2013 Cadillac ATS

Looks like Caddy's getting small just right

Published: July 27, 2012, 6:00 AM
Updated: November 24, 2021, 8:52 PM

2013 Cadillac ATS driver rear three quarter

ATLANTA – Thinking small is something Cadillac hasn’t done well in the past. Historically, its area of expertise has been developing cutting-edge technology and integrating it into prestigious, full-size sedans – products that symbolize success to many North Americans. So the Caddy crew might be forgiven for its previous forays into a downsized world. First, there was the ill-fated Cimarron. It was little more than a Chevy Cavalier dolled up for the big dance, but few buyers in the mid-‘80s were interested and the first small Cadillac faded into oblivion. Another attempt to market a downsized Cadillac came in 1997 when the European Opel Omega was rebadged as the Catera, a mid-sized entry that only lasted till 2001 before mercifully being axed.

With such a track record, one could understand there might be some skepticism lurking when Cadillac announced it was, again, going to build a small car with the iconic crest on its nose. Be assured, however, this time the company has got it right. The 2013 Cadillac ATS is so good it can be rightly compared to such benchmarks in the compact luxury sedan segment as the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class. Heady claims, for sure, but after driving this all-new sporty sedan for a day on winding secondary roads and multi-lane interstate highways north of Atlanta, as well as an afternoon on the new Atlanta Motorsports Park circuit, I have no qualms about admitting this baby Caddy is legitimate.

Cadillac needed to get the ATS right because the sandbox it will be playing in is the largest (and fastest-growing) luxury segment in the global automobile market. Aspiring young professionals, eager to flash their success to the world, are moving upscale into the luxury segment’s entry level, driving the boom. At the same time, many “made-its” (older buyers who’ve been enjoying the perks of their success) are looking to downsize from their land yachts but still expect the luxury and amenities to which they’ve become accustomed. Cadillac has managed to please both types of consumers with a svelte, nimble, rear-wheel-drive sport sedan that’s loaded with the latest technological advances, delivers strong performance and handles like a European sports sedan, all wrapped up in a stylish package worthy of the prestigious nameplate.

The ATS sedan now gives Cadillac a competitive product in all three segments of the luxury car class, joining the mid-size CTS and the new full-size XTS. However, the ATS, which is 20.32 cm shorter in length than the CTS, is not simply a down-sized CTS – its Alpha architecture has been specifically designed for this car and is exclusive to Cadillac. In fact, don’t be surprised to see variants, such as a coupe or V-series version, showing up on this new lightweight platform.

The base ATS (starting price is $35,195) comes with a new 2.5-litre DOHC four-cylinder that produces 202 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 191 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,400 rpm. Mated to a next-generation Hydra-Matic six-speed automatic transmission, it has a fun-to-drive flavour plus solid fuel numbers: 6.0 L/100 km on the highway and 9.2 in city use.

A driving stint in a base sedan with this powertrain was more than satisfying. The cabin was impressively quiet, the ride certainly comfortable with good road manners when things got a bit twisty and the engine’s power output was more than adequate. Even this base iteration had a feeling of luxury. Including handcrafted interior trim pieces and a Bose audio system. As an standard added feature on the premium-grade sound system, an active noise cancellation feature has been built into the Bose amplifier. Similar in concept to noise-cancelling headphones, the system emits frequencies that cancel most of certain annoying sounds, such as engine drone. It’s so effective there’s little intruding noise in the cabin. It also eliminates the need to pack the car with sound-deadening materials, thereby saving weight and enhancing fuel mileage.

This package will appeal to buyers who are price conscious and seeking optimum fuel mileage. If you’re looking for more pep, however, the ATS offers two powertrains worthy of consideration. The first is a new lightweight, 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder that packs lots of punch – 272 horses at 5,500 rpm and 260 lb.-ft. of torque kicking in at just 1,700 rpm. (Its starting price is $36,985.) The other option is a 3.6-litre V6 (starting at $43,935) delivering the most power in the lineup – 321 hp at 6,800 rpm and 274 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 revs. The 2.0 Turbo is available with either the six-speed automatic with manual override or, for the true enthusiast, a Tremec six-speed manual gearbox.

The improvement in performance with either of these engines is significant, compared to the base four-cylinder. On the stopwatch, the 2.0 Turbo (with the automatic transmission) will scoot to 96 km/h in 5.7 seconds compared to the base engine’s clocking of 7.5 seconds. The V6 is even a tick or two quicker, making the launch run in 5.4 seconds.

Driving both powertrains, plus the manual gearbox on Georgia roads as well as the racing circuit, I had a preference for the 2.0 Turbo with the stick shift. This configuration just felt more responsive to driver input, and it also made the car seem to be more nimble. Of course, if you prefer your ATS to be clutchless, the manual shifting capability of the Hydra-Matic will still satisfy any sporting desires. In fact, GM engineers have worked hard to increase the responsiveness of the paddle shifts – the transmission gear selectors are now pre-charged so when a shift is requested, the change is immediate.

This degree of attention to detail is typical of the development process that went into the ATS. Weight was a primary target, with components evaluated gram by gram. If a slightly smaller nut and bolt would do the job, it was selected. Ultimately, the weight-trimming measures resulted in a four-door sedan that tips the scales at just 1,503.7 kg – the lightest in the category. Even better, those kilos are distributed evenly – 50% front , 50% rear – to further enhance the car’s dynamics. The standard multi-link, double-pivot MacPherson front strut suspension and five-link independent rear system – a first for Cadillac – effectively soak up bumps and other road surface imperfections, yet hold the ATS firmly upright while cornering. For those enthusiasts demanding the ultimate in handling prowess, a driver adjustable FE3 sport suspension system is available, while a new third-generation version of Cadillac’s Magnetic Ride Control system is also offered. The MRC system provides real-time dampening, scanning every 2.54 cm of the road at 96 km/h. At that speed, it can switch from full hard to full soft in just 12.7 cm in response to changing demands.

In keeping with the premium character of the ATS, a belt-driven electric variable-assist ZF power steering system is standard, as is a four-channel anti-lock braking system. An available high-performance Brembo braking system hauls the ATS to a stop from 96 km/h in 39.32 metres. On all ATS models, the four brake rotors have a patented FNC coating that resists rust and corrosion as standard equipment.

Also standard on all ATS models except the base sedan is Cadillac’s new CUE (Cadillac User Experience) interface technology. First shown on the recently introduced XTS sedan, this system is so intuitive even this technology challenged scribe mastered its functions after a brief demonstration. If you’re familiar with smartphones and tablets, you’ll love CUE. Its brilliant eight-inch touchscreen is paired with a voice recognition system that’s programmed to understand conversational, or natural, language, rather than to stiff, specific commands typical of other systems. Very cool, and so easy to use.

After this first drive in the ATS, it’s fair to say Cadillac has finally developed a sporty compact luxury car that can compete with the best in the class. Look for the ATS in dealers’ showrooms this fall.