 35-series tires are available, and FE3 cars get wider-tread 18-inch tires. There seems to be plenty of room for more--say, on a 470-horsepower ATS-V?

2013 Cadillac ATS

Comfort & Quality

Sport seats are fantastic for front-seaters; the back seat's tight for almost everyone, and the trunk is small.

Cadillac's CTS has been sold as a competitor for both the compact and mid-size German and Japanese luxury cars, because until now, GM didn't have a choice. The current CTS is a half-size larger than the smaller cars, a bit smaller than sedans like the 5-Series and E-Class.

And that's why ATS. It's a true compact sedan, sized directly against the Mercedes C Class, Audi A4, Infiniti G37, and just slightly smaller than the brand-new BMW 3-Series. That gives the next CTS--due in the 2014 model year--the room to grow up into the mid-size class.

By the numbers, the ATS measures 182.2 inches long, and rides on a 109.3-inch wheelbase. It's 55.9 inches tall, 71.1 inches wide. Cadillac takes pride in its low curb weight, which ranges from 3,315 to 3,629 pounds, depending on drivetrain configuration. And in terms of interior space, the ATS checks in with 42.5 inches of front leg room, 33.5 inches of rear leg room, and 10.2 cubic feet of trunk space.

Against most of its competitors, the ATS' front passenger space and seats compare very well. Its base front buckets are good enough to be compared to the German school of firm and fine; the optional performance seats have very supportive backrests, are thinner in profile, and have adjustable thorax bolsters and thigh cushions. Depending on the presence of a sunroof, the ATS has decent to good headroom for a six-foot adult, and comparatively, as much or more leg and knee room than its competition.

It's in rear-seat room and trunk space where the ATS suffers. The C Class has about the same back-seat space--tight--while the slightly larger A4 and the noticeably bigger BMW and Infiniti are closer to practical for regular adult use. The ATS just can't handle four big adults at once, unless the front passengers are willing to put their knees close to the dash, and its rear doors don't have very large openings. From the same overall length, BMW seems to have extracted more usable space inside, and much more trunk space--17 cubic feet, to the ATS' puny 10.2 cubic feet, the smallest cargo bin in the segment.

The ATS makes up for those slights with plenty of in-car storage. Behind the CUE infotainment screen is a storage bin almost 2 liters large; it's accessed by a tap on a metallic trim piece just under the CUE screen. The panel rotates smoothly out of the way, and a soft ambient glow lights up the bin. It's big enough to hold phones, radar detectors, a Rubik's Cube or two.

The ATS scores again in trim quality and coherent design. It's on a different vector, but on the same plane, with Audi's latest A4, for attention to detail, while the laggard 3-Series feels built to a much lower cost. Real magnesium shift paddles, the haptic interaction with CUE, the coordination of CUE's graphics and icons across both its screens, even the high-quality look of the base leatherette interior all speak to a level of attention that mostly escaped today's CTS. There's no illogical spray of single-function buttons, no fits of grey painted plastic, just some small pieces of piano-black trim that serve as a reminder of the price point to which the ATS is built. 

On a less visible quality note, weight was a hefty issue with the ATS. At about 3,400 pounds, Cadillac proudly says it's lighter than the A4, and squarely in line with the C-Class and 3-Series. Holes are drilled throughout its body structure to remove mass wherever possible, so it can be re-added where needed--like in the cast iron rear differential, which engineers say is better for durability, heat dissipation, and distributes weight best, or in maintaining glass thickness, for better soundproofing. The ATS doesn't have the rock-solid door sound of some old-school German sedans--but have you heard the clang of a new 3-Series door banging shut lately?


2013 Cadillac ATS


The ATS earns a five-star NHTSA rating, and has all kinds of high-tech safety options for gadgeteers and fretters alike.

Cadillac is pitching the new ATS at driving enthusiasts and techno geeks, so it's only fitting that the safety gear on the new sedan has few rivals, even above its price point.

All ATS sedans come with a strong core, girded by eight airbags--including dual front knee airbags--and traction and stability control, as well as active headrests. Bluetooth is standard, but a rearview camera isn't offered on the base car, unless the CUE package is optioned.

CUE itself is a larger discussion in our Features section. In terms of safety, it's the price of futurism. No doubt, using an infotainment interface, period, is a distraction, but CUE is a neater integration of smartphones and voice controls than we've yet seen. And maybe, in the long run, that's safer than a poorly integrated system.

Other more assuredly safety-boosting options include adaptive cruise control; front and rear automatic braking that can prevent or mitigate impacts at low speeds; a lane-departure warning system paired with a haptic seat that vibrates a bottom cushion when the car crosses into the opposite lane; and blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts. The ATS also can be fitted with a head-up display, configurable for the driver's favorite settings, whether they include posted speed limits, a tachometer, or navigation. Rear side airbags are a major option not usually seen in domestic luxury sedans, but often found on German luxury four-doors.

The ATS has standard OnStar. With its GPS and cellular connection, it can dial emergency services in the event of an accident. It also can be linked to a myCadillac mobile app that performs all sorts of functions, from reminding you where you've parked, to setting a service appointment.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) hasn't yet rated the ATS, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded it five stars overall.


2013 Cadillac ATS


Between CUE, safety, and a variety of drivetrains, all that's missing from the ATS are more body styles.

Cadillac isn't taking any chances that the 2013 ATS will get lost in the din of entry-luxury sedans, in terms of features. It's packaged the compact sedan in as many configurations as any of its competitors--and capped it with the coup de grace of CUE.

CUE, if you haven't seen our review of the 2013 Cadillac XTS, is the new Cadillac User Experience. It's a touch-and-swipe interface that replaces many buttons and switches on the center console, and augments them with steering-wheel controls and voice commands. It's fairly dazzling in action: CUE senses when a hand approaches the screen, and responds by displaying primary command icons for audio, climate, phone, and navigation. It can be configured with preset buttons for any function it controls--not just radio stations. It reads out inbound text messages from Bluetooth-tethered smartphones as voice messages, and can respond with pre-set responses. It can read music or video from SD cards, DVDs, or CDs, and stream audio from mobile apps or a music player via Bluetooth.

If it sounds like Ford's MyFord Touch, they may be conceptual kin, but in action, CUE comes off much more slickly developed, and radically easier to use than MyFord Touch -- if only because its beautifully rendered display looks much friendlier to touch and use, while the Ford system seems to actively encourage voice control over everything else. Its touch-sensitive screen also enables some of the same pinch-zoom-scroll commands familiar to Apple iPad users.

There's more distinction than just design, though. CUE's magnificent blue-ringed icons and matching gauges broom lots of ancillary buttons, but add some haptic feedback to confirm actions. Like the seat vibration that's triggered by a lane departure on some ATS sedans, it's the right kind of motion in the right context. CUE also retains some hard buttons for major functions, skipping the learning curve that all the other luxury brands have had to learn the hard way, on their road to reducing clutter while exponentially increasing functionality.

We've played around with CUE in beta form and in the XTS a few times, and think it's the clear winner among all the advanced infotainment interfaces available from the luxury brands--the roller-controller set included, with the possible exception of the Tesla Model S. You can read more about CUE in our XTS review, and in our first hands-on test of CUE in prototype form. We'll leave our ATS experience aglow, with a caveat: a sensitivity to heat extremes that showed up on one early-build test car we drove. In that car, CUE stuttered through navigation, eventually seizing altogether and dropping its Bluetooth audio stream. It required a full shutdown for ten minutes before all systems responded; other cars we drove behaved normally.

CUE isn't standard on all models, but it's available on all versions of the ATS. The new sedan comes in four different trim levels: standard, Luxury, Performance, and Premium. The base 2.5-liter ATS comes only as a standard or Luxury sedan, with rear-wheel drive and an automatic transmission. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four spans the widest range of trim levels: it comes in standard, Luxury, Performance, or Premium trim, and can be had in rear- or all-wheel drive, with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. The 3.6-liter V-6 comes only with the automatic, with rear- or all-wheel drive, and only in Luxury, Performance, or Premium trim.

Those trim levels stock nearly every standard feature needed to make the ATS the equal or superior of the A4, C Class, 3-Series, or G37. The standard ATS comes with Bose audio with a single-CD player; Bluetooth; 17-inch wheels; a leatherette interior; power windows, locks, and mirrors; cruise control; and climate control. It's the only version to offer the basic radio, but Cadillac took time to integrate the simpler unit into the dash so it wouldn't look like an afterthought. Still, they expect most buyers still will opt to add CUE to even this version--along with the bundled 8-inch LCD screen, HD Radio, Bluetooth with audio streaming, rearview camera, and voice controls. Other options on this trim will include a sunroof, and a cold-weather package with heated seats.

On the Luxury package, leather seating becomes standard, along with 10-way power front seats with memory; a rearview camera; front and rear parking sensors; a fold-down rear seat; Brembo brakes and polished 17-inch wheels; and the CUE package offered as an option on the base model. Options on Luxury cars include a Driver Awareness Package with a lane departure warning system, forward collision alerts, rear side airbags, rain-sensing wipers, and a haptic safety seat that vibrates the bottom cushion when the car crosses out of its lane; a navigation system; a sunroof; and a cold-weather package.

All the Luxury features are standard on the Performance model, except the fold-down rear seats don't--they have only a pass-through. A Performance Package is added, including adaptive HID headlamps; aluminum sport pedals; front sport seats with power-adjustable bolsters and thigh supports; and on automatic-equipped cars, paddle shift controls. The Performance model also includes the Driver Awareness Package and a Driver Assist Package with blind-spot monitors; adaptive cruise control with front and rear automatic braking; and a head-up display that can be reconfigured to the driver's taste. Options include the navigation system, cold-weather package, and 18-inch run-flat tires.

The Premium model includes everything but the Driver Assist Package, a cold-weather package, and a sunroof. It also gets a full fold-down rear seat.


2013 Cadillac ATS

Fuel Economy

Putting its turbo four forward, the ATS can't quite claim best-in-class gas mileage.

It's at least closely competitive with all the other premium rear-drive compacts, but the Cadillac ATS isn't the leader in gas mileage.

It's a game of inches in this class. The ATS hasn't been officially rated as of yet, but according to GM's estimates, the base 2.5-liter four in the ATS will be rated at 22/32 mpg, with the turbocharged 2.0-liter four earning the same ratings. Both are estimated for the automatic transmission; no figures for the manual gearbox have been released, nor have any numbers for versions with all-wheel drive.

Cadillac says the V-6 ATS with automatic transmission will be rated at 18/29 mpg.

For contrast, the EPA publishes the 2012 BMW 328i's fuel economy at 23/34 mpg for the manual, 23/33 mpg for the automatic; the 335i is rated at 23/33 mpg with the automatic, 20/30 mpg with the manual.

The 3-Series benefits from stop/start technology that boosts mileage slightly, but even the ATS' other competitors fare a bit better in gas mileage. Audi's latest A4, with an eight-speed automatic, is rated at 24/31 mpg.

The ATS outpaces the C Class, at least, since it's rated at 21/31 mpg. And it far exceeds the lagging fuel economy of the Infiniti G37, which logged into the 2012 model year with ratings of 19/27 mpg and 17/25 mpg for automatic- and manual-equipped models, respectively.

Cadillac executives confirm that a diesel engine is a necessity for the ATS to be a success in European markets. They've hinted that the diesel could also become available in the U.S., but no official announcement has been made.

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May 12, 2015
2013 Cadillac ATS 4-Door Sedan 2.0L AWD

Beautiful car for a great price

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I've had this car for 3 years and I love it! It drives beautiful although a 4 cylinder it still hauls buns. The interior is flawless the exterior is classy and unique. It is small, I have 2 kids and its... + More »
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April 15, 2015
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The 3.6L V6 Performance edition is very powerful and the car handles tight without a bumpy ride. Brembo brakes have great stopping power. Cadillac really has a winner with this car! I can't wait until my lease... + More »
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April 13, 2015
For 2013 Cadillac ATS

The ATS is a better car than my last two BMW 3 series !

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What a great car Cadillac has built! The style, performance, & comfort wrapped up in what many automotive magazines have called the new sports sedan standard. With the exception of lower than expected miles... + More »
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