It’s no secret that BMW’s 3 Series has enjoyed a lengthy reign above all others in the compact sports sedan segment. The company’s unwavering focus on performance has made the 3 Series the benchmark all other sports sedans are judged against, and its best-selling model. It hasn’t hurt that the sedan serves as a beautiful specimen of German design, either. It’s the car equivalent of Brad Pitt and David Beckham miraculously spawning some Greek god of an offspring; a supreme specimen of sport sedan greatness – with great abs to boot.
Then there is Cadillac. The American luxury brand enjoyed its greatest success in the 1960s and 70s, proving the popular choice for both AARP card holders and Father Time. Since adopting its “Art and Science” design philosophy in 2003, Cadillac has attempted to move away from its glittering past and move towards more modern, edgy designs.
To that end, Cadillac hopes its brand-new 2013 Cadillac ATS can marshal in a new era that ends BMW’s sport-luxury dominance. But does it accomplish its mission? Can the ATS be mentioned in the same breath as the 3 Series? Given its devilishly styled exterior, Cadillac Cue infotainment system, and buoyant road manners, it sure is looking that way.
Beautifully crafted, but a little cramped
The well-appointed cabin in the 2013 ATS mixes sporty with a healthy helping of luxury. Materials feel top tier, with supple leathers adorning the seats and steering wheel, and stitched trim sprinkled throughout the dash. For the go-fast enthusiast, Cadillac offers a variety of trim details, including carbon fiber and metal, or for that truly old-school charm, wood.
From an ergonomic standpoint, the ATS’s design is logical. The curvature of the dash sweeps across the driver’s position and places everything within comfortable reach. The two front seats are separated by a swooping center console that houses the Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system (more on that later) and further lends the cabin a sporty and futuristic feel.
Luxury sport sedans are known for prioritizing performance – one of the reasons BMW has excelled so easily in this segment – but the ATS isn’t without its comforts. Heated seats and a heated steering wheel provide a warm shield on nippy mornings and during winter months, while a 12-way driver and 10-way passenger power steering and lumbar support ensure maximum comfort for drivers of all sizes.
The situation, however, is less rosy in back. While head room is ample for medium-to average-height passengers, leg room is more abundant in a high-school locker. The ATS might claim to seat four, but in reality, any more than two will be uncomfortable. Trunk space is also limited with a mere 10.2 cubic feet.
Where form and function meet
The digital experience within the ATS revolves around the Cadillac User Experience, or CUE. Housed in a gorgeous 8-inch full color touch display, CUE is one of the best in-car infotainment systems we’ve come across. The touchscreen responds to simple swipes and touches with ease, and gestures like pinch-to-zoom will make tablet and smartphone owners feel right at home.
Speaking of screens, the homescreen is sleek, uncluttered, and fully customizable, allowing for quick and easy access to frequently used icons. There is even a nifty proximity sensor located on the dash that detects your hand as it approaches the touchscreen. What’s more, a haptic feedback system vibrates slightly every time an icon is pressed on screen. It takes a little getting used to, but it eliminates the need to look at the touchscreen to ensure you’ve entered a command, so you can keep your eyes firmly on the road.
We did encounter some frustration entering a destination’s address, since CUE requires you to input them as one long string (rather than separate state, city, and street). We recommend using the ATS’ voice-recognition feature instead.
Maps are vivid, easy to decipher, and can be viewed in both 2D and 3D. CUE still can’t match Audi’s Google-sourced map displays, but it comes in a close second. Drivers can litter the screen with a number of points of interest icons (POI) ranging from gas stations, restaurants, shopping centers, and more. After you enter a destination, the nav conveniently spits out directions via voice, the center console display, and – by far the coolest method – through the windshield’s heads up display (HUD).
Audiophiles will be happy to learn that the ATS comes equipped with a 10-speaker Bose sound system. In addition to your standard AM/FM Stereo, HD Radio, Sirius Satellite Radio, and CD player, the ATS allows for simple Bluetooth connection via smartphone. Pairing is easy, and allows users to stream music from a phone to the car. It also supports Internet streaming apps such as Spotify and Pandora, the latter of which has been built into the CUE system, allowing you to gives songs a thumbs up or down from the car rather than your phone. It won’t exactly blow you away, but it’s a nice addition nonetheless.
A safety net on wheels
The 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6-liter Premium model comes standard with Cadillac’s Driver Awareness package, which includes a Safety Alert Seat and Lane Departure Warning system. Safety Alert Seat vibrates the driver’s seat if the car drifts unintentionally into another marked lane. While competing systems use audible cues, physical vibration did a much better job of grabbing our attention. Cars have a tendency to get loud: Considering music, road noise, and a kid or two in the backseat, vibrating alerts make more sense than a chime.
The Driver Awareness package includes a Forward Collision Alert system that uses front-facing sensors to detect oncoming traffic. In addition to seat vibration, the HUD flashes a visual and audible warning when approaching vehicles at unsafe speeds, giving drivers additional time to react.
Our review unit also came with an optional Driver Assist Package ($3,000) that includes a number of advanced safety features: Automatic collision preparation uses front mounted sensors to detect if a collision is imminent and applies brakes accordingly; front and rear automatic braking functions similarly and uses radar and ultrasonic sensors to protect against both front and rear collisions (like virtual bumpers); rear cross-traffic alert notifies of approaching left and right cross traffic when reversing; and active blind spot monitoring illuminates icons located on the ATS’s side mirrors when a car has drifted into a blind spot. Rounding out the safety tech features is a rear-facing backup camera.
The slow evolution of “Art and Science”
The ATS carries a style and confidence that moves away from the deliberately jagged edges of the old “Art and Science” styled Caddies, and into a more a more modern design that looks every bit as stunning as what’s rolling off the lines in Stuttgart and Munich.
No other automaker has challenged Audi, the current innovators and leaders in LED headlights, as directly as Cadillac has with the ATS. Up front, the long, tapered LED headlights are vibrant and cut an imposing figure day or night. They not only look stunning, but compliment the bold geometric shapes of the ATS’s grille. This signature maw is less ostentatious than in previous Cadillacs, proving less intimidating from afar, but much more refined up close.
From the side, the ATS cuts a sporty profile, with a raked roofline that swoops elegantly down to the elongated taillamps then rounds out as it tucks below the car.
An economical taste for power
Our top-tier review unit came equipped with a 3.6-liter V6 producing a hefty 321 horsepower and 274 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Of course, those seeking a less throaty (more economical) ATS can downsize to a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 202 hp and 190 pound-feet of torque, or a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 272 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. Buyers can opt for either rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive configurations, except with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, which only comes in RWD.
Surprisingly, fuel economy from the V6 is rather impressive: EPA numbers place the RWD V6 at 19 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway, and 22 mpg combined. Buyers checking AWD off the order list can expect 18 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 21 mpg combined with the same engine.
One confident Caddy
If you’re going place a target on the back of the BMW 3 Series, you had better be packing some serious firepower in your arsenal. While the ATS matches the 3 Series’ styling blow for blow, and emerges victorious when it comes to onboard safety and convenience tech, the real question for longtime BMW fans and buyers is whether or not Cadillac’s ATS can surpass the 3 Series’ almost mythic handling.
Truthfully, it’s too close to call. On the road, the ATS delivers a poise and character unlike anything we’ve witnessed from Cadillac before. There is an assuredness in corners that matches the best Bavaria has to offer, while highway cruising and road imperfections are soaked up by a finely-tuned suspension that will appease enthusiasts and comfort-seekers alike. Further credit must be given to Cadillac for its electric steering setup, which is both responsive and perfectly weighted, reducing driver fatigue during longer jaunts.
Some gearheads will curse Cadillac’s decision not to offer a manual transmission with the V6, but we envision purists opting for the RWD turbo four-cylinder anyway, which provides the option for a six-speed manual. The grizzlier V6 option we reviewed panders more to the luxury crowd.
Cadillac’s calculated approach to slaying the 3 Series is admirably ambitious. While the jury is still out as to whether or not the ATS bests its German rival, there is no denying it clearly calls BMW’s dominance in the luxury sedan segment into question. It might not prove an out-and-out winner, but the ATS has definitely blurred the lines, and with any hope, the decision makers over at BMW will have taken notice.
Of course, performance is only one metric, and the ATS outshines competitors most brightly on the technological front. CUE is a step above the competition in nearly every category, and the amount of safety tech, while embryonic even at this stage, is truly impressive. The BMW 3 Series will likely remain the industry standard for performance luxury sedans (at least for now), but the ATS’s onboard tech suite sets the standard from which all infotainment systems should be judged.
- CUE infotainment system is sleek, stylish, and easy to use
- Handling brims with confidence
- Sharp styling, LED lights look amazing day and night
- Backseat feels cramped
- Purist may balk because it’s not a Bimmer
- Exterior may not appeal to everyone