AutomobilesExtra

[REVIEW] 2014 Cadillac ATS – Born in the USA

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The Cadillac ATS reminds me of the scene in the movie where Captain America is fighting the Germans. Long outmatched by their superior technology, sheer willpower and heritage, the odds seem stacked against the plucky superhero. Somehow, Captain America prevails.

To all of the naysayers who are still dismissing the Cadillac brand as something their Grandfathers would drive, I wish to say, “Get in, sit down, shut up, hang on”.

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Traditionally, Cadillac has been GM’s brand ambassador for the relaxed American way of travelling around in style. Cadillacs are “supposed” to be soft and floaty. You’re not supposed to know that you’re driving on.

But ever since Cadillac’s “Art and Science” look rebirth, the brand’s gunsights have been set on the 1-ton gorilla in the room. The Munich based company by the name of Bayerische Motoren Werke AG.

In building the ATS, Cadillac set the BMW E46 3-series as the benchmark for the car. Incidentally, this is what GM considers the best 3-series ever. Before the launch of this car, the heavyweight marketing behind the ATS included splashy Super Bowl commercials and featuring Nurburgring test videos of the ATS prototypes.

Although I’ve never been a BMW owner, I have been part of the BMW Car Club of BC as they host some fantastic driver training events. I have also driven the latest F30 (2014) BMW 3-series extensively, as my ATS loan was immediately succeeded by that car.

Finally, I am a big fan of sports sedans and a current owner of the 2nd direct German competitor to the ATS, the Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC (pictured below). My sports sedan history has even included the limited production hot-rod Mercedes-Benz C55AMG.

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With all of this experience under my belt, I felt that I was rather well equipped to put my automotive road tester hat on, and put my preconceived notions and biases aside.

Will I love or hate Cadillac’s new small sports sedan? Is it the “New Standard of the World”? Keep reading to find out!

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The outside

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Cadillac’s PR boilerplate reads, “Cadillac has been a luxury automotive manufacturer since 1902 and has a prestigious history of safety and technology innovation. This legacy continues today as Cadillac engineers and builds technologically advanced, dramatically styled vehicles with a reputation for luxury, performance and quality”.

The ATS definitely looks the part as a buttoned-down piece of engineering.  From its wheelbase to width, height, track width to length, everything is within an inch or less of the 3-series. The version I drove was the Luxury Collection trim level ATS4 all-wheel-drive variant, with the 3.6-litre direct-injection V6.

Cadillac also offers a 270hp 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder to match the BMW 328’s 2.0L 240hp turbo-four. But my 3.6 V6 tester is best matched up with the BMW 335’s 300hp 3.0-litre turbocharged inline-six, or the 306hp direct-injection 3.5-litre V6 in the Mercedes-Benz C350.

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Styling-wise, the ATS interprets Cadillac’s Art & Science design language in a new smaller proportion, tailoring the signature styling and refinement cues for this compact Cadillac.

It does seem slightly tame compared to the CTS coupe. But supposedly this is because the Chinese market (where GM continues to invest a lot of resources in) does not respond well to flamboyant designs. Cadillac hopes to sell a lot of ATS’ in China, so this is an important factor for them to consider.

To give you some context, having been there, I can tell you that China is a country where locally built Buick Regals are considered fancy chauffeur-driven cars!

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Nonetheless, I find the ATS’ design still very edgy and certainly unique enough to stand out amongst a sea of conservative humdrum cars designs. The head and tail lamps shapes, in particular, are distinctly Cadillac and full of character.

I was, however, disappointed that my “Luxury” spec model didn’t come with the cool looking vertical LED daytime running lights, Bi-Xenon headlamps, or the LED illuminated outside door handles. These bold lighting cues (no pun intended) are  elements that are heavily being advertised, and to me, a crucial part of the appeal of the ATS design.

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One has to step up to the Performance or Premium trim levels to get them. Puzzlingly, even on my $54,885 test car, all of the aforementioned items are not available as standalone options. Halogen headlamps on a $54K car? Hmm…

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Another visual disappointment was the fact that the all-wheel-drive equipped ATS seems to have an unusually high ride height. While this may have the advantage in avoiding scraping on the low driveways, it seems a tad excessive in execution.

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The result is a car that looks as if it has been lifted. The BMW 3-series with xDrive has the same problem, but the ATS4 is worse. To give you some context, my C350 4MATIC (AWD) has a 2 finger gap between the top of the front tire tread to the bottom edge of the front fender.  The F30 3-series with xDrive has a 4 finger gap, and the ATS4 has almost a 5 finger gap!

It should be noted that my ATS was not equipped with GM’s fabulous Driver-adjustable FE3 sports suspension with Magnetic Ride control, which hopefully has less of this issue.

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Happily though, the news is not all bad here. Rear wheel drive ATS’ don’t seem to suffer from the same high ride height I took issue with.

As equipped with its stunning white Diamond Tricoat paint and 18×8” bright machined finish wheels, my ATS tester certainly looked the part of a small luxury sports sedan. And because new sports sedans are like perennial mail order brides to their buyers, looks totally do matter!

The inside

Cadillac has done its homework here. With a driver-focused interior with integrated technology, crafted materials that complement the exterior elements, this screams “drive me”.

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The interior engineers supposedly tuned everything for performance driving, from the placement of the pedals to the position of the shifter.

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My car was equipped with Caramel coloured leather seats with Jet Black accents. The Caramel was perhaps not my favourite choice as I typically go for black leather trim. A much more interesting selection would be the Morello Red interior with Jet Black accents. If you’re going for a white, black, or silver car, this would be my recommendation!

The driving position is good with excellent visibility partly due to the reasonably thin A-pillars. My car was not equipped with the sport seats that have adjustable thigh and side supports. However, the standard seats were good and certainly comparable to that of the German rivals that are equipped equivalently.

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Rear seat room, on the other hand, is a bit tight. While the rear seatback angle and head restraints are comfortable enough, rear leg and knee room falls short (literally) when compared to the Germans.

Add the low roof plus swoopy door opening and some head-ducking is required to get in and out from the back. So if you’re going to carry two adults in the back on longer trips, make sure that they’re not too tall.

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Trunk space ALSO seems a bit on the small size. Weirdly, despite having the first five-link independent rear suspension in a Cadillac, the trunk is configured as if it needs space for two rear strut towers.

This eats into cargo room and I couldn’t fit the same number of things in the ATS’ trunk that I could in my C350. At least the rear seats fold down for longer objects, but that’s by no means class leading.

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Contributing to the interior’s driver orientated feel is an instrument panel that wraps into the doors, and a central instrument cluster that flows into the center console.

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I particularly like 1.8-litre hidden compartment underneath the large CUE (Cadillac User Experience) LCD screen. Perfect for stashing some house keys, CDs, or even my wallet. This space is actually quite important as the centre console compartment is a bit on the small size.

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As for the gauges, they’re LED-lit and have a unique layering effect that helps to create a 3D-look. They’re clear and easy to view at a glance in all lighting conditions.

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The high resolution smaller 5.7” LCD screen under the speedometer shares the same beautiful graphical elements of the rest of the CUE system and is configurable via the large toggle switch on the right steering-wheel spoke.

This display has three customizable windows that can display a wide variety of options to suit your fancy.

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White ambient lighting accents all of the functional elements of the console and the doors. Even the steering wheel buttons are lit with the same white LEDs. They look absolutely stunning at night and light up my favourite button. The heated steering wheel control!

Thankful the LEDs can be dimmed as they’re the brightest steering wheel buttons I’ve ever seen!

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Additional interior features include:

  • Bluetooth phone connectivity with voice recognition
  • USB, auxiliary and SD memory card ports
  • SiriusXM Satellite Radio
  • Keyless access and keyless push-button start
  • Full-color reconfigurable head-up display (sadly not equipped to my car)

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An absolutely fantastic seven-speaker Bose sound system was fitted to my Luxury Collection trim level car. It is as good as the optional harmon kardon sound system in my C350, which I think is the best system out there in this class. Definitely good company for Cadillac to be in!

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Finally, special mention goes to the thin bezel autodimming rearview mirror. Resembling a high end thin bezel Samsung LED 3D TV, it was one of my favourite parts of the ATS’ interior.

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Cadillac CUE

Normally I don’t devote a whole section to a test car’s navigation system. Butt in this case because the CUE is a comprehensive in-vehicle experience and not just a satellite navigation system, I felt that I had to talk about my “experience”.

Cadillac claims that CUE is “designed to merge controls and commands for information and entertainment data”. It’s supposed to be for both the simple to the fully connected “super user”.

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At the heart of CUE is the 8” multi-touch sensitive LCD screen with a fully capacitive faceplate below with some audio controls and redundant climate controls. The screen has a number of clever features including a proximity sensor that detects your hand nearby and only brings up additional easy-to-target large icons at that point.

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The result is a clean looking screen without unnecessary button clutter. Both the touch screen and the capacitive controls on the faceplate below feature haptic feedback, which essentially vibrate the panel to provide a sense of touch.

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Whether or not you order your ATS with satellite navigation, you get the CUE system because it integrates all radio, entertainment, climate control functions as well.

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Impressively, CUE can pair entertainment and information data from up to a staggering 10 Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices, in addition to USBs sticks and SD cards. I really appreciated the satellite navigation system’s ability to pull contact addresses directly from my paired iPhone.

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The good news is that CUE does really help to reduce the number of buttons on the dash. Instead of having the typical 20 buttons that most luxury cars have controlling the radio and entertainment functions, CUE only has 4.

Also, the graphics are one of the best of any head unit at any price level. It’s really that good. Even the refresh rate for tracking the vehicle’s path on the map is at real-time speed rather than the choppy blocks that one is used to seeing on the navi screen while driving along.

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Now the bad news. You may have heard that Cadillac’s CUE has received a lot of negative feedback in other reviews regarding its slowness when it comes to interpreting commands. I did experience some of this frustration myself. Fortunately, I didn’t find the system to be as bad as I had read before trying it out at length.

That being said, the system does seem be able to benefit from more computing power as even pinching and pulling the map screen to zoom in and out causes a lot of lagging. The system seems to slow down when trying to render complex graphics.

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I found that the trick with any of the controls seems to be to train yourself to slow down and wait for an extra half a second before executing the next step.

By waiting for slight vibration of the haptic feedback to signal that my touch had been recognized, I managed to minimize missed commands.

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This is not just limited to the CUE system though, and pretty much goes for everything (including non-car related devices) that I’ve experienced that is equipped with touch capacitive button technology.

Cadillac is aware of the complaints and is constantly tweaking and updating the software in customers’ cars to try to satisfy the complaints (not unlike the issues with Ford’s MyTouch system I may add). Me? I’ll take a physical button, thank you.

At long last, how does it drive?

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Based on the brand-new Alpha platform, the ATS features a typical front-engine, rear-drive (with optional all-wheel drive) layout, four wheel independent suspension, Brembo four wheel disc brakes, and the latest electrohydraulic power steering from ZF.

With a low curb weight of less than 3400 pounds and 50/50 weight distribution, all of the above seem to be ingredients for success. And guess what? The recipe is indeed a hit!

On the road, the ATS imparts a sense of balance. The 50/50 weight distribution pays dividends here and you get a feeling that it’s a really neutral, stiff chassis.

The 3.6L V6 sounds great. Growly without too much noise. Lots of power when you want it. Torque isn’t as good as the BMW 335i, being down by around 20ft-lbs, but the Hydra-Matic transmission makes the best of it and shifts quickly and crisply despite having only 6 gears. It actually holds the gears when needed, and up or downshift when not.

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The Brembo brakes provide excellent linear stopping power, with great bite at the top of the pedal that inspires confidence. The brake pedal feel is actually slightly better than the F30 320i xDrive tester that I had.

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Another thing that the ATS trumps over the 3-series is in steering feel. It’s very good for an electric unit and the car turns in quickly, precisely, with steering weight that loads progressively off-centre. I would actually hazard to say that I like it even more than the hydraulic unit on my C350 mainly because of how quick the turn-in is, adding to that fun-to-drive character.

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Ride-wise, the car is appropriately stiff for a car in this category. It’s never noisy, busy or harsh, despite having runflat tires. You will feel the bumps, but they’re dampened well and you really get a solid weighty feel on the road with no float.

Final Thoughts

So the ATS has great chassis, good engine and is nice to look at. All in all, it’s a very good car. A very good compact sports sedan.

The proof is in the pudding I think, and any of my friends (many whom are 3-series or A4 owners) who were quick to dismiss the baby Caddy had their minds changed upon experiencing a ride in the car.

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I’ll admit that even I was skeptical at first when I read that the ATS had won the prestigious 2013 North American Car of the Year award. OK so the Cadillac CUE system needs some work still, the lack of Bi-Xenons headlamps and LED daytime running lights in the Luxury model at this price point is annoying, and the transmission could use a couple of extra gears (at least for advertising reasons).

But this is an America car rides as well as the Germans, seems to be as built as well, is appointed as well, and is actually a bit more fun to drive. Who would’ve thought?

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So perhaps that’s a strategy that Cadillac needs to win over buyers. And younger buyers at that. To actually put more of them behind the wheel of the ATS in a back-to-back test compared to its rivals.

As I said earlier, “Get in, sit down, shut up, hang on”, if you’re in the market for a compact luxury sports sedan you won’t regret it. I know I enjoyed every minute behind the wheel of the ATS. Honestly!

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Andrew Ling
Andrew is a proud car and tech geek who has worked in Surrey for over the last 10 years. He comes from a communications/marketing background and has worked for automotive-related companies such as Edmunds.com, BenzWorld.org since 1999. From track driving, to rally driving to autocross, he has done it all! When he’s not reading about the latest automotive news, he can be found outdoors snapping pictures at various events around town.
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