The BMW 3-Series may be the yardstick by which all sports sedans are judged today, but there's a new tape measure in town--the 2013 Cadillac ATS.
Now that we've logged more than a thousand miles in all the different flavors of ATS four-doors--six-cylinders and fours, rear-drivers and all-wheel-drivers, manuals and automatics--we're convinced that Cadillac has BMW's number. And it all starts with styling.
There's not as much Art & Science in the 2013 ATS as in other Cadillacs, but there's still enough to distinguish this compact Caddy from the 3-Series--and from the C Class, the Infiniti G, and the Audi A4. It's alternately crisp and smooth, with big and bold details where they count, mostly at the headlamps and the grille, with its belt-buckle-sized Cadillac wreath and crest.
Inside, the ATS' cabin can be warm and inviting or red and racy. The point being, it's never as austere as the 3-Series' cockpit--one look in there and you know what the Greeks fear. The ATS is sensitive to the right combination of colors; we like the aluminum trim and the earth tones, but in an extroverted moment or two, we'd confess to liking the red leather and carbon-fiber treatment in our video road test car, too.
If anything, the ATS proves that 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 sports one of GM's lightest bodies, and from launch, the ATS comes in as much choice as any GM car stretched over several model years. There's four-cylinder, a turbo four, and a six-cylinder; a manual or an automatic, both six-speed gearboxes; a choice of rear- or all-wheel drive; and conventional or magnetically-controlled suspensions.
Flip ahead to the top two powertrains, because the base four-cylinder is strictly there to fend off sticker shock. It's neither weak nor exciting, not smooth and not rough. It's a lease-friendly special, at best. Step into the 272-horsepower turbo four and the ATS picture brightens up to almost max intensity: it's not the most beautiful four-cylinder soundtrack even with active noise cancellation, but pair it with a tough Tremec six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive and a Performance package with a conventional set of steel struts, and the ATS shows off its essential, neutral handling setup--while it accelerates to 60 mph in about 5.7 seconds. If price and weight are no object, there's a richer-sounding 321-hp six, all-wheel drive and a paddle-shifted automatic, and Magnetic Ride Control. Those 0-60 mph times can drop to 5.4 seconds with the six, but for now, there's no V-8 at all.The ATS is the compact Cadillac, and it shows. The front seats are firm and sporty, even more so when they're swapped out for the available performance seats. Interior space is fine in front, but in back, there's not much rear-seat leg room at all for larger adults, and not much head room. The ATS has one of the smallest trunks in its segment, too. 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. Given the choice, we far prefer the ATS' brighter, more cheery, occasionally busy interior and all its trim choices, to the dark, joyless interior of the 3-Series.
For safety, the ATS sports eight standard airbags, including front knee airbags, with an option for rear side bags. 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, though we've experienced a hitch or two with it. It uses a large touchscreen with haptic feedback to replace knobs and buttons for navigation, phone, audio and climate functions, and the haptics offer a finer feedback than the MyFord systems. Still, we've experienced Bluetooth streaming interruptions and system lags with CUE, in tandem with its learning curve. We'd still be enthusiastic about adding it to our ATS, while we have mixed feelings about other systems like MyLincoln Touch, and much more so, about 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.
For more, see our full review of the 2013 Cadillac ATS, or check out our head-to-head comparison of the Cadillac ATS and the BMW 3-Series.