Beginning with the 1975 Seville, General Motors began a depressing ritual of springing on us a smaller, cheaper “Cadillac” about once every decade. All of them were disasters. The slope-trunk Seville that I mentioned was based on the Chevy Nova – and need I say more? In 1982, the even worse Cimarron arrived, a faintly disguised variant of the terrible Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, Olds Firenza and Buick Skyhawk. What a bunch of stinkers they were. And Cadillac didn’t even bother to build its 1997 Catera here at all. It was a German Opel with a Cadillac egg crate grill forced into its mouth like a set of false teeth. Faaa-lop.
The thread running through all three of these cars was, quite frankly, cynical marketing. Right through the 1940s, Cadillac had been polishing its reputation to a glimmer by building truly magnificent automobiles. But as chrome-dipped bumpers and towering tail fins began to replace genuine engineering excellence underneath, GM began selling lesser cars they continued to herald as the “Standard of the World.”
And now, after skipping a decade (in which they might have been distracted by going bankrupt), we have another small Cadillac – the ATS. Here we go again?
No! And what a colossal relief. This is the people at Cadillac putting their full technological weight into building what they’ve openly announced is their BMW 3-Series killer. Yes, that’s sort of like being the Harlem Globetrotters and suddenly saying you’ve entered the NBA to take down the Miami Heat (or the Lakers, if you’re an optimist). But on paper, they appear to have a chance.
Unlike those disastrous mini-Cadillacs of the past, the ATS’ foundation – that is, its chassis – is based on the latest engineering thinking. Its structure is strong but unusually light via lots of high-strength steel, and its fitted with an advanced form of strut suspension up front and a 5-link rear suspension. (That’s car journalist lingo for “potentially, very good.”) Another hint of good handling is a 50/50 weight distribution, and in its various guises (including AWD versions), the ATS is close. Optional, too, is a shock absorber technology that is even used by Ferrari.
It’s more of a mixed bag when it comes to the ATS’ drive trains. Three are available, and I’ll cut to the chase by simply suggesting you avoid the base 202-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder. Only consider buying the 272-horsepower, 2.0 turbo – if it’s coupled to the fine automatic transmission (the manual is rough-shifting). But if you can, just buy the 321-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 automatic. Why Cadillac has muddied the ATS’ market impact with the indifferent 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, and the manual-transmission-equipped 2.0 turbo, is beyond me. And here’s an area where Cadillac has fallen short of BMW: Every engine-transmission combination that the Munich automaker offers is top-notch; with the ATS, you need to be careful.
Inside the ATS, Cadillac has evidently heard the grumblings over cheap materials and indifferent fabrication. It’s actually rather nice in here. The stitching looks carefully done, the wood is real and there are even a few nifty touches, such as a clear wrap-around instrument shield. Negatives? The back seat is really tight, and for serious drivers, the front seats are rather flat. The new “Cadillac User Experience” dashboard interface is both good (multi-touch) and bad (slow-reacting).
Bottom line: Does the Cadillac ATS drive as well as its BMW competitors? Again, it depends on the version. But in the right configuration (the V6 in performance trim being one) it’s a real hoot and a convincing American spin on the long unchallenged BMW 3-Series. And, most importantly, it’s not your father’s Seville – or Cimarron or Catera.
Kim Reynolds is testing director of Motor Trend magazine.
Who should drive this car? Yes, you BMW 3-Series stalwarts, you do have an alternative to consider. Just be ready for a bit more bright work bling than you’re used to.
How does it drive? The 2-liter turbo has a thin-sounding exhaust, but it handles with a genuine liveliness. The best, though, is the V6 with AWD; its ride is sometimes brutal, but wow, what a kick!
MPG (city/hwy): best: 22/33; worst 18/26
Cost range: $33,095 (base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder w/RWD); $47,495 (Premium 3.6-liter V6 w/AWD). Base price excludes a $985 destination charge
Comparable: BMW 3-Series, Audi A4, Mercedes-Benz C-Class