News Column

Cadillac's From-scratch ATS Is Tasty

July 30, 2012

James R. Healey

Cadillac ATS
Cadillac ATS

Cadillac needed an entry car more like the BMW 3 Series. Instead of adapting hardware from General Motors' German Opel brand, as GM has done lately, Cadillac started from scratch and came up with the ATS.

It's the smallest, lightest, least-expensive Caddy and the only one offering four-cylinder engines.

It is most definitely not a repeat of the best-forgotten Cimarron of the 1980s, a once-over-lightly Caddy redo of the small, four-cylinder Chevrolet Cavalier that fooled no one and pleased even fewer.

ATS, on sale late summer, might lack the purely Germanic feel of a BMW or Audi, but ATS is roundly satisfying to drive. It provides crisp handling, quick acceleration, snappy braking, responsive steering, entertaining technology and an alluring base price of $33,990.

The average transaction price of a new car these days is $30,200, according to price tracker and researcher And the 3 Series that's in Caddy's cross-hairs is $3,405 more expensive, though it comes with more power: 240 horsepower vs. 202 horsepower from the ATS' base 2.5-liter four-cylinder.

The other two ATS engines:

New-design 2-liter turbo four rated 272 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque.

GM's 3.6-liter V-6 rated 321 hp, 275 lbs.-ft.

We drove the base four-cylinder with automatic and the turbo four with manual on public roads, and a turbo four/manual and V-6/automatic on the track at Atlanta Motorsports Park, a private club outside Dawsonville, Ga.


Track. Everybody ought to have access to a race course to exercise this kind of car.

The manual transmission that felt too stiff and balky on regular roads became just-so in slap-it-hard track driving. And the automatic in the V-6, in "sport" mode, recognized when you approached a corner and downshifted to let a lower gear help you scoot through. And it held the gear all the way through the corner, resisting an automatic's normal urge to upshift too soon.

There's a manual-shift mode, so you can do the gear-changing yourself, but it was hard to fault the automatic's operation.

Engines. Eager, husky-voiced and quick to answer the throttle. But if you drive the turbo four or the V-6 first, the base four will seem tepid.

Caddy says the base engine in a rear-wheel-drive car runs from standstill to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. The turbo four, 5.7 seconds (automatic) or 5.8 seconds (manual); the V-6, 5.4 seconds.

AWD cars are heavier, so those 0-60 mph times would be slower.

Caddy expects most buyers to choose the turbo four/automatic.

Room. Back seat's a bit snug, but two adults of normal stature should be comfortable. Front's quite agreeable.

Dynamics. Defined here as how the car moves when and where it should, and doesn't when and where it shouldn't. All good.

Steering's nicely centered, responsive. Suspension is firm, but not harsh. Optional FE3 magnetic suspension is compliant and firms up fast when the road demands. Brakes are wonderfully free of the spongy-pedal feel, and they seem to haul the car down promptly from high speed.

Tech. The full-on CUE (Cadillac user experience) system lets you amuse yourself for hours learning things it'll do that you didn't even know you might want a car to do.

Favorite, if not very exotic, feature: 60 virtual push-buttons. You can display several at a time on the bottom of the screen. Use them to store not just favorite radio stations but frequent navi destinations, oft-used phone numbers, songs that might be on one of the three devices you can plug into the three USB ports (one of which is lighted, hallelujah). Why did it take so long?

Not so good: sliding bar for stereo volume. Knobs, please. No better way.

No start-stop. Applause. Nobody's done it right yet. It saves fuel by killing the engine when it needn't run, such as at long stoplights. But restarts are jerky and clunky in most vehicles, including the BMW 3 Series that is ATS' rival.

ATS is a delight, and its unique platform will migrate across the ocean to GM's troubled Opel in Germany, and perhaps into Chevrolet or Buick sedans.

ATS is the credible starter model Caddy has needed to snag entry-luxury buyers, who are among the most brand-loyal. And the use of ATS hardware elsewhere in GM makes ATS the start of something good.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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