Bloomberg News

Cadillac’s ATS Sport Sedan Nips at BMW 3 Series’ Heels

December 06, 2012

Cadillac ATS

A Cadillac ATS. The engine's 275 pounds per foot of torque is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. Source: Cadillac via Bloomberg

Cadillac has just released a brand- new sports sedan called the ATS, and executives say that it’s a true-blue driver’s car. A sedan for joyful drives.

As a compact with all-wheel-drive, it’s a major release for Cadillac and its parent General Motors (GM:US), potentially proving that they can make an upmarket sedan with European-style sports car chops.

The longstanding champion of this totally subjective concept is the BMW 3 Series. Little wonder that Cadillac took careful aim at the 3, mimicking its general dimensions and engine sizes.

The 2.0-liter, turbo-charged four-cylinder starts at $36,700. A 3.6-liter V-6 model with all of the options piled on can run up to $55,000.

There is a silver 3.6-liter ATS sitting in my driveway, frost spider-webbing the windshield. I’ve got an appointment later this morning at Monticello Motor Club in New York’s Catskills and I’ve chosen a series of back roads to get me there.

My car has a standard six-speed automatic transmission and $2,000 worth of options, including a cold weather package and navigation system. Final price: $46,785.

My first road north, out of Pennsylvania’s Poconos toward Interstate 84, is a beauty.

Loopy Road

The two-lane road runs along the hills like cursive script, patterning through copses of now-bare trees in loopy S’s and elongated C’s. There’s a light fog drifting along the ground and it’s too narrow to go fast anyhow.

Instead I concentrate on the steering wheel and its sharp command of the wheels underneath. There’s a good connective feel between the components, a sense that the leather under my fingertips is talking to the rubber down below. The car points with accuracy.

The woods are rife with deer, spring-loaded to dash into traffic, so I poke the brakes, testing. I’m reassured by the response.

The ATS is a compact sedan and small by today’s standards. The cabin is sized for regular humans, and you’ll occasionally bump elbows with your passenger. I’m fine with that, as the exterior footprint is modest, too, allowing for room to make adjustments on an average-sized lane.

Turn off the traction control and the ATS becomes puppy playful, wagging its tail. It merrily peels out at T-stop intersections. Small adjustments bring it under control. This is not a mean car.

Smooth Handling

I enter the freeway and the off-ramp is lousy with broken pavement. The ATS glides over without the expected chatter. This is even without Cadillac’s magnetic suspension, which becomes softer or stiffer according to road conditions, and is only available on the most expensive Premium model.

It also says something about the locales where suspensions are developed. Germany’s roads are smooth. Michigan’s aren’t. The ATS handles bad pavement far more handily than the BMW’s.

The highway allows me time to turn on the radio and look over the navigation. This is all controlled by Cadillac’s brand- new CUE system -- a finicky touch screen and a few “invisible” buttons underneath. It’s a mess. I disliked it on the new XTS front-wheel-drive Cadillac, and I find no more reason to like it now.

Customer Service

I wonder how long it will take Cadillac to make revisions. Will they be proactive, or react like BMW did years ago with its first-generation iDrive, insisting that it is the consumers who aren’t “getting” it?

I dip off the highway, through the New York town of Port Jervis, and further north on another two-lane road that runs through open country.

The ATS sprints along the backs of broad hills easily, giving me ever greater confidence. Not perfect, though. Looking through corners, I often find that the A-pillar is in my way, hampering sight lines.

I’m almost sorry to arrive at the track, where I’m testing a race car, not the ATS. Regarding the skin of the ATS, I wish, not for the first time, that it was more interesting. The exterior lacks a point of view, as if styled by committee.

Several hours later, I return to the Cadillac. Why not? I put on my helmet and roll it out onto the track. Monticello has one of the longest straightaways in the U.S.

A very short time later I’m traveling at more than 140 miles per hour, headed toward a hard braking zone and a sharp right turn. Do I believe that the ATS will handle it? I do. Implicitly.

So, is it as good as the BMW 3 Series? In a few objective ways, such as the Cue infotainment system and styling, it simply isn’t. But subjectively, I can tell you this: It can make for a truly joyous drive.

The 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6-liter Performance at a Glance

Engine: 3.6-liter V-6 with 321 horsepower and 275 pound-

feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 19 city, 28 highway.

Price as tested: $46,785.

Best feature: The confidence-inspiring handling.

Worst feature: Cue infotainment system.

Target buyer: The traditional BMW buyer who wants to go

American.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on gadgets and Katya Kazakina on art.

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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