Luxury Car Buyer's Guide - RTM's Top 8 Picks for 2013
The Cadillac ATS is being touted as the luxury brand's best chance at making serious inroads in the performance luxury market currently dominated by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. It also represents the latest evolution in Cadillac's "Art and Science" design philosophy, part of General Motor's strategy to bring the brand—which has a seemingly unshakeable reputation as a stuffy, old person's brand—into the 21st Century.
In both of these aspects, Cadillac is setting the bar very high. So high that it becomes tempting to praise is asking for the ATS to be judged against some very stiff competition, that's the standard against which it must be evaluated.
On the Road
In terms of performance, the ATS is definitely good enough to take on all comers. A look at the numbers confirms that the ATS is the equal of the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes C350, and the Audi A4 in terms of horsepower, torque, 0-60 speed, and price. And behind the wheel of this rear-drive powerhouse, the car definitely feels Autobahn-worthy. Steering, handling, and cornering are as precise and confident as any Bavarian or German wündercar. The ATS's suspension settings allow the driver to enjoy their ride smooth or sporty, but the growl from the performance package's dual exhaust is fairly harsh—a muscle car yawp sounds ridiculous from inside a luxury car's cabin, especially one that is otherwise so nicely insulated against road noise.
Styling is where, for us, the Cadillac loses major ground against its foreign competitors. We've never liked Cadillac's newer look. From the massive gaping grille with it's pimp-eriffic oversized emblem to its stocky, steroidal stance, Cadillac is trying too hard to appeal to the youth market and the old-guard at the same time, and the result is anything but elegant or sporty. It has that overstuffed-ugly-American look that is the opposite of sophistication, but maybe that's not the point. It does however, look almost identical to the CTS, except it lines are slightly softer and its profile is noticeably shorter.
The who's-this-for confusion that is hinted at by the exterior is in full flower in the interior, where the great expanse of handcrafted cut-and-sewn leather and glossy fake wood trim is offset by the massive 8-inch screen and haptic-touch interface in the center console. This is where the much ballyhooed Cadillac CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system lives. The CUE has been praised as a giant leap forward in car infotainment technology, and while it's in some ways much better than similar systems in other vehicles, it's ultimately a bizarre, confusing, ill-conceived mess. The touch screen requires way too much force and concentration to operate safely while driving, and the haphazard combination of sliding and push controls are the very opposite of intuitive. BMW's iDrive system was harshly criticized when it came out, but that system is downright elegant compared to the cumbersome CUE.
The rear seat in the ATS really just pays lip service to being a back seat. No full-sized adults could fit comfortably in the car's rear cabin, making the rear doors more of an exterior styling cue, or something to ease the installation of child seats.
With the ATS, Cadillac has shown that it can do performance, but being as quick and nimble and expensive as BMW, Audi, and Mercedes isn't going to be enough to poach people away from those cars, especially with inferior styling. To be fair, those other brands have been fine-tuning their vehicles for decades, while Cadillac is more or less still at the starting gate. So for a first serious attempt, the ATS is a nice try, and it comes closer to its competition than one might expect. But like the saying says, close only counts in horseshoes and atom bombs.
Features, Specs, & Prices
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 direct-injection
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Power: 321 horsepower; 274 lb-ft torque
Drive Wheels: rear-wheel drive
Base Price: $43, 695
As-Tested Price: $47,780
Available Features: Cadillac CUE infotainment system, bluetooth phone and audio, magnesium paddle shifters, dual-zone climate control, performance seats.
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