by Larry Printz
photography provided by Cadillac
Cadillac spent decades convincing Americans that a Nimitz-sized, gas-gulping car with nautical handling was – as the ads proclaimed – “The Standard of the World.” And it was, until the world intervened – in the form of two oil embargoes.
Since then, the famed luxury brand has been trying to convince consumers that a “small Cadillac” isn’t an oxymoron. At first, success. When the midsize Cadillac Seville was introduced in 1976, it proved wildly popular. But oh, the audacity! It was smallest Cadillac – and the priciest.
The company itself didn’t seem convinced, let alone the public. As downsizing swept across the brand, it seemed as if the company’s heart wasn’t in it. There was that dreadful poser, the 1981 Cimarron; then the ridiculously Lilliputian 1986 Eldorado; and finally that odd import, the 1997 Catera.
These cars might have been smaller in size, but they were smaller in spirit as well. Where was that Cadillac swagger?
Two vehicles helped Cadillac regain its product mojo: the 1999 Escalade SUV, which reinterpreted big Cadillacs for the new millennium, and the 2003 CTS sedan, a midsize sedan that showed Cadillac living up to its marketing and truly challenging cars from Europe.
A decade later, Cadillac’s growing confidence can be seen in the all-new 2013 ATS, the smallest Cadillac in 32 years. This is a rear-wheel-drive sedan meant to take on the BMW 3 Series – not to mention the Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Oh, the audacity!
Skeptical? Cadillac feels your doubt. The company knows that customer
acceptance might be slow in coming.
“BMW has been in this space for 28 years,” said Kurt Ghering, ATS marketing manager, referring to the six-cylinder 3 Series. “We know it’s not going to change overnight, but we really wanted to build a car that gives this huge segment another option. No excuses.”
This is more than mere marketing Kool-Aid served up in a martini glass. GM ignored its time-honored tradition of tarting up a front-drive Chevrolet or German Opel. It resisted the urge to cut down the CTS architecture to ATS size. Instead, it did something unusual for GM: It created a new rear-wheel-drive platform that’s 500 pounds lighter and 8 inches shorter than the CTS.
The styling is softer than that of its sibling, yet it possesses an unapologetic mix of rock ’n’ roll, glamour, sophistication and a bit of flash. Cadillac no longer slathers on the chrome with a trowel, but it’s still generous where it counts: under the hood.
The ATS’ top-of-the-line engine, a 321-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6, has the
effortless, refined feel you’d expect of a luxury ride. The same can be said of the smooth, powerful turbo-charged 272-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which is almost as fast as the V6. It reaches 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, while returning fuel economy estimated by GM at 22 mpg city, 32 highway. So why did Cadillac bother to
offer the unrefined base engine, a 202-hp 2.5-liter four?
Regardless of engine, the six-speed automatic transmission shifts quickly, dropping several gears if necessary to unleash performance. A six-speed manual is optional on the turbo; all-wheel-drive is available with the 2.0-liter and 3.6-
You’ll put that power to good use; the ATS’ handling is impressive. On the road it’s comfortable and confident. On the track it performs predictably,
precisely and securely, communicating its intentions. Cadillac’s efforts to keep most ATS models below 3,500 pounds contribute to the car’s nimble feel in
corners, aided by the precise power steering. All ATS models have four-wheel disc brakes. Brembo performance brakes are optional, as is automatic braking, which automatically stops the car if a collision is imminent.
However, before that happens, you might feel the “safety alert seat” activate. This option notifies the driver if the car wanders out of its lane. Unlike other
systems, which ring a chime that alerts passengers to your lousy driving,
Cadillac’s system discreetly vibrates the driver’s seat on the side of the car that’s wandering out of the lane.
The seats are comfortable and well-bolstered, with decent leg room. Surprisingly, Cadillac has done what few manufacturers at any price have done: padded the vertical edge of the center console, the glovebox door and the door panel. This way, taller passengers have a comfortable spot to rest their legs. Another nice touch: The center console lid is low enough to allow your arm to rest on it while shifting.
Like an increasing number of new cars, there’s a large center touch screen to activate the phone, climate and infotainment items. Below it are redundant touch-sensitive switches. The switches have a bit of feedback when you touch them, so you can sense that they’re working – a thoughtful feature. Also nice: The navigation system uses a small drawing of a car when pointing the way to your destination, rather than using an arrow.
The fact that Cadillac can build both the CTS and ATS, cars that can truly challenge the best in the world, is remarkable given that 26 years ago, it was still building land yachts with soggy handling.
But Cadillac’s attention to detail in the ATS, whether it’s convenience
features, fuel economy, size, power, design or handling, will go far to banish the sins of the past.
Like the CTS before it, the ATS unapologetically meets its competition head on. It’s that good.
Oh, the audacity!