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The 2013 Cadillac ATS turns up the heat: Motoramic Drives

July 23, 2012

You can't deem yourself a chef just because you know how to follow a recipe. That's what kept going through my mind while driving the 2013 Cadillac ATS, the long-sought Cadillac version of a small luxury sedans based on the recipe that made the BMW 3-Series the world's most popular luxury car. Had Cadillac simply put similar ingredients through a blender, or had it created something distinctive?

The ATS arrives after a five-year journey, delayed thanks to GM's bankruptcy. With the ATS, Cadillac now offers a tall-grande-venti trio of sedans via the CTS and XTS, and over the next couple of years will flush out its line with a new CTS, a new Escalade and a version of the Chevy Volt dubbed the ELR. But no luxury brand can survive without a small car to lure those younger shoppers who've finally achieved some level of success. Compact luxury sedans lead the sales charts for BMW, Mercedes and Audi — and without a credible one, Cadillac would relegate itself to the second tier of pseudo-luxury cars.

Cadillac has come hard at BMW before, and produced some of its least-popular cars in the process. (Anyone who can defend the Cimarron and Catera in 50 words or less has a future in Cadillac PR.) But with the CTS, Cadillac began to hone its skills; first by getting the basic layout and styling right, then slowly upgrading the interior and engines, until today when the CTS can make a credible alternative to the Europe and Japan's best midsize sedans.

Cadillac could have served a smaller portion of the dish it made with the CTS —a bigger, heavier machine than the competition, whose brash styling and horsepower advantage gave it a presence its interior didn't always live up to. But the CTS came from a different General Motors -- one that was more spendthrift about taking on the world's luxury automakers in a way the new GM won't tolerate. Instead, the ATS follows the European formula as if it was building a luxury sedan bought at Ikea.

Fortunately for Cadillac, that begins with an all-new chassis that ranks as best sedan General Motors has developed in a generation. A clean-sheet design, the Alpha platform that the ATS uses stands inch-for-inch against competitors while weighing up to 195 lbs. less. Maximized for lightness and a 50/50 front-rear weight split, those delays let engineers obsess over mass to the point they can tell you how many grams they saved by using smaller bolts. That lightness has already paid dividends with a  fuel economy rating of 22 mpg city and 33 mpg highway for the most efficient version — without having to adopt BMW's rough stop-start engine system.

The spice for that chassis comes from one of three engine choices: the bargain-basement 2.5-liter four-cylinder of 202 hp, a 2-liter turbo four offering 272 hp and the GM 3.7-liter V6 at 321 hp. Most will be linked to a 6-speed automatic, with Cadillac offering a 6-speed manual many of its buyers will only consider as an antitheft device.

Tuned on Germany's Nurburgring -- because sometimes cooking requires just the right utensils -- the ATS never lost composure through hard driving around Atlanta and over several laps around private racecourse. While the 2.5-liter isn't for speed, the 2-liter turbo was the best of the pack; always ready to launch, never winded and sonically pleasing. You gain more power in the 3.6, and Cadillac claims it can match the 0-60 run of 5.4 seconds from the BMW 335i turbo, but the benefits don't seem worth the penalty in fuel economy.

If we could stop here, Cadillac could claim a fulsome triumph as an equal of BMW and even Mercedes. But after three decades of dominance, winning won't be so easy. Start with the transmissions; every competitor offers one that more advanced than what stirs the ATS. Caddy's automatic is OK, but communication between the manual and the engine isn't as sharp as serious drivers will want.

Then there's the interior. Cadillac has made a great hue and cry over CUE, its new in-dash info-disco system, presented in a bright, 8-inch screen over a button-free touchpad that vibrates to let you know you've found Margaritaville on SiriusXM. As such things go, CUE excels — it's easy to read, pleasant to look at and far more intuitive than the mass psychology experiment known as BMW's iDrive — but cars need knobs for a reason, as Ford has learned the hard way. Even with chrome guides and vibrating reassurance, the system required too much precious eyesight to control.

As for the rest of the cabin, Cadillac's aim for world class falls just shy. The dash improves on the CTS, but lacks some of the finer touches of a BMW or Mercedes; niceties such as a hidden compartment behind the CUE controls mix with some cost-saving measures like fixed-height seat belts. Those traditional Cadillac buyers that have never cottoned to the idea of a smaller car will need smelling salts after getting into the tight back of the ATS or trying to haul their golf clubs in the trunk — at 10.2 cu. feet, the smallest among its peers.

But Cadillac doesn't need the buyers it already has as much as it needs new acolytes in the United States and beyond. In its heyday as the standard of the world, Cadillacs could offer a size and presence that few vehicles matched, but the world wants its luxury in smaller bites today. The 2013 ATS shows that Cadillac can whip up an agile sedan with the best in the business. Now, it only has to work on its presentation.

2013 Cadillac ATS

CLASS Four-door, rear-wheel-drive compact luxury sedan
ENGINES 2.5-liter 4-cyl.; 2-liter turbo 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter V6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual
POWER 202 hp (2.5 liter); 272 hp (2-liter turbo); 321 hp (V6)
TORQUE 191 ft-lbs.; 260 ft-lbs.; 275 ft-lbs.
WEIGHT 3,315 lbs.
0-60 MPH 7.5 sec; 5.7 sec.; 5.4 sec.
EMISSIONS 5.2 tons of CO2/year
MILEAGE 22 mpg city/33 mpg highway (2.5); 22/32 (2-turbo); 19/28 (3.6)
PRICE RANGE $33,990 to $48,690
CONS Smaller rear seat and trunk than expected
PROS A fine handling sedan that's a viable option to BMW and Mercedes

Cadillac provided transportation, lodging and first-hand experience with Atlanta traffic for this review.