Even 1980s kids remember when taking a road trip in a Cadillac meant hopping in a softly-suspended sedan with a hood as long as a Mazda Miata is wide. The reputation for making land yachts hung around Cadillac’s neck like a millstone until decision-makers boldly blazed a new path a few years ago. Though it’s at the end of its career, the ATS superbly embodies the transformation process the brand launched when it decided to make sharper, nimbler, and smarter cars that drive as well as they look.
Our 2018 Cadillac ATS Sedan review took place in and around New York City. Our test subject is a rear-wheel drive Luxury model, which is the second trim level in the ATS hierarchy. It’s positioned above the base version of the car but below the upmarket Premium Luxury and Premium Performance trims.
The ATS carries a base price of $35,495 before Cadillac factors in a mandatory $995 destination charge. The Luxury model tested here starts at $39,295. Our tester boasted an array of options including upgraded brakes, plus the safety and security package. They collectively bumped its price to $47,255.
Cadillac jettisoned the ATS in the cut-throat compact sports sedan segment. Its main rivals include the usual team of German nationals that have historically ruled the roost: the Audi A4, the BMW 3 Series, and the Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Buyers can also consider the Alfa Romeo Giulia, the Infiniti Q50, and the Lexus IS as worthy competitors.
Interior and tech
Dressed up with wood and leather, the ATS’ interior makes an excellent first impression. Most of the materials within the driver’s reach and line of sight are excellent. You’ll find cheaper materials like hard plastics if you know where to look, such as on the rear center console or on the bottom part of the dashboard, but we can say the same thing about all of its rivals. That’s par for the course for the segment. What matters is that Cadillac cut no corners where it counts, and channeled its decades-long experience of making lavish cars into its entry-level model without faking it. The ATS looks – and, significantly, feels – like a proper luxury car.
Cadillac cut no corners and channeled its decades-long experience of making lavish cars into its entry-level model.
It sounds like one, too, thanks to the surprisingly powerful Bose surround-sound system. The 10-speaker setup delivers crystal-clear sound regardless of whether it’s playing Shostakovich or At the Drive-In; we tried both. We assumed it was a costly option, but a quick glance at the window sticker reveals it’s included on the list of standard features. Not having to pay an extra grand (or more) for high-quality sound is a big plus for audiophiles.
The big news inside is on the center console. The eight-inch, haptic feedback-enabled touch screen displays Cadillac’s latest infotainment system. The differences jump off the screen as soon as you turn the ignition on. The home menu is more smartphone-like than its predecessor’s and, consequently, much more straight-forward to navigate.
The system also feels shallower; returning to the home screen is as simple as hitting a button on the bottom left side of the screen. Performing the same task in the previous infotainment system – which we tested last year in the ATS-V – required pushing a physical button located on the panel below the screen.
Cadillac also redesigned and rearranged the graphics. We noted dozens of small changes that make a world of difference when you use the infotainment system on a daily basis. If you don’t like it, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility both come standard. Cadillac also throws in 4G LTE Wi-Fi.
The graphics themselves remain acceptable. They’re on par with the rest of the segment, meaning they’re nothing to gush about, but they’re not appalling, either. The system responds quickly to input and it’s easy to use. There is less of a learning curve than before. We still wish Cadillac would bring back the good ol’ volume knob. It made a return on the recently updated CT6, the brand’s flagship sedan, so there’s hope we’ll again see it on smaller models one day.
The 10-speaker setup delivers crystal-clear sound regardless of whether it’s playing Shostakovich or at the Drive-In.
The instrument cluster is a fairly straight-forward unit that blends analog gauges with a configurable screen. Cadillac positioned the tachometer on the left side of the cluster. The speedometer is located front and center, where it’s easy to read, while the fuel and temperature gauges are on the right of it. Using buttons on the three-spoke steering wheel lets the driver change the type of info shown on the color screen below the speedometer. The options include the oil life, the battery voltage, the follow distance in seconds, and the direction of travel.
There is space for five adults in the ATS, though we’d ask for a round of rock, paper, scissors before agreeing to sit on the middle part of the rear bench for any significant amount of time. It’s fine for shorter drives, like a quick jaunt to lunch, or for kids.
The ATS offers a less spacious rear seat than most of its rivals. Up front however, adults of every size will have no trouble finding a pleasant seating position, thanks in part to the numerous adjustment options. The front seats are comfortable and well-bolstered without being too aggressive. We liked the driving position, too, and appreciated the good visibility.
Trunk space checks in at 10.4 cubic feet, which is coupe-like and on the low side of the segment: the C-Class boasts 12.6 cubes while the 3 Series offers 13. Hell, even the BMW 4 Series convertible beats it. To its credit, Cadillac added several storage bins, including one cleverly hidden behind the touch-sensitive panel that houses the buttons for the climate control settings. It also doubles as a wireless charging pad and hides a USB port.
The ATS can’t sell on looks or tech alone; that doesn’t cut it in this segment. Buyers in the market for a compact luxury sedan expect a relatively high level of driving dynamics, and not delivering it would be marketing suicide. To that end, our ATS came with a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that uses direct fuel-injection to make 272 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 295 pound-feet of torque between 3,000 and 4,600 rpm, outputs that are average for the segment.
Its electric power steering is sharp and direct, yet light enough to make maneuvering the car into a tight New York parking garage a stress-free experience.
The list of drivetrain options includes a six-speed manual transmission, an eight-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive. Ours came with the eight-speed and rear-wheel drive, which is one of the most popular combinations.
We got a taste of what the ATS’ lightweight chassis is capable of when we drove the hot-rodded ATS-V. Many of the genes that make the V a great performance car trickle down to the standard ATS, though they’re obviously a little bit more muted. Its electric power steering is sharp and direct, yet light enough to make maneuvering the car into a tight New York parking garage a stress-free experience.
The Brembo-designed brakes exhibit very little fade, and the automatic transmission goes through the gears smoothly. It’s possible to shift gears manually using the gear selector, but we rarely used that option; the eight-speed does its best work when left alone, unless you require a downshift in a real hurry.
The turbo four barely makes its presence known. It’s quiet, even with the optional exhaust package. It certainly makes its presence felt, though. It revs quickly as it propels the ATS from zero to 60 mph in a little under six seconds, which makes merging on the highway an effortless proposition. It’s a flexible engine that’s happy to cruise at 75 mph yet content staying in town, gliding from stoplight to stoplight. It’s happiest when it’s working out.
Not offering adaptive cruise control on the turbo four-equipped ATS shows a grandiose lack of foresight.
The best trait the ATS shares with the V – and the one that helps it stand out in a crowded sea of competitors – is its lively handling, which we partly attribute to the near-perfect front-back weight distribution. It scores high on the fun-to-drive scale. Cadillac configured our tester for touring, not as an all-out sports car, yet it feels sportier than many comparable sedans on twisty roads. It’s willing to dance to the beat of the turns in the road.
We suspect the turbo four-equipped ATS is even better in this respect than the model with the naturally-aspirated V6 because it weighs less, though we couldn’t drive both back-to-back. The trade-off is that the suspension, though compliant, isn’t as supple as you’ll find in, say, the C-Class. That’s especially noticeable in an area like New York City, where filling potholes would be a career on its own. The firmness is either good or bad depending on your driving style. The enthusiast in us liked it; we understand those who don’t and instead seek a soft, more mother-in-law-friendly ride.
The EPA rates the ATS at 22 mpg in the city, 31 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg in a combined cycle. It’s less efficient than its main rivals; the BMW 320i posts 24, 35, and 28, respectively. We averaged about 23 mpg during our drive, which included city driving, highway driving, and a few miles’ worth of the New York area’s finest traffic jams.
Cadillac didn’t skimp on safety. The ATS comes with front, front side, and even knee airbags for the front passengers. It also offers front and rear side curtain airbags in addition to stability and traction control systems. It’s one of the safest cars in its class. It also comes with the peace of mind of a five-star crash test rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The driving aids – like lane-keeping assist and follow distance indicator – work as advertised. And though we’re endlessly curious about the cars we drive, we decided not to test the forward collision alert system; you’re welcome, Cadillac. Finally, our ATS didn’t come with adaptive cruise control because it’s only available on cars equipped with the V6. Ours fell two cylinders short.
Adaptive cruise control is a technology that’s spreading fast across the automotive industry; the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla now offer it. We’re not saying it should be standard — car companies need to make money — but not offering the technology at all amounts to a grandiose lack of foresight, especially in this segment. Mercedes made it available on the C-Class as soon as the current model arrived in showrooms in 2014.
The ATS comes with Cadillac’s four-year, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. It covers any part that breaks due to a defect or a build quality issue, though it doesn’t include routine maintenance. Cadillac also backs the ATS’ two-liter turbo four and eight-speed automatic with a powertrain warranty valid for six years or 70,000 miles, whichever comes first.
How DT would configure this car
If we were spending our own money, we’d stick with the Luxury trim tested here. We’d swap the eight-speed automatic transmission for the six-speed stick but we’d keep rear-wheel drive. And, make ours with the safety and security package, please. It bundles a long list of desirable options like automatic windshield wipers, lane-keeping assist, and forward collision alert.
We like the Cadillac’s balanced approach to luxury. It’s posh and sporty without running too far in either direction, and its distinctive design plays the curb appeal card while paying tribute to some of Cadillac’s classic models. The infotainment upgrades for 2018 make it a better car to live with, and it’s as engaging to drive as it’s ever been. It’s a remarkable effort on Cadillac’s part. It’s also the best American-made sports sedan on the market.
The ATS Sedan isn’t for everyone, though. There are better alternatives on the market. The Mercedes-Benz C-Class is more comfortable and newer. Nearly all of its rivals offer more space, including the BMW 3 Series, while the Audi A4 puts a bigger emphasis on tech. It’s possible to credibly argue the Alfa Romeo Giulia looks better, though we’ll let you make the final call.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the sports sedan question. If you can live with a small trunk and rarely use the back seat, and if you value enthusiast-friendly cornering prowess, the ATS is worth your money. But, if you tick these boxes, the ritzier and mechanically identical ATS Coupe is the one to buy. Act fast if your heart is set on an ATS Sedan; Cadillac has confirmed the model isn’t long for this world.