2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0 Turbo Six-Speed - Mixed Feelings About the Most Important Caddy in Decades
The 2013 ATS is the most significant Cadillac in the last 40 years. While Caddy has had some critically acclaimed and technically interesting vehicles in the past decades, status quo at Caddy was adapting existing GM platforms and improving them as befitting a premium brand. This was the strategy with the Sigma platform based CTS/SRX/STS and GMT-900 based Escalade, and the results of this platform engineering strategy were mixed.
2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0 Turbo
We always wondered what Cadillac could accomplish if unshackled from the constraints of corporate platforms and allowed to flex their engineering muscles a bit. The 1991 Northstar V8 gave us a glimpse of the possibilities - and for the era, this DOHC, 32V alloy V8 was a technological tour-de-force and a proper Caddy exclusive.
The 2013 ATS represents the first GM application of the new RWD Alpha platform, and its only right that GM's premium brand be given first crack at bringing it to market. With ATS, Cadillac engineers were finally tasked to design a car based purely on performance objectives including; light weight, 50/50 weight balance and rigidity. By doing so, they aimed for world class performance dynamics to finally rival those of Audi, BMW or Mercedes Benz. We've heard those same words from Caddy execs many times before, but this time it seemed like they were serious.
This is noteworthy, so our test drive of the 2013 ATS was one of the most eagerly awaited in recent years.
Gratuitious Low Angle Art Photo
To make the most of this opportunity, we asked for an ATS in the most sporting guise - the 2.0 Turbo "Performance" with a six-speed manual gearbox, ZF steering, magnetic ride control, limited slip differential and Brembo brakes. This $44,000 model also provided our first real world exposure to Cadillac's User Interface (CUE), a touch-based, haptic feedback system for entertainment, navigation, climate control and display.
Art and Science, But A Bit Melted Around The Edges
Approaching the ATS, we were pleased with the styling. Cadillac's "Art and Science" design motif is a controversial love or hate look. ATS does carry clear Art and Science DNA, but the traditional sharp edges and creases have been champhered, rolled and softened a bit. It's a good look to our eyes - challenging, well proportioned, taut and still distinctively Cadillac.
Panel gaps are uniform and tight, the paint finish is top notch and the ATS looks and feels a high quality piece. That feeling carries over into the interior, upholstered in rich leather with nice single-row stitchwork. The interior fit and finish is also impressive, with tight gaps and cutlines - and every switch and control operates with smooth solidity.
Interior Is Well Done, With Nice Materials and Workmanship
Seat comfort is outstanding, as are the primary ergonomics. However, this endorsement is limited to the front seats. Getting into the rear seat is an unpleasant experience. The outer seat bolster and rear wheel arch intrude badly into the door opening, restricting it to a narrow, triangular shape. Making things worse is the low roof rail. Unless you are very small of stature, getting in and out of the rear seat is a major hassle, perhaps the worse we've seen since the last generation Jeep Grand Cherokee. Getting into the Cadillac without clobbering your head requires a deliberate procedure; turning around, planting your behind on the seat, bending over sharply at the waist and then pivoting into the door opening. Once seated, the rear is a fine place to be for two adults, though headroom for six-footers is somewhat lacking due to intrusion from the Sunroof. Potential buyers contemplating ATS as a family car need to consider these rear seating drawbacks carefully.
The ATS has a generous trunk, with a usefully wide opening and low liftover. It will easily accommodate 2 or 3 sets of golf clubs.
Yes, We Were Too Lazy to Take This Junk Out
Pushing the start button, the 2.0 VVT Turbo lights off with a gravelly growl. It is not a pleasant noise however. Some of the racket is attributable to the high pressure direct injection - but we expected a lot better NVH supression in a $44,000 car. The six-speed shifter is well positioned, but the action is rubbery and has a lot of internal friction. It is nowhere near as smooth as you'd expect in a car with such sporting pretensions. We wonder why perfecting manual shifters is so hard for GM - the Regal Turbo is also vexed by mediocre shifter manners. Perhaps GM should reverse engineer the linkage from a Mazda Miata or 1970 Datsun 510...
VVT Does Not Stand For Very, Very Tranquil
Clutch action is light and communicative, and the 272 HP, 260 Lb/ft 2.0 steps off cleanly from idle. It has very good low-end torque and throttle response. The ATS pulls very hard through the gears, and really likes to rev. Gear ratios are well spaced and in this regard the ATS lives up to it's sporty advance billing.
Hey, What Are You Doing In Here?
The ZF steering is outstanding, well weighted and with high-fidelity feedback through the leather wheel. Effort builds properly and linearly through the turns, and you can certainly sense that Caddy engineers worked hard to excise friction and stiction from the entire system. The ride is firm and appropriately sporty - the ATS has excellent body control and noise supression. Over expansion joints, the suspension responds with a high pitched metallic "ping" indicative of well designed suspension geometry and careful tuning of body structure, spring rates, shocks and bushings. It is miles from the dull, reverberating thud experienced on earlier Caddies with high unsprung weight, stiff spring rates and excessive bushing stiction. This is where you can really appreciate the efforts of the ATS engineers.
The ATS performance models come with Brembo brakes and they are stellar - well modulated and with great pedal feel. Consider this a mandatory option.
We are not fans of electronic gimmickry, but we tried hard to give the CUE system a fair and objective hearing. In short - we don't like it. It is complex and distracting to the driver. Finding and pressing the correct flush dash buttons requires a concerted effort. Counterintuitively, you do not press the small icons themselves, but directly above them. The Haptic feedback (a distinctive thump as buttons are touched) was inconsistent and of little assistance. Another caveat emptor; if you are a neat freak - CUE will drive you completely insane. After a few minutes of use - the entire display and gloss black control panel is covered in smudgy fingerprints - and I had a constant, compulsive urge to wipe them off. Yes - I am a neat freak.
Obsessive Compulsives Will Have Problems With This Smudge Magnet
Perhaps more seat time would lessen this discomfort - but after bad experiences with both CUE and MyFordTouch we still believe that simple, well labeled analog controls are the best solution for audio and climate functions. Audi and VW offer feature laden vehicles - however even in a $175,000 Audi R8, the primary dash controls are clear, simple, logical and intuitive to operate.
Our evaluation scores reveal that Cadillac got far more right than wrong with the 2013 ATS. The underlying Alpha platform is excellent and the driving experience, ride, noise and handling is far better for it. Remember that this is the first iteration of the Alpha platform - and it's already a very credible effort. Subsequent years will continue to make it even better. The 2.0 Turbo and manual transmission combination did not live up to our expectations however, due to poor NVH and a clunky shifter. For now, you may be better advised to select the 321 HP 3.6 VVT V6 engine with an automatic transmission. The ATS exterior and interior styling is good, though the rear seat ingress/egress is a disaster. Lastly, there is the CUE system. We admit to a bias against such vehicular technologies - but we find CUE to be a major distraction from the serious act of driving
We give this first iteration of ATS a solid B+. If you are shopping for a RWD premium compact performance car, we think this belongs on your list. We eagerly await ongoing product refinements and the inevitable arrival of an ATS-V variant.
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