The 2014 Cadillac ATS runs in a tough crowd; and ultimately what matters can be distilled down to a single question: Is it as much of a performance benchmark--in terms of technology, numbers, and seat-of-the-pants thrills--as the BMW 3-Series? 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?
While you may never convince a Bimmerphile that a Cadillac could come close to the 3-Series' near-mystical handling, the truth is that it's right up in the 3er's face. With a lighter curb weight and better suspension design, the ATS is the best balanced, most controllable, and most tossable Cadillac, ever; it takes all that the CTS has done well, and amplifies them.
We also think that the 2014 ATS also is the most fully realized Cadillac ever launched, in terms of its drivetrain configurations and handling permutations.With powertrains ranging from merely responsive to very quick, there's enough to satisfy a wide range of driving-enthusiast wants and needs.
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.
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.
Separately, you're probably bound to find the best lease special on the rear-drive, four-cylinder, automatic-only edition. It has plainer appeal from behind the wheel, but it still should satisfy those who want the flashier styling of this sport sedan.
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. With 17-inch wheels, a leatherette interior, and the automatic-only layout, it's spec'ed out to a price, but we don't find it disagreeable.
Models packed with the 2.0-liter turbo four make 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. With a mellow tenor growl, it benefits from GM's active noise-cancellation hardware. The turbo whistle has been tuned out for American tastes, 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. That's coincidentally the same time as the BMW 328i with its eight-speed automatic.
At the top of the lineup there's the familiar 3.6-liter V-6, rated at a strong 321 horsepower here. 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. Acceleration times drop only slightly, to 5.4 seconds, while gas mileage falls to 19/28 mpg.
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. No matter how you configure the ATS, there's a sense of composure, confidence, and precision behind the wheel--and the ZF electric power steering system gets some of the kudos. 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. The single ratio keeps things true to form off-center, so some may prefer it to the variable-ratio racks in some competing products.
A sophisticated multi-link suspension helps allow that nuanced handling to transfer neatly to all kinds of road surfaces and driver inputs. 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. 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 still been no formal announcement about an even higher-performance ATS-V, but we know it's on the way. Additionally, if you want more performance—for the track, for instance—there's a package of Brembo brake calipers (and a brake-lining upgrade) that's offered on the base car and standard on other models. FE3 cars get wider-tread 18-inch tires.