DAWSONVILLE, GA – In developing the new-for-’13 Cadillac ATS, General Motors could have taken the easy route and simply photocopied the segment leader, but the Detroit auto maker chose a more difficult path and it likely will make all the difference.

The ATS, a much-anticipated and unquestionably long-overdue compact sport sedan necessary to make Cadillac a truly global luxury brand, is arriving now at dealers. It is a high-tech, uniquely American and entirely capable competitor to the segment-leading BMW 3-Series.

GM engineers readily admit they benchmarked the 3-Series, hoping to bottle some of the magic that has made the little Bimmer legendary. As such, the ATS enjoys a similar 50/50 front/rear weight ratio, contributing to perfect balance.

In a bit of Yankee ingenuity, GM engineers chose an old-fashioned cast-iron differential, instead of aluminum. Cast-iron weighs more but performs better and helps achieve the car’s fore-to-aft balance.

Weight savings came elsewhere, mostly in advanced steel alloys and alternative materials, which make the volume model a lithe 3,373 lbs. (1,530 kg) and the lightest in its segment. Not surprisingly, the ATS is exhilarating to throw around curves during recent testing at Atlanta Motorsports Park here.

There’s also extra firmness behind its top-of-the-line ZF rack-mounted electric power steering system and agreeable resistance in the accelerator pedal. Brembo performance brakes on up-level models give the ATS best-in-segment stopping power of 60-0 mph (97 km/h) in 129 ft. (39.3 m), GM says.

Underneath the ATS, a multi-link MacPherson-strut front suspension and 5-link rear setup, a first-ever for Cadillac, impart a tightly sprung feel.

Combined with available Magnetic Ride Control, which uses magnetorheological fluid to adjust damper firmness in milliseconds according to road conditions and driver inputs, the suspension conveys driving dynamics inspiring us to hum bars of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” while carving through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

GM developed Magnetic Ride Control a decade ago along with supplier Lord, which produces the enabling magnetorheological fluid. Other high-end sports car makers, including Ferrari, use the technology now. The system gives the ATS a clear advantage over its German rivals.

The ATS powertrains tell an equally impressive story.

Like its benchmark, the small Cadillac features as its volume play a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. engine boasting outsized power. For horsepower junkies, a proven, range-topping 3.6L V-6 is optional.

Transmission choices include an optional Tremec 6-speed manual for the 2.0L turbo. Rowing through the gears is fun, but shifting with the manual could be firmer and more direct.

The standard 6-speed automatic offers tap-shift control for the V-6 and the base model’s 2.5L naturally aspirated 4-cyl.

On the sprint to the rural raceway here from downtown Atlanta, a base model with GM’s first application of its all-new 2.5L engine proves awfully likable.

The little engine improves upon its 2.4L predecessor, itself a Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner in 2010, with better fuel economy and more torque for getting up to speed from a stop or passing and merging on the highway. We average 26.6 mpg (8.8 L/100 km) and 22.7 mpg (10.4 L/100 km) in two turns with the new engine.

Let’s be clear: The ATS’ 2.5L, with 202 hp and 191 lb.-ft. (259 Nm) of torque, will not win any races, and a valid argument exists against putting such a workaday mill in a Cadillac.

The previous-generation 2.4L, for instance, never powered GM luxury vehicles, and German rivals do not use naturally aspirated 4-cyl. engines in this Lower Luxury segment.

But given its able-bodied nature, combined with Cadillac’s look-at-me styling and a base price of $33,990, GM dealers stand a good chance of moving quite a few off their lots.

The 2.0L turbo, on the other hand, takes square aim at the 3-Series, which also offers an award-winning 2.0L turbo-4.

GM’s entry, the second member of an all-new 4-cyl. family, delivers loads of ready-to-run torque and the turbo sings at every opportunity. It provides a fair challenge to the 3-Series’ 4-banger.

On the return trip to Atlanta, a 2.0L turbo model outfitted with a 6-speed automatic and optional all-wheel drive turns in 22.4 mpg (10.5 L/100 km).

GM’s gasoline direct-injection 3.6L V-6 gives the ATS an over-the-top engine choice.

It doles out 320 hp and 275 lb.-ft. (373 Nm) of torque to answer BMW’s 300 hp and 300 lb.-ft. (407 Nm) of torque coming from its stellar turbocharged 3.0L inline-6.

Although the V-6 is not available with a manual transmission, the excellent Hydra-Matic 6L45 will not leave performance enthusiasts wanting. In fact, the gearbox is so skilled at anticipating gear changes based on driver behavior that leaving the car in “sport” mode is the best way to attack – and enjoy – this technical road course.

The V-6 model easily surpasses our expectations; the lightweight high-feature engine adds just a few extra pounds.

The V-6 tester, driven mostly on the highway, delivers 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km), a very BMW-like balance between performance and efficiency.

But the ATS is no Teutonic Knight.

For all the parallels with its benchmark, the ATS manages to stand out most through its distinctively American exterior and interior styling, as well as one of the industry’s best information and entertainment systems.

The sedan carries forward Cadillac’s unique Art & Science design theme with sharply creased sheet metal and an intricately detailed grille displaying a large and colorful Wreath & Crest badge.

Signature vertical lighting adorns the exterior, highlighted by front headlamp casings that stretch along the top of the quarter panels. Vertical LED daytime running lamps, a must-have now for luxury vehicles, bow for the first time in a Cadillac.

A long wheelbase, wide track with short overhangs and tight-fitting wheels convey masculinity.

Inside, a variety of materials, such as authentic wood grains, ambient lighting, carbon fiber and leather with cut-and-sewn stitching, combine for a sophisticated, luxurious feel. A tester with Platinum Leather and Jet Black accents and Sapele wood trim is particularly fetching and classically Cadillac.

Other eye-catching elements include striped Okapi wood trim, aluminum trim and Carmel and Morello Red leather. 

But our near-production testers are not without fault, including one with a misfit microphone and another with dashboard overlays that are not flush to the front-center console. GM executives promise the mistakes will be corrected before Job One.

The ATS also gets nicked for lacking a better rear-seat climate-control system.

The car marks the second application of CUE, or the Cadillac User Experience.

The information and entertainment system is one of the most user-friendly units on the market with just a handful of simple icons, quick access to controls and commands, bright color graphics and voice-activation that recognizes natural speech.

We also like the severe-weather alerts, which display on the CUE’s 8-in. (20-cm) touchscreen detailed and colorful radar of an impending thunderstorm impacting rush-hour on a highway outside the city.

It would be a stretch to say the ATS could unseat the 3-Series anytime soon, but this compact Cadillac distinguishes itself well enough to challenge the segment hierarchy by offering competitive performance in a one-of-a-kind package.

jamend@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Cadillac ATS
Vehicle type Front engine, RWD/AWD, 5-passenger compact sport sedan
Engine 2.0L DOHC turbo gasoline direct-injection 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 272 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) @ 1,700-5,500 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 89 x 89
Compression ratio 9.5:1
Transmission 6-speed manual/automatic
Wheelbase 109.3 ins. (277.6 cm)
Overall length 182.8 ins. (464.3 cm)
Overall width 71.1 ins. (180.6 cm)
Overall height 55.9 ins. (142 cm)
Curb weight 3,373 lbs. (1,530 kg)
Base price $34,615
Fuel economy 22/32 mpg city/hwy est. (10.7-7.4 L/100 km)
Competition BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Infiniti G, Lexus IS
Pros Cons
Solid 4-cyl. lineup Slushy manual gearbox
Bold Cadillac styling Interior hiccups
Attractive base price Blue-blooded segment