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?