First Drive: Cadillac Re-Enters the Compact Luxury Market with the All-New ATS

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Photos: Cadillac

If you haven’t noticed, Cadillac has been hell bent on shedding the image of being “Grandpa’s car.”

Gone are the big, boxy 4-doors with oversized tail fins and Canary Yellow or Pool Bottom Blue paint jobs. They’ve been replaced by sleek, sharp vehicles loaded with luxury features, high tech toys, and grin-inducing performance. (Strap into a CTS-V and you’ll know what I mean.) All are aimed squarely at a younger demographic. But ever since they took the Cimarron out behind the woodshed in ’88, Caddy has been missing the one vehicle from its line-up that this target audience craves: the luxury compact sedan.

The all-new ATS was designed from the ground up as a compact luxury sedan

Enter the all-new, built-from-the-ground-up, Cadillac ATS. Its mission is to rip marketshare away from perennial segment leader, the BMW 3 series, and plunder some from the Mercedes C class and Audi A4 while it’s at it.

To see if Cadillac hit the mark, I flew to Atlanta to test drive the ATS on Georgia backroads and highways, and put it through its paces on track at Atlanta Motorsports Park. What I found after a couple of days in the ATS’s leather seats is it not only hit the mark, but shattered it.

The ATS is as at home on the track as it is on the street

When Caddy says the ATS is “all new” they mean it. This isn’t a new compact sedan concept shoehorned onto some existing platform. Ken Kelzer, Global Vehicle Chief Engineer for Cadillac told me they wanted a car that could deliver premium luxury and performance, but also be fuel efficient and lightweight. And no existing platform would be able to do that.

Forget the big, heavy, lumbering Caddys of yesteryear, the ATS is a car that’s lighter than any of its competitors (the engineers were fanatical—they even used lighter, stronger bolts to shave weight), with a frame and body that use a variety of materials from aluminum to multiphase steel, to save weight without sacrificing strength. The goal was also to create a car with perfect 50/50, front to rear, balance to deliver driving performance that’s track inspired.

I decided to test that balance on track, and while I was taking turns at a higher speed than you will (or should), the ATS stayed remarkably flat through the curves. (The optional Magnetic Ride Control included in the Premium edition I drove helped with that too. It’s also a miracle worker for sucking up everyday bumps and potholes.)

Caddy not only worked to shave weight from the ATS, but to proved 50/50 balance and an elimination of road noise

The ATS is being offered in 3 engine choices: a 2.5-liter 4 cylinder that makes a more than respectable 202 horsepower; a 2.0-liter Turbo inline 4 pushing 272 horses; and for those who still crave that big engine Caddy power, a 3.6-liter V6 that harnesses the power of 321 ponies. All come mated to a 6-speed auto with tap shift control, while the 2.0 is the only one offered with a 6-speed manual as an option, for those of us who prefer to downshift into turns.

As of this writing, I don’t have the MPG ratings, so going purely on drive impression, the V6 will get you off the line faster, but the 2.0 Turbo delivers more than enough fun on the road. It’s the one I’d have in my driveway.

In addition to the Magnetic Ride Control, there are a host of other toys installed to make you a grinning fool behind the wheel of the ATS, like the big Brembo brakes and FNC rotors that resist corrosion, a configurable heads-up display, and a ride selector for Touring, Sport and Snow. I kept my Performance edition ATS in Sport the majority of the time and it gives a race-inspired drive, even “blipping” the engine on downshifts into faster turns. Nice touch.

But most buy luxury compacts for the luxury, and not the performance. The ATS delivers here too. Full leather interiors are offered with a variety of trims from striped Okapi wood, to brushed aluminum to carbon fiber. A premium BOSE stereo system offers not only music to soothe you in the cockpit, but active noise cancelation to keep road and engine noise from disturbing your driving vibe.

Interior choices can dramatically change the ATS from sporty to luxury

And there are a multitude of electronic toys and safety features you can add too, like Adaptive Cruise Control, Side Blind Zone Alert, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, and Front Collision Alert with Front and Rear Automatic Braking. The ATS’s Lane Departure Warning is unique as well. Instead of beeping like other LDW systems do, it has a Safety Alert Seat, that vibrates under your left thigh should you drift to the left, and under your right thigh if you start heading right. Feel it under both legs, and you’re about to plow head on into something. (That’s when you’ll be glad you opted for the Front and Rear Automatic Braking.)

The most exciting toy, in my humble opinion, is the new Cadillac User Experience, or CUE. This infotainment system with 8-inch touch screen not only brings your music to your fingertips, runs your smartphone and provides navigation, but it allows you to customize the interface, putting your most used apps in the top line menu. You can also add more “favorites” than you’ll probably ever need… and not just favorite stations, but favorite locations for the navi, favorite phone numbers to call and favorite controls like the temp setting, all a single touch away.

The cockpit is not only comfortable, but controls for everything are right at your fingertips with CUE

If it sounds like a crowded interface, the CUE has On Approach Proximity Sensing, meaning the screen holds just the current app, and when it senses you’re bringing your finger to the screen, all the options appear. (Mac users, think of it like Mission Control for your infotainment system.)

The ATS starts at $33,990 for the Standard package with a 2.5-L engine, and you can choose from other packages that climb all the way up to a 3.6-L AWD Premium that tops out at $48,690. To get into a nicely equipped 2.0 Turbo with the performance package and 6-speed auto, expect to be in the neighborhood of $42,790. And last I checked, it wasn’t offered in Canary Yellow.

The ATS retains some of the iconic Caddy back end

For more, follow me @ericrogell.

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