The Cadillac ATS sedan competes with the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class and while it may not rule the roost it is definitely in the game, featuring lightweight construction, agile handling and a beautifully executed interior.
Launched for 2013, the Cadillac ATS was designed and engineered from the ground-up on an all-new platform. Its relatively compact size marked a turning point for Cadillac, which bought into the same-sausage, different-lengths philosophy of the Germans and now has true compact, midsize, and full-size sedans in its lineup, with the Cadillac ATS, CTS, and XTS, respectively. (For 2015, the lineup expands further when an ATS coupe joins the ATS sedan.)
Cadillac ATS is the luxury brand’s small offering (as small as compact can get these days). Even though it may not be diminutive, the ATS is one of the leanest cars in the class, thanks to weight-saving technology, including the use of lightweight metals, that whittles the curb weight down to as low as 3,315 pounds. That’s less than comparably equipped models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi.
As with most cars in this class, the Cadillac ATS uses rear-wheel drive. All-wheel drive is available on some models, but like the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, they are based on a rear-wheel-drive platform as opposed to a front-wheel-drive platform, such as that of the Audi A4.
For 2014, Cadillac ATS carries over unchanged save for a few additional features. Intellibeam automatic high-beam control is added to the available Driver Awareness and Driver Assist packages for 2014. A frameless inside mirror is installed on all 2014 Cadillac ATS models. A leather-wrapped, larger-diameter steering wheel goes into models with steering-wheel paddle shift controls. A 110-volt power outlet has been added to the console of models with CUE and navigation packages.
Three engine choices are available for the Cadillac ATS, including two four-cylinder options. Each uses direct injection and variable valve timing to maximize performance and fuel efficiency. The base engine is a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated inline-4, good for 202 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque. It’s the least expensive and slowest of the bunch, with a manufacturer estimated 0-60 mph time of 7.5 seconds. A sprightly 2.0-liter turbo makes 272 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque and can go 0-60 mph in an estimated 5.7 seconds with automatic, or 5.8 seconds with the available manual gearbox. The top-of-the-line powertrain is GM’s much-used 3.6-liter naturally aspirated V6, good in this application for 321 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque, which propels the ATS from 0-60 mph in just 5.4 seconds. All versions use GM’s 6-speed Hydra-Matic transmission, with the exception of the 2.0-liter turbo, which also offers a 6-speed manual in some trim levels as a no-charge option.
Like its big brother, the CTS, the Cadillac ATS was tuned on the track, including Germany’s famous Nurburgring, often used by European car companies during development. The result is a light but solid chassis with near 50/50 weight distribution (a la BMW), which we found performs beautifully on the road. Driving dynamics are further enhanced by a five-link independent rear suspension, plus optional Brembo brakes with a high-tech coating that keeps the rotors looking as good as they perform. Magnetic Ride Control is optional on most ATS models, ready to adjust suspension real-time for even more responsive driving.
Inside, fit and finish rivals that of any Audi or BMW, although we found some interior configuration options limiting. Upper trim levels use CUE, Cadillac’s touchscreen interface. An acronym for Cadillac User Experience, the large screen uses proximity sensors, haptic feedback and voice recognition to control phone, audio and navigation functions.
Fuel economy for the Cadillac ATS 2.5-liter model with rear-wheel drive is an EPA-estimated 22/33 mpg City/Highway. Unlike its Premium-burning German rivals, Regular gasoline is recommended. The ATS with 3.6-liter V6 is rated at 18/28 mpg, also on Regular gas, or 18/26 mpg with all-wheel drive. The EPA estimate for the 2.0-liter turbo with automatic is 21/31 City/Highway (20/29 mpg with AWD).
In addition to the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4/A5, and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, the ATS competes with the Acura TSX and Lexus IS.
Exterior styling on the ATS sedan is bold, continuing Cadillac's Art and Science design language that's been in use for a decade. The design stems from early sketches that came out of GM's London studio, with the bulk of the exterior and interior refined and finished by designers from both the Michigan and California studios. The ATS is built at GM's Lansing Grand River Assembly Plant in Michigan.
Lines are cleaner and certain features are less over-the-top than those on other cars in this class, and are more proportionate to (and appropriate for) its smaller size. But the ATS is still unmistakably a Cadillac, which will please brand loyalists and appeal to those who are looking for something unique in a sea of sameness. On the other hand, that could prove a tough sell for European-luxury car enthusiasts who prefer sultry swoops to Caddy's sharp geometric shapes.
Headlamps on the ATS use Cadillac's signature vertical shape, with long, tapering tails that stretch up alongside the hood line. Vertical foglamps underneath accentuate the upright look of the front fascia. The front grille and air intakes are large, but not gratuitous, and are separated, in Cadillac style, by a sharp, three-dimensional angular crease. The front end is not only aesthetic, but functional: Inside the front grille are shutters that automatically close at certain highway speeds to reduce aerodynamic drag and help fuel economy.
From the side, the ATS appears squared-off, but not as wedge-shaped as the CTS. A rising character line along the bottom is evident, but not overdone. The roofline slopes gently past the C-pillar, and isn't as steeply raked as some sporty compact cars, presumably for the sake of rear passenger headroom. Chrome accents on window surrounds and door handles, as well as polished 17-inch wheels (with optional 18s), convey a look that's more luxurious over sporty. In addition, the Brembo performance brakes that come on some ATS models use a special Ferritic Nitro-Carburizing (FNC) coating, which helps to prevent corrosion and keeps them looking shiny.
In back, the vertical lines are repeated in the tail lamps. A long, thin horizontal LED brake doubles as a rear spoiler. The license plate is framed in shapes that would make Euclid (the father of geometry) proud. The rear bumper echoes the front with its sharp center crease.
As with other Cadillac interiors, materials on the ATS are high-quality and luxurious. Front seats make the driver and passenger feel like each is in her own compartment, flanked by an armrest at one hand, and a high center console on the other. The interior design echoes the lines and shapes of the outside, with sharp angles and rising lines that wrap around and create a seamless flow from the center instrument panel to the doors.
The ATS features extra touches like handcrafted cut-and-sewn leather upholstery on upper trim levels. A number of interior color and trim packages are available, but we weren't crazy about some of the options. Aluminum trim inserts, for example, sport etched rectangular patterns evocative of a 1980s Duran Duran album. And while we liked a different model's red-flecked carbon fiber accents on doors and vent surrounds, we were disappointed to learn they were only available as a package with red leather upholstery. A Cadillac exec told us we could order the carbon fiber inserts separately, but we'd have to change them out ourselves (and perhaps try to recoup our losses by selling the original trim on eBay).
Base versions of the ATS include a 4.2-inch color information display, which we weren't able to see in person, presumably because Cadillac was pushing its CUE system, a voice-activated proprietary interface with an iPad-like 8-inch touchscreen. While past Cadillac models were fraught with an overwhelming number of buttons on the center stack, CUE drastically cuts down the number of controls to just a handful. It controls audio and telephone functions, as well as directions and map information on cars equipped with navigation.
Unlike many luxury vehicles with proprietary interfaces (like the BMW iDrive and Mercedes Benz's COMAND system), there is no control knob on the center console. All functions are performed either through voice or via the touchscreen. However, CUE doesn't appear on the base model, and navigation costs extra on all but the most expensive trim levels.
CUE's home menu is configurable so you can access your favorite functions easily. It also uses proximity sensing, which saves extra steps and keeps your attention better focused on the road. When driving, CUE will display full-screen maps or audio information; but when your hand is nearby, it automatically brings up menu options related to the current function on the screen.
We were pleasantly surprised by the navigation and voice activation. Voice recognition systems can be painfully inaccurate (just ask anyone with the latest iPhone), but CUE's is impressive. It understands natural voice commands, meaning you don't need to use pre-canned terms to get it to do something. Even better, it can correctly identify difficult names from an address book, although it will most likely butcher the pronunciation when repeating it back to you.
While CUE is mostly user-friendly, there are still a few oddities. One of these is that it uses physical buttons on the center stack, located below the screen, for the climate control's fan speed and temperature. However, if you want to change vent mode, you have to go into the CUE menu. Another thing that annoyed us was the barrage of fingerprints that appeared on the screen after just a few minutes of use. The ATS does come with a microfiber cleaning cloth, but it's not an elegant solution.
Front seats are comfortable and offer a good range of adjustability, from petite to tall. Because it's a smaller, sporty car, bolsters hug the driver and front passenger tighter than in other Cadillac models, which is a good thing when navigating winding roads. On cars equipped with the optional Driver Awareness Package, the driver's seat will vibrate when the lane departure warning or forward collision alert is activated. If a vibrating seat isn't your style, you can change the warning to an audible tone. As for us, we think the vibrators should have a manual on/off switch and be repurposed as seat massagers.
In back, legroom is on the tight side, but comparable for a car of this class. It offers about the same as the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, but about an inch and a half less than the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series sedan. It's a similar story with rear headroom; the ATS is comparable to the Mercedes, but falls about an inch short when compared to the Audi and BMW. This is especially curious considering the overall length of the ATS is two inches longer than the C-Class, and practically three inches longer than the A4.
Trunk space in the ATS falls short of that of the Audi A4 and Mercedes C250, which offer 12.4 cubic feet of cargo space, and the BMW 328i, which offers a roomy 13 cubic feet.
The Cadillac ATS architecture was built from the ground up, using a combination of several metals, including high-strength steel, aluminum, magnesium, and many others. Together, they help achieve rigidity and lightness, while still maintaining attainable pricing. The result is a solid, stable chassis that is wonderfully compliant on the road as well as on the track, with a hunkered-down feel and little-to-zero body roll. The near-50/50 weight distribution keeps the car feeling balanced and controllable around all twists and turns.
We drove the 2.5-liter Luxury ATS sedan on the street, and while it was perfectly adequate for freeway cruising and tooling around town, we much prefer the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which Cadillac expects will account for the majority of ATS models on the road. With its twin-scroll design, torque is readily available on the low end, with a smooth power band and imperceptible lag. Passing was easy, and we never felt short of power, except perhaps a tad around sweeping turns up steep inclines.
The cabin of the ATS is very quiet. We noticed very little road or wind noise while driving. Even the direct-injection engines, which are notorious for their clickety-clackety ticks, couldn't be heard much in the cabin, thanks to plentiful and well-placed sound insulation.
The 6-speed manual transmission was mostly a joy to drive, although we occasionally found ourselves rowing between third and fourth on demanding roads, frustrated that the latter was too tall and the former was strained and noisy. We found the same issue on ATS models equipped with the 6-speed automatic: a gap in the ratios between third and fourth gears. Still, we applaud Cadillac for offering a manual option in a world where others seem to be going the way entirely of paddle shifters.
On the track, we found the 2.0-liter turbo engine had plenty of power to make it fun, but not quite enough to make it effortless. For those who actually like to work for a lap time, that's a good thing. The 3.6-liter V6 with Magnetic Ride Control, however, was another story. The favorable power-to-weight ratio with the V6 in the ATS makes for a dynamite ride. After a few laps in the ATS V6, it's impossible not to dive into the pit lane smiling.
On both models, the Brembo performance brakes stopped quickly and efficiently.
We have mixed feelings about the ZF-sourced variable-effort electric steering. Nearly everyone is going to electric steering now, much to the chagrin of some die-hard enthusiasts. The steering gear used in the ATS is belt-driven, which Cadillac claims makes for a smoother feel, but we found it a little numb on demanding racetrack turns. Still, we think most drivers will find it satisfyingly responsive in a range of driving situations.
The EPA gives the ATS 2.5-liter model with rear-wheel drive a fuel economy rating of 22/33 mpg City/Highway. Estimates for the 2.0-liter turbo with the automatic transmission are 21/31 mpg City/Highway. The 3.6-liter V6 is rated 18/28 mpg City/Highway; ATS AWD automatic is rated 18/26 mpg. The V6, if properly equipped, can run up to 85 percent ethanol, but E85 fuel gets a dismal 14/21 mpg rating and the EPA estimates it will add $600 to your annual fuel bill.
The 2014 Cadillac ATS is a well-executed compact luxury sports sedan with performance that keeps up with the best from Germany. Sporting rear-wheel drive and a rigid chassis, it's quiet, fun and easy to drive, whether mildly or energetically. A range of powertrains offers a wide range of price, performance, and economy.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Cadillac ATS sedan models near Atlanta.