The cars we loved.
BMW’s 3 Series sits atop a holy trinity of compact German performance sedans that includes Audi’s A4 and the Mercedes C-Class. Quite often new competitors are announced, hoping to take the crown from the Germans. Cadillac has had more than its share of attempts, often failing sometimes miserably (Cimmarron anyone?). Even as competitors have tried to make a 3 Series clone, some purists have complained that the 3 Series has evolved into a softer car with each new generation, losing its edge in the process. The identity crisis seems to be spreading among the other popular German brands also. Mercedes has become softer riding like the old Cadillac once was, while Audi struggles to distinguish itself from an fast emerging VW. Amidst all this brand blurring, Cadillac has buried its pimp/ganster/old person image and has been working to topple this trinity or place itself somewhere in it.
The CTS (a 5 series competitor) was a good start but was too big. Cadillac decided that a smaller car would be needed to compete directly with the 328i. The old GM might have spruced up a Chevy Malibu or worse a Cruze and called it a day, but Cadillac knew that any real 3-Series competitor would have to be propelled from the rear, have an ideal weight balance and be light on its feet. While bench marking the E46 3-Series, Cadillac hoped to best what was considered the best of the 3 series before it got too soft, heavy or complicated. Looking backwards at one of its competitors cars might have seemed odd, but the E46 was considered the 3 Series at it’s best where balance, driver feel and comfort were concerned. The benchmarking led to the all new Alpha platform. The sedan was first, but eventually a coupe, convertible and possibly a wagon may come later. If sales warrant, the ATS might match all of the 3-Series form factors sold in America.
As Cadillac’s smallest four passenger luxury car, it competes mostly with the similarly sized BMW 328i of course but also the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. With four models and three engines, it aligns more closely with smaller displacement 3 Series cars that are offered in Europe. There are two with four cylinder power and one with a 3.6L V6 from the CTS. The Ecotec, four cylinder trims feature a normally aspirated base 2.5 with 202 hp and a turbocharged 2.0 with 275 hp. The V6 has 321 hp and comes only with a 6 –speed automatic transmission. The rear wheel drive versions of the turbo car can come mated to a 6-speed manual. All-wheel drive is optional on the Performance turbo and Premium V6 models.
While the ATS matches the 3 Series range from the bottom to the middle, it’s initial price may be lower for most buyers. The least expensive models of the ATS start in the low 30’s and will be more than competitive with the 3 Series due to BMW’s insistence on nickeling and diming for things like leather and heated seats. A fully loaded ATS is expected to sell for close to $50,000, or about what a BMW 335i might go for.
Assuming price was no object; would the ATS be worth it? So far the media seems to think so, at least potentially. The ATS was voted the North American Car of the Year by a panel of 49 journalists. The rush to the Cadillac showroom has not started just yet as the ATS has just begun its media outreach to the public. If you’re not a fan of the hard edge look of the CTS, then you might like the softened lines of the ATS. With less chrome and bling, the ATS may appeal to a wider less rapper centric audience. That’s what Cadillac really wants; people who are serious about driving, not just boulevard posers.
Looks of course are still an all important selling point for any performance luxury car. Many modern Cadillac design traits have been refined, like the slim LED headlights and a sloping C pillar. The smiley faced front end may resemble the Chevy Cruise more than Cadillac would like to admit, it imparts an upscale look due to tasteful restraint. It may be a matter of taste, but on the excitement meter the Cadillac ranks higher a bit higher than Mercedes C-Class and matches the A-4 in most respects. Its more youthful appearance is enhanced with 18 in wheels on the V6 models. Still, the 3-Series and German designed cars have an appeal to those who want timeless looks with a degree of subtly, the Cadillac might face a tough battle in that regard.
Looks aside, the ATS has turned out to be a genuine performer. An October 2012 edition of Car and Driver declared that the ATS was the best handling sports sedan on the market, besting the BMW 238i in nearly all performance measures. Although the BMW narrowly beat out the Cadillac overall, many staffers agreed that the ATS was more fun to drive. They also suggested that the ATS’s steering matched or exceeds the BMW 335i. The ride with the standard 17 in wheels on the four cylinder models was consider a bit rougher riding than the BMW, despite having an magnetic ride adjustable suspension. A 50/50 weight balance and a very BMW-like front MacPherson strut suspension have contributed to the new Caddy’s road prowlers. While there is nothing in the ATS line that matches the M3’s power output, the V6 models are likely to have similar handling performance thanks to a limited-slip differential and other performance modifications. It’s not inconceivable that Cadillac could match the M3’s straight line performance and grunt by simply adding one of its smaller V8s and calling it the ATS-V. The V6 ATS manages to get from 0 to 60 in the 5 second range, 6 to 7 for the fours.
Although most buyers are not going to the auto cross or drag race, they will benefit in more practical performance. The interior may be the best that GM has ever devised. Tasteful and elegant, it still manages to imply performance while being comfortable. Like Lincoln, Cadillac had taken the high road to catering to the iPad crowd with its version of a infotainment system called Cadillac User Experience (CUE). The touch screen based system is standard on all models and eliminates dash clutter by concealing many controls in the screen’s interface.
The Cadillac ATS offers considerable performance and a distinctive design for less than the price of admission to the 3 Series range. But is it enough to compete by offering better performance? The 3 Series is BMW’s resale champ. This fact might be considered when buyers are making a choice separated by a few thousand dollars. While the Audi can look great, it has subpar reliability and the Mercedes might be a traditionalist favorite. But then again the Cadillac is aiming for the younger market of the BMW. Cadillac’s only liability may be the memory of all of its past and failed attempts. That would be unfortunate because Cadillac wants you to believe it’s the new BMW and Mercedes and BMW are the old Cadillac. Ten years ago you would have been laughed at for suggesting that a Caddy could out perform a BMW. Could it be that the ATS driver is laughing now?