Revisiting the Cadillac ATS

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When I first got to drive the new Cadillac ATS sedan last fall, I had to settle for one with the base engine. Of the three engine choices, the 2.5 liter four cylinder in my test car was the least powerful, and least exciting.

Considering that Cadillac is marketing the car as a competitor to the BMW 3-Series, a rather lackluster engine making but 202 horsepower (and mated to an automatic transmission only) just seemed a little out of place. Oh it works fine, and is nice and smooth. But a performer? Not really.

The public relations folks at GM promised I’d get a turn in the much more sporting example of the ATS, with a more powerful turbocharged engine and a 6-speed manual transmission. Well, get a turn I did, and what an improvement.

This is the configuration that you’ve seen in those grandiose television commercials, where racing driver Derek Hill is storming over challenging roads across the globe, including the famed race circuit in Monte Carlo.

It’s also the ATS that the big car magazines have been using to compare to that standard bearer, the 3-Series BMW. In most comparisons, the little Cadillac really held its own. Not just in the engine’s performance, but in the way the chassis can handle cornering and braking.

And while the other ATS I drove handled just fine, the one with the 2.0T engine and the manual gearbox really accelerated too. The turbo four cylinder is used in other GM products, and in this car it’s rated at an impressive 272 horsepower. That power comes on smoothly and strong, with perfectly suited gear ratios in the 6-speed to keep the engine in the sweet spot as your speed climbs.

Yes, the ATS can perform, but it’s also a luxury car too. In Premium trim (this car had the best of both worlds – the hot engine and the most equipment) the leather seats are wonderfully rich and supportive, and for the most part the car is as luxurious as any other modern Cadillac. There’s still some plastic in places you see and touch from the driver’s seat, but since this is Caddy’s entry-level car, a bit of that can be forgiven.

In addition to being swaddled in leather hides, the Premium equipment also gives you all the electronic bells and whistles buyers of upscale sport sedans expect. Cadillac’s CUE touch screen interface lets you control navigation, audio, phone, and climate systems in one central place. Some reviewers have panned CUE (Cadillac User Experience), but I’ve come to find it easy to use once you spend a little time with it.

A Cadillac ATS with the Premium package also gets the top-end sport suspension with a feature called Magnetic Ride Control. Here, a computer is able to sense changes in body motion and adjust the shock absorbers in milliseconds thanks to magnetic particles suspended in the units’ internal fluid. It’s been used successfully on Chevrolet Corvettes for some time and is working its way onto various Cadillac models.

One of the car’s basic shortcomings does remain, and that’s a pretty cramped rear seat. Even average size drivers don’t leave much room behind them with their seat adjusted properly, and tall folks like me remove any kind of spaciousness for a left rear passenger. Sure, most of these cars will be sold to young singles or folks who have another car in the garage for family use, but it does still seem like a pretty big misstep.

You can get into an ATS pretty reasonably at around $34,000, but that’s for a fairly basic car with that so-so four cylinder engine. Trim levels and packages run the gamut, as there’s also a V6 available (it makes 321 horsepower, though with automatic transmission only) as the highest price engine choice. Personally, I’d go with the turbo engine/6-speed manual combination, which has a base price of just over $43,000. With ancillary options, the sticker on my test car totaled just over $46,000.

So yes, Cadillac has built a worthy competitor to the BMW 3-Series and other upscale sport sedans. But only if you choose the right engine.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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