2013 Cadillac ATS first drive
Is Cadillac's new small car on track to hit the big time?
Atlanta, Ga. — Let's cut to the chase. No preambles about land yachts, no reminders of the unspeakable C******n. Anyone who has ever driven a CTS-V knows with certainty that Cadillac today already has the ability to engineer a world-class performance sedan.
What Cadillac needs now is to offer those skills to a wider, and younger, audience. The largest piece of the luxury market, and the entry point for new customers, is the compact sport sedan. "We had to be there," says marketing V-P Don Butler.
For decades, the segment has been defined by the BMW 3 Series, and the 3er was Cadillac's target from the moment the ATS was first conceived. Nothing less than a clean-sheet design would do. And the all-new architecture created for ATS was jealously guarded against being compromised for sharing with lesser GM brands.
The development mandate — or should that be mantra? — was "quick, nimble, fun-to-drive." Need we even mention that the ATS is primarily rear-wheel drive?
Every gram had to earn its way in
Obsessive about minimizing weight, "we celebrated whenever an engineer came in with a 50-gram savings," said ATS program engineering manager Larry Craig. It wasn't only about less weight, but also weight in the right places. Aluminum is used freely in the front end, yet the rear suspension is steel and the axle housing cast iron. Why? In part, to help ATS replicate the 50:50 weight distribution that underpins BMW's Ultimate Driving Machine ethos.
Craig is also proud his team avoided the size creep that commonly plagues car development. An odd thing about that, though, is that the ATS is almost identical in size to the current 3 Series, even though its dimensions were set during the era of the smaller previous-generation 3 Series. Still, the ATS is right-sized for its segment — handily larger than a Lexus IS, marginally longer than a Mercedes C-Class, not quite as big as the Audi A4.
That's on the outside. Inside, though, the ATS falls short. Our butts-in-seats assessment reveals sub-par room in the rear for adult knees and feet. Even GM's own data says the trunk is among the smallest of any compact car at less than 300 L.
The right hardware in the right place
Some of the ATS's rear underbelly is occupied by the battery, which resides there in the name of weight distribution. And maybe ATS's performance-focused version of a five-link rear suspension (Cadillac's first, though old hat for the Europeans) needs more space than alternative layouts.
The front suspension emulates 3 Series — dual-pivot MacPherson struts, and a direct-acting stabilizer bar — while Cadillac shares with BMW the same supplier (ZF) for its electric power steering.
Except, the ATS's steering is better. In fact, it's terrific — pin-sharp and weighted just right, without the mushy resistance that masquerades as "feel" in many rivals. That said, the ATS's edge may prove short-lived. According to Craig, Cadillac identified issues with the EPS and suggested improvements to ZF that have also trickled back to BMW's version. Oh well.
Most versions of the ATS will be stopped by Brembo-supplied brakes with special rust-resistant rotors. Also available is Magnetic Ride Control, a GM-pioneered form of continuously-variable damping that one engineer called "Cadillac's gift to the world."