Auto scribes are rarely the creative type and we're all easily led to follow the storyline laid out for us by the car companies. In the case of the Cadillac ATS that story line is "has Cadillac beaten the 3-series?" Go ahead and read some other reviews. They'll almost all start out with a variation on that theme.
Expect a lot of "maybes" and maybe a "yes" or two which, sadly, misses the point. Cadillac hasn't built a 3-series fighter. They've just built a damn 3-series.
(Full Disclosure: Cadillac wanted me to drive the new ATS so bad they flew me to Atlanta and put us up at the Mandarin Oriental where, it seems, surreal Swedish death metal crooners One Direction were staying. I was shocked when told all the screaming teenage girls weren't there for us. Also, Sam Smith and I talked a Cadillac engineer into letting us stop for BBQ on the way to the airport. Not bad.)
Think of it as benchmarking gone wrong then, suddenly, gone right again. What does it mean to build a 3-Series in America? Make it RWD and slightly slower, give it a "Nürburgring-tuned" suspension, send it to Keira Knightly's dietician, and cut the cost through some cleverly old-GM ways.
Europeans love aluminum and, no doubt, the ATS has lots of little aluminum and magnesium bits. But it also has out-of-fashion heavy metals like iron and steel, as seen on the ATS-turned sideways for the suspension geeks in the crowd. Notice the swiss cheese?
Cadillac used the Homer Simpson-approach to engineering. Speed holes. And why not? If you think you can tell the difference when driving between honest-to-goodness aluminum and hole-y old-school metals I've got a nice invisible suit that's just your size.
I can also say, surely, that it has no impact on safety. Did you see what MotorTrend did? They flipped the bitch and it was barely dented.
Colin Chapman may have exited the Lotus Cars realm for a while and inhabited some GM engineers. Every angle of the ATS has been thoughtfully designed to resemble or improve upon the E46 BMW — a joke Cadillac made when the 3-series was announced that everyone but BMW found hilarious.
Here's your chance to own a BMW without being the butt of too many jokes on fine websites such as this one.
Want to know if a luxury car looks good? Find a white one. The average lux-mobile looks like it just walked out of TV Johnny's diamond shop and therefore benefits from contrast.
White gives it less ways to hide its heft. In this regard, the ATS succeeds. A white (or silver) ATS looks arguably better than its unicorn-sparkled black brethren and outshines the CTS with its more subdued grille (less Paul Wall more Paul Walker) and slightly rounder character lines. Lest you think it's not a Cadillac there's still a Voltron-esque brake light and headlights that are, by my calculation, 36.2 meters long.
It's the plainness of the car that rockets it ahead of some of its competitors, in the same way the VW Phaeton showed there's beauty in restraint. It's Eva Green instead of Kim Kardashian. Springsteen's Nebraska instead of Born to Run.
I enjoyed the equally restrained interior of the ATS until I sat in the back seat. I had a friend in college who was so short she almost qualified for special parking. She'd complain. I see the mob buying a few of these and getting people they want to squeal and shoving them in here.
From the driver's position things are much better. The steering wheel is easy to grip and everything is where you'd expect it to be, including the manual transmission on the 2.0-liter turbo. Even with a passenger in the back seat, whom I was hoping not to crush, I had enough room to shift easily. All the money they saved with the speed holes they clearly poured into materials.
My biggest complaint is the touch-capacitive infotainment system and its corresponding screen in the gauge cluster. It does a need trick of pulling info over from the main console into the display screen in front of you, but to make it work they apparently had to make the instruments incredibly boring.
It's a great place for two people, which is also kind of a critique considering it's a four-door. The upcoming ATS Coupe (c'mon, you know it's happening) should correct this problem.
There are three engines available in the ATS and two transmissions. As always with these cars, the base 2.5-liter engine is for rental car buyers and cheapskates. There's nothing wrong with it, but there's so little right with it you should just walk in the other direction.
So what are your choices? A 2.0-liter turbo fourbanger that puts out 272 horsepower and jogs to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds (three tenths slower than the 2012 BMW 328i) and GM's multipurpose 3.6-liter V6, this time producing 321 horsepower and a 60 mph jaunt in 5.4 seconds (on par with the 328i).
The 2.0-liter turbo feels faster than the number it's telling, perhaps because of the manual transmission and peak torque that comes on quick and feels flat throughout. It's more fun. The 3.6-liter feels about that fast, though I'm looking forward to seeing more tests of this. Between the two engines I'd select the 2.0-liter turbo.
In either case, extensive engineering work went into dialing down the drama on the launch, the result being easy propulsion every time.
Cadillac CTS-V racer Johnny O'Connell was on hand to spank journalists around the new Atlanta Motorsports Park and he said this car was the "best GM product I've driven in 12 years." Someone can do the math and figure out what product he was talking about. I don't agree (CTS-V or ZR1, anyone?), but when he says he experienced very little fade after beating on the ATS's Brembo brakes all day I'll believe him.
They're not good enough, apparently, to keep you out of the woods when you refuse to use them, but put pressure on and the 12.6-inch ventilated rotors and the calipers grab hold predictably and progressively. Stopping distance is great, I know, because I did a high speed run around the last corner of AMP's turns and had to step on them before nose-diving into the pits.
If you're like me, you're checking the box marked FE3 that endows the ATS with the company's Magnetic Ride Control and magnorhelogicious dampers. If you're not like me, I'm sorry that at some point in your life Buddha reached into your soul and took all the fun out. Please go out and buy a Lexus ES; you'll be whatever you think happy is.
A good ride for me is firm enough to feel it, but smooth enough to not need chiropractic help afterwards (that's actually how I like a lot of things, come to think of it). Here the ATS shines. There were few bumpy roads along our journey, but a slight off-road excursion to AMP's insane kart track revealed the car is mostly unshakable.
If there's one place that BMW is getting ripped off here, it's in the ride/comfort/handling balance. It leans ever so slightly towards luxury, but this isn't a Camaro. It's much better.
Here, as Cadillac wants me to, I go back to my last experience driving a BMW 3-series around twisty roads. That was a convertible with the six-speed manual and the company's I6. A great weekend car.
Driving them back-to-back I could probably suss out a few differences, but I'm scratching my head now trying to describe the difference. Both turn-in sharply with little roll, push hard until giving in to save-my-ass understeer, and then charge out of the turns with plenty of grip. Both also cause me to get the same goofy grin.
Is it as much fun as a CTS-V? Nope. But it's not designed to be. It's also not benchmarked against an E30, so don't harbor any dreams of Bill Caswelling it through the Mexican desert. It is the most fun an actuary will let you have in this class. The BMW is more BMWy, and if that nonsense word I just made up means something to you buy a BMW.
Body roll is remarkably limited across the range of suspension choices, which I deftly tested by braking too late and turning too early around the barren wasteland that was the pre-landscaped race track. You can learn a lot about a car by driving it fast but, but I can attest to there being a benefit to driving it like a ham-fisted moron. You're welcome, America.
AWD is also available because people buy that. It was fine, I guess, on the perfectly dry and sunny roads.
This space is normally reserved for dissing the automatic gearbox and begging you to buy the manual. Of course, because you are Jalopnik readers, this is unnecessary. You'll buy the manual transmission and love how you'll select gears in the same way Nicki Minaj chooses hair styles; frequently and without much thought. There are better, but you should just be happy to have the choice at all. Shame on GM for not putting it in the V6 for all four people who would buy it.
So what of the old-school, torque converter unit in the V6? Not bad, actually. Better than not bad. Almost good. It's connected to easy-to-reach magnesium paddle shifters and includes a trick piece of programming called PAL (performance algorithm lift-foot) that senses when you're laying off the accelerator. It'll downshift quickly through the six gears to setup you up for the next corner. It's a great feature and something I can easily see people abusing on twisty mountain roads.
The CUE infotainment system (more on that below) allows you to stream music from Pandora through your phone, so long as it's not an iPhone. In this it's two steps behind. If you use Spotify or have an iPhone (or both) you can play music via the Bluetooth, but it shows how hard this is for planners.
The audio output is good and I tested in the best way possible: blasting Pixies around the track trying to make the V6 note do battle with a screaming Frank Black. Black won, so the otherwise good Cadillac loses a point with me, but will probably pick up a point with the average buyer.
Both the V6 and fourbanger are louder than what you'd get from an Audi or Mercedes, which is good. Add a point, even if the resonance of the V6 is a superior Leonard Cohen bellow to the smaller engines' occasional bout of Zach De La Rocha screechiness.
I had a Sega Master System growing up. The Sega Master System had everything a Nintendo had, just slightly worse. Cadillac's old system was the Sega Master System to Ford's Nintendo NES SYNC.
Cadillac CUE is a major upgrade, mimicking the best that SYNC does (strong graphics, numerous ways to access info) and the worst (touch capacitive switches). In doing so it's gone full on Sega Dreamcast, skipping the Genesis era altogether. Some people will love all the options and be able to wield it to their own extreme enjoyment.
Those people are not our old friend Sam Smith, who was unable to use it because he doesn't have real human being skin (he's mad about it in this photo). Please, please, get rid of the touch-capacitive switchgear Cadillac. I don't care if your cousin can burn a Japan-only version of "Crazy Taxi" to minidisc for you. I really just don't care. That dings your system all the way down from a a solid to 9 to a 7.
Value is a peculiar measure. Is a BMW that's slightly cheaper than a real BMW a better value? No. If you want a BMW you absolutely should buy a BMW. It still means something to own a BMW. It also means something to own an Audi or a Mercedes.
What it means to own a Cadillac is what it means to live in Boca Raton playing bocci ball. Cadillac is trying to change that, and this is a good first step, but it is of no value to save a few hundred bucks (in most cases) buying this car.
Throw out everything you care about. Throw out all the bullshit prestige arguments and you arrive at the ATS's real value: the platform. A fun-to-drive, relatively light RWD setup with a manual transmission and a nice interior for a good price. An ATS with everything you need (2.0-liter turbo, stick) is under $35K. With everything you want (add in the FE3 suspension and electronic toys) it's $44,315.
A loaded-as-you-want ATS is about on par with what you'd be able to get with a stripper sport package Bimmer, but start adding options to the 3-series and you're paying too dearly for a badge.
I'd love this car as a Chevy without all the luxury at a price closer to 30K. That could be killer. But no one makes fun RWD small sedans anymore. Go for the base ATS or base ATS with the FE3 and you've got something you can't buy anywhere else at the price. That's value.