Motoring | Test Drives

Cadillac ATS on new turf

Cadillac aims to take on the world’s best entry-level luxury saloons with the new ATS. Are the Germans in for sleepless nights? wheels finds out

  • By Liam Nelson, wheels
  • Published: 16:06 November 1, 2012
  • Wheels

2013 Cadillac ATS
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • “There’s just something a little bit wilder, perhaps a hint of Detroit ethos in the ATS ’s handling.”
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“You’ll have to fight the urge to brake,” offers Jeffrey Massimilla, program manager for CUE, Cadillac’s slick new infotainment system. Although he’s echoing the advice once given to me at Porsche Sport Driving School (late braking is the secret to a good lap) Jeffrey isn’t talking about racing, he’s not even talking about driving, as you’d commonly understand it. We’re chatting about the application of Cadillac’s adaptive cruise control and neither of us have any idea that we’re about to meet our fiery deaths in a collision, nearly.

For several kilometres, I’ve had the cruise control set at a healthy 120kph, as we sail along one of Atlanta’s endless series of toll roads. The system performs flawlessly. As the car in front of me slows, the ATS eases back, maintaining a distance I’ve set on the head-up display. When a slower car moves out of the way, the ATS rises back up to my designated pace. “It’ll come to a complete stop on its own at the toll,” advises Jeffrey and, always one to try out a new gadget, I agree to give it a go.

My intention is to let the car bring us to a complete halt as the car in front of us stops to pay the toll, tossing a couple of coins into a basket that makes Salik look quite sophisticated by comparison. As we approach the tollgate, our lane fills up fast, and the car starts to slow, albeit smoothly. With plenty of room to spare, I make a lane change and the car once again accelerates as the path ahead becomes clear. But just as we’re about to reach 90kph or so, a rather hideous Pontiac Aztec cuts into our lane some 40 metres ahead, rolling languidly into our path.

We’re flying full speed at the errant car, far too close for comfort, when the ATS’s collision mitigation takes over; red lights flash alarmingly on the head-up display and I jam the brake down as hard as I can to seemingly flawless effect; we stop dramatically close to the Aztec, tyres screeching, its driver still completely oblivious. “You weren’t actually doing anything at that point,” concedes Jeffrey, “the car had already taken over to avoid a collision,” and thank goodness it did.

Safety is always a major concern and, let’s be honest, luxury cars get all the new bells and whistles first, it’s part of the buyers’ expectation set. Expectations surely hung over the ATS design team, as they set out with a clear mandate to build a luxury compact worthy of beating the Germans on their own turf. But allow me to say something vaguely controversial; I’m not sure I really care how the ATS stacks up against the 3 series and the C-Class. Not because I’m a European car snob, although I’ve certainly done my share of drooling over BMW, Audi and Merc’s better offerings, but because the ATS is quick, nimble, luxurious and quite fun to drive, to borrow a phrase from GM (why not? It got it right).

So for me the difference is a bit academic. If you really want me to make a pronouncement I can do that; I’ll just need a couple of weeks with all three cars, maybe toss in an A4 for grins, and we’ll duke it out with a proper set of trials. Only, let’s skip the Nürburgring and go somewhere near the beach. I don’t imagine German auto execs are scared per se, despite Cadillac’s impressive new offering, but when you dominate a category for a long time you tend to get complacent in your success and this is just a theory, but I don’t think our Teutonic friends  experience fear per se, just an adrenalised form of grumpiness.

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Once upon a time Cadillac was unequivocally known for making some of the best luxury cars on the planet; the name was synonymous not just with prestige and quality, but with finery on a plus-size scale — Cadillacs were gorgeous, and full figured. But the world has moved on and, while the Escalade still has a place at the mantle, the small car is the automotive battleground du jour. For propulsion, which needless to say is an absolute imperative in this product category, Cadillac is offering two different four-cylinders and a V6 for the initial North American launch.

While the all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-banger, with its 272bhp is one of the most power-dense engines around, alas we won’t be seeing it in the UAE, at least not initially. Hopefully they’ll bring it over eventually, because I did drive a 2.0, and it did not disappoint. There’s also a 202bhp 2.5-litre base model, which is not coming to our region. I spent the bulk of my day in the V6, which sports a robust 321bhp, pairing well with the ATS’s slender frame.

I had the opportunity to slalom around the brand-new Atlanta Motorsports Park track several times with the 3.6 growling in my ear pleasantly, and bore signs of a good track day afterwards; a sore face from grinning and a slight wobble to my gait incurred by adrenaline overdose. It’s good that I started out with the turbo, because by the time I applied the V6’s 373Nm of torque to the track, I’d grown to know the blind corners much better. Reaching 100kph in 5.4 seconds, the 3.6 gives the ATS the kind of acceleration that is essential to any 3 Series contender.

The ATS design team has worked hard to keep the weight down in the ATS. In fact, Cadillac set out to make the ATS one of the segment’s lightest cars, weighing in lighter than the A4, C-Class and the 3 series, and it shows in the excellent power-to-weight ratio and handling. With power comes responsibility, and that’s why the ATS offers ample technological refinements in ride control, handling and stability. Cadillac has applied a very serious technology package to uplift the driving experience offered by the ATS, including Cadillac’s first five-link independent rear suspension, using high-strength steel and straight link designs.

The car also features a multi-link, double-pivot MacPherson-strut front suspension with direct-acting stabiliser bar, driver-adjustable FE3 sport suspension with Magnetic Ride Control real-time damping, premium electric variable-effort steering gear by ZF Steering Systems, and four-channel ABS with available Brembo performance brakes. In normal driving conditions, the ATS was much as expected; ask the car to sprint ahead of some laggard, and there’s plenty of muscle to overtake, mitigated by a pleasing throttle  response that is just ever-so-slightly stiff at the top of its throw.

I noticed this in stop and go traffic — I would often press just a tad too hard to re-engage the throttle, causing the engine to rev just a bit more than I would have liked. Naturally it’s a non-issue with the manual tranny, where starting and stopping relies more on the clutch, but we’ll have to wait for the turbo in order to get the six-speed manual here. On the winding back roads of Georgia, the ATS handled curves aggressively. It was obvious that you could ask a lot more from the car and, once I got on the track, ask I did.

The answer there, was always yes, but with a provision; in sport mode the ATS’s stability control does what all well implemented stability control systems do, making hack drivers like me much faster than we have any right to be on the track. But there’s a difference. Combined with the V6, the ATS offers a much more seat-of-the-pants ride than any other luxury vehicle I’ve sampled. Push hard in a long winding turn and you’ll feel traction start to slip, just. The harder I pushed, the closer to the edge of stability I was able to get the ATS, making the track experience exceedingly rewarding.

There’s just something a little bit wilder, perhaps a hint of Detroit ethos in the ATS’s handling that, far from an impediment to great laps, gives it a personality that is different from any German car I’ve driven. But then all you have to do is look at the ATS and you know it speaks another language — one that is, frankly, quite musical. Despite aiming for first-time luxury buyers, this car’s no toy, and luring younger buyers is an important strategy at GM.

So keep in mind Caddy’s old-school vibe when you consider that the ATS will offer both manual and auto ’boxes, in what is surely a nod to the curmudgeonly sort of drivers who lament the advent of stability control. In fact, this might be just the implementation of modern handling and stability systems to woo the OG petrolheads; the ATS is an incredibly safe and lithe car that, at the same time, offers an altogether thrilling ride at extremes.

There’s a message that’s encoded in the Cadillac ATS and it’s loud and clear; Caddy is proud of its heritage, but unencumbered by expectations based on past success. The future is still out there, undefined by today’s brand loyalties, waiting for someone to build the next must-have luxury vehicle. Driving the ATS is something I’d recommend to anyone keeping tabs on the smaller luxury cars and, once you do, you’ll be wondering the same thing as I am: When’s the ATS-V coming out and which track should we bring it to?

Specs and ratings

Model: ATS

Engine: 3.6-litre V6

Transmission: Six-speed auto, RWD

Max power: 321bhp @ 6,800rpm

Max torque: 373Nm @ 4,800rpm

Top speed: NA

0-100kph: 5.4sec
Price: TBA

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