Mention “Small Cadillac” to any car enthusiast and I assure you that you will not get a positive reaction. Why? One reason: the Cadillac Cimarron. Basically a tarted up Chevy Cavalier, the Cimarron was available from 1982 to 1988 but the damage to Cadillac’s reputation is, obviously, still talked about today. Traditional Cadillac buyers were unimpressed, and the Cimarron did not win over any buyer considering a European sport sedan. The car was a complete disaster on every level.
The Cadillac ATS symbolizes the marque’s return to a smaller car, but this is not 1982. Thirty years after the Cimarron debuted, Cadillac introduced the ATS, and it was made loud and clear that the BMW 3-series was its main target. In 1982 everyone laughed when Cadillac said the same thing, and I still wonder if Cadillac was joking when they said it at the time, or if they really were that delusional. But this time around, it is not a joke, and nothing to laugh at. Cadillac has completely turned itself around, with the well-received CTS proving they have what it takes to run with the big dogs. Still, with a track record like Cadillac and small cars, it takes a lot of guts to stand up, point straight at The Benchmark BMW and point blank say “We are coming after you.”
To look at, the CTS is arguably one of the most attractive Cadillacs seen since the Pininfarina designed Allante. With no design history tying down designers, the ATS design team was given a clean slate. The ATS is instantly recognizable as a Cadillac, but is easily the best interpretation of their current design language. For years, everyone thought their sport sedan would succeed if they simply made it “look German”. It did not work. The ATS is modern American luxury at its finest. A near perfect mix of contemporary styling, elegance, sophistication and aggression all come together for one of the most perfectly executed cars offered by an American car company. Gorgeous LED exterior lighting, along with our car’s optional White Diamond Tri-Coat paint and 18″ wheels were icing on the cake.
Inside, the ATS is instantly recognizable as a modern Cadillac. Fit and finish and quality of materials were about what you would expect, and the cabin was certainly quite pleasant to look at. While comfortable over long distances, the ATS’ seats fall short of the competition in terms of comfort and support. Cadillac, I urge you to buy a Volvo S60 just for the sole purpose of tearing its seats apart and learning how it is done. Then there is the matter of CUE, short for Cadillac User Experience. Until now, all GM cars had a fairly intuitive infotainment interface, but Cadillac has gone a step further with CUE. Oh, I meant a step backward. In a week living with the ATS, I could never figure out how to set a radio station preset. It took me three days to figure out how to work the haptic climate control on the center stack, and I own an Android phone and an iPad. I get that Cadillac is trying to be hi-tech and cutting edge, but what is the point if all you are doing is frustrating the end user?
CUE headaches aside, it seemed like I was the only one having fun inside the ATS. The interior of the ATS is tight quarters, especially in the backseat. The ATS served as the Williams family car over Christmas, which is a tough test for any car. Our holiday started with a mad dash to lovely Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. At first glance, I could tell the rear seat was tight quarters, but with a child’s booster seat and two adults it was claustrophobic. While doing interior photography of the ATS, with the driver’s seat set for my 6′ 1″ frame, I barely had any room when I took a seat behind for pictures. It also doesn’t help the ATS suffers from a pitifully tiny trunk (10.2 cubic feet). For a weekend trip of a family of three with no present larger than a box of Lego’s, the ATS trunk was filled to capacity, and the rest had to ride in the backseat. Yes, the ATS is a four door, but as a family car, there are compromises.
For drivetrains, Cadillac offers a wide variety of choices for the ATS buyer. Starting at the bottom, a 2.5L four cylinder rated at 202hp. Critics are quick to dismiss this engine as unrefined and slow. While close in power to an Audi A4’s 2.oT, it appears this engine just does not make the grade. Next step up is a 2.0L turbocharged four rated at a more healthy 272hp. At the top of the ladder is a 3.6L V-6 rated at 321hp, which is what our test car was equipped with. All ATS’ come equipped with a six-speed automatic, but the 2.0L Turbo can be had with a six-speed manual. Come on Cadillac, you offered the V-6 Cimarron with a 5-speed manual, why not with the V-6 ATS? Also, all ATS’ are rear wheel drive, but all-wheel drive is available on the turbo four and V-6 models.
I alluded that I was the only person smiling in the ATS, and that is for good reason. Cadillac has constructed an excellent performer in the ATS. The V-6 engine, although used in other GM cars, seems to have been made specifically for the ATS. Shifts from the automatic are crisp and intuitive, and I never felt the need to use the magnesium shift paddles. Acceleration was quick off the line (Edmunds tested a 0-60mph run in 5.7 seconds in the same car). Cruising at speed on the interstate was blissful, and cutting through traffic at a rapid rate while my family dozed off proved the Cadillac’s highway prowess. On the hilly, twisting farm roads of Lancaster County, the ATS was a lively, willing partner ready to dance. For an all-wheel drive V-6 sedan, the ATS boasts a relatively low curb weight around 3,600lbs. Add to that a near perfect front/rear weight distribution and Brembo brakes up front help explain why the ATS is such a pleasure to drive. From a driving perspective, Cadillac nailed it.
The ATS is available in four trim levels: Base, Luxury, Performance, and Premium. The base car starts at just over $33,oooUSD. Our test car was a Performance model with the V-6 with all-wheel drive. Standard on our car were handcrafted cut and sewn leather interior, power front seats with memory, Bose audio, SiriusXM and HD radio, Bluetooth, alloy pedals, dual zone auto climate control, LED interior lighting, front and rear parking assist, rear vision camera, and remote keyless entry. Options on our test car included the tri-coat paint, 18″ wheels, and Cold Weather Package (heated seats, heated steering wheel), and navigation. As delivered, our ATS had an MSRP of $47,780, a good buy compared to our similarly equipped four cylinder BMW 328i.
It is evident everywhere you look that Cadillac has tried their hardest at aiming their sights on the BMW 3-series, and for their first efforts, the work put into this car has paid off. The ATS is gorgeous to look at, and offers driving dynamics to match the best the competition has to offer. Yet, no matter how great a driver’s car the ATS may be, there is one hurdle no amount of work and engineering can overcome. Brand perception. During my Christmas week with the ATS, meeting with family and friends who are fellow members of Generation X, even after taking in the beautiful profile of the ATS, took one look at the Cadillac wreath and crest on the front fascia and immediately called me out for driving an old man’s car. Which is unfair to the ATS, because it is not. Cadillac perfected the driving experience and styling of the ATS, but a cramped interior, confusing infotainment interface and tiny trunk are detractors to an otherwise excellent car. Us car guys know Cadillac has made tremendous strides in the past decade, but with a car like the ATS ready to take on the best, is the brand still doomed by the average person with a perception this is a car for senior citizens? The sales numbers will tell the story.