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BBC Autos

Review

2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

HIDE CAPTION

It may seem like a tagline coughed up by a cut-rate advertising agency, but the Cadillac ATS is much more than a sports sedan.

It embodies a competence long thought unachievable by American automakers. Balance, style, power, efficiency, quality, fun – they are all held in quiet abundance by the ATS, Cadillac’s response to the BMW 3 Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Lexus IS, Infiniti G and Acura TSX.

The achievement may be potent enough to forever banish memories of the Cadillac Catera, a compact sports sedan of the 1990s modelled on a deeply flawed donor vehicle from Opel, the GM Europe unit now hemorrhaging money like an EV startup. The ATS could even pardon Cadillac for committing the sin of Cimarron: embellishing a 1982 Chevy Cavalier with leather, wreathed-crest badges and a few extra thousand dollars on the window sticker.

The strengths of the ATS, however, only make its flaws that much more regrettable. Here was the best chance in two decades not only for Cadillac, but for the United States, to deliver a compact luxury car that could seize a Michigan-size chunk of the market dominated by German and Japanese models. The ATS may only rival those players, where it might have surpassed them.

First, the unequivocal good stuff.

A decade ago, the CTS midsize sedan heralded Cadillac’s Art and Science design philosophy, distinguished by blocky, rectilinear geometry and almost farcical metal-to-glass proportions (see: CTS Coupe). The results have always been distinctive, if rarely pretty.

But with the ATS, Cadillac has infused art and science with some blood. There is just enough softness to suggest the company finally understands that outré styling is best left to the French.

A character line forms a faint arc toward the brake light, bypassing wheel arches flared with equal subtlety. Even the fuel door carries the character line, a nice bit of cohesiveness. LEDs extend from the headlamps onto the front fenders, while on the tested model, equipped with the Performance package – adding $2,500 to the 3.6’s $42,985 base price – LEDs in the door handles illuminate when entering or exiting the vehicle. The special effects are sexy, not gimmicky.

Inside, chromed door handles are like mercury suspended – undulating and futuristic. But dull, pancake-flat expanses of plastic just below them mock their highfalutin pretensions. Instrument gauges also bear the indelible mark of the corporate bean counter, their digits rendered in a typeface that would look cheap in a half-tonne Chevy pickup.

Overall, though, the once-overbearing stench of the GM parts bin in past Cadillacs is absent, and the ATS is a better car for it.

Not to say the GM parts bin is filled with chewed, putrid bits of refuse – not anymore. To paraphrase the tagline of a bygone GM brand, this is not your father’s General Motors. Quality has surged since the company’s emergence from bankruptcy in 2010, and consequently, the ATS 3.6’s zebrawood veneers and fragrant leather read as outward expressions of innate sturdiness – a sturdiness best appreciated on the road.

Carrying a surplus of 15 miles per hour into a descending right-hand turn on a stretch of US East Coast interstate, the ATS was planted between the lane markers, with imperceptible body roll through the curve. Credit the chassis, suspension, electric steering rack and Hydra-Matic 6-speed automatic transmission, which compliantly held the shift-paddle-selected 5th gear throughout. In more than 500 miles of primarily highway travel, the 3.6 returned 28 mpg, a credit to its gearing; at 70 mph in 6th gear, the engine hummed along at a relaxed, efficient 2,000 rpm.

The 321-horsepower, 3.6-litre V6 engine fitted to the 3.6, the highest specification offered (two 4-cylinder engines, one of them turbocharged, are also available for the ATS), interacted with the automatic transmission in perfect concert. This V6 is found throughout the Cadillac product line, and in the ATS it is tuned toward creamy, linear power delivery, not boom and bluster. That refinement does not come at the expense of swiftness, though. Car and Driver clocked the 3.6 running from zero to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds, putting it in the thick of its benchmarked competition. And for all that speed, gearshifts never register harshly in the spinal column or guts of driver and passenger.

As enjoyable as that power wave is, it would be more so if the eight-way adjustable driver’s seat were more sensibly installed. The pan cushions offer just a modicum of upward movement at their edge, creating the sensation of an incontrovertible slide toward the steering wheel. It is a difficult feeling to shake.

Ergonomic gripes extend to the console. New for 2013, the CUE infotainment and control system, exclusive to Cadillac, is pitched by GM as the next generation in touch technology, with sensors that send a pulse to the finger when the system receives a command. The multimedia screen displays sensible, intuitive menus and submenus. A fingertip’s input rarely goes unacknowledged, and processor speed is every bit the complement to the ATS 3.6’s zippy V6 engine. When CUE fails, though, it does so spectacularly.

On a rain-slicked Washington DC Beltway surrounded by swift nighttime traffic, a tap of the rear-defroster icon prompted the entire console faceplate to swing up and outward, revealing a neat cubby space for iPods, CD cases and Binaca spray. Proximity sensors on the unit’s leading edge had sensed an errant finger, triggering the faceplate calisthenics. In the aforementioned Beltway cat-and-mouse traffic, with a fogged rear window and windshield wipers working to beat the band, this was a most unpleasant discovery. Cadillac should have positioned critical buttons away from the sensors, full stop.

The windshield defogger also kicks in with an arctic blast that sends passengers scrambling to crank up the digital dual-zone climate controls. As soon as the air compressor takes a break, the sequence must be played in reverse to cool the cabin. Why a $14,000 Chevrolet Sonic, let alone a BMW 335i, manages its compressor better than a $45,000 Cadillac should trouble GM.

Minor though these gripes may seem, they constitute the stuff of a car’s livability. A world-class chassis, wondrous steering and a handsome suit put the ATS on the goal line. From there, special teams must move the ball.

Perhaps a mid-cycle refresh in a couple of years will bring forward the segment champion the ATS is so clearly capable of being. Until then, it may merit a very close look, if not a purchase.

To paraphrase the tagline of a bygone GM brand, this is not your father’s General Motors. — Jonathan Schultz

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