Track Test – 2013 Cadillac ATS

The 2013 Cadillac ATS is probably one of the most anticipated vehicles to hit the market this year. Tasked with providing perhaps the most directed American assault to the compact luxury sedan segment, it’s no secret how much Cadillac has toiled and invested to get to this point. With the segment king BMW 3 Series seemingly dismissing every contender to the crown, the ATS certainly has its work cut out for it. I recently had the chance to attend a track event hosted by Cadillac where the ATS and CTS-V models were on hand to be thrashed…I mean tested to their limits at the Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter, Florida. What follows is my review of the Cadillac ATS (a separate post on the CTS-V models will arrive later).

This was my first time seeing the ATS in the flesh and if you’ve read my earlier First Impressions article on Cadillac’s new compact sedan, you should have a pretty good idea how important this car is to Cadillac’s goals.The Art & Science theme readily applies itself to this smaller footprint and the ATS strikes quite a handsome stance. Vertical themes are present on the front, where LED fog and accent lighting direct the eyes up the sides of the front fascia to the aluminum hood. Cues from the earlier Cien and Sixteen concept cars are sprinkled about, from the wide lower intake to the grille where the Cadillac wreath and crest badge sits prominently in the center. The windshield is steeply raked and the roof line follows a lower character line that begins where the headlight fixture stops and continues to the tail light fixtures. Again, the vertical themes are present but not so much as the make the rear end appear chunky. In fact, the rear is nipped and truncates quite nicely into the LED HMBL (high mounted brake light) on the trunk lid that also doubles as a subtle lip spoiler. The lower rear valance has aero diffuser effects and twin exhaust pipes peek out from underneath. All ATS models on display were of the top trip range and come standard with General Motors’ well regarded 3.6 liter direct injected V6 which provides 321hp and 275lb-ft of torque through a 6 speed automatic transmission.

Built on a completely new platform designated “Alpha”, the ATS is both compact and light. Cadillac used the E46 BMW 3 Series as a benchmark for both weight, handling and ride and as a result, the ATS is among the lightest in its segment. The chassis features aluminum, magnesium and ultra high strength steel for maximum stiffness and rigidity. Suspension pieces consists of struts up front and a new five link independent system anchoring the rear, all made of aluminum and magnesium materials. On 3.6 models, 18 inch wheels are equipped front and rear with performance summer tires (all seasons on AWD models) while four piston Brembo brakes provide stopping power. Also featured is Cadillac’s impressive MagneRide electronic damper system (clickĀ here for more details on this technology) that enables the ATS to quickly react to changing road conditions. Compared to the benchmark BMW 3 Series, the ATS comes within an inch in virtually all exterior and interior dimensions.With extensive testing on Germany’s infamous Nurburgring circuit and in various corners of the world (as Cadillac has been hard pressed to market), the ATS does have the potential on paper to either equal or beat the Bavarian competition at its own game. But does it really?

Sit inside and you’re greeted by a plethora of premium materials that lend an airy feeling to the cabin, although, to my eyes anyway, the cabin seemed just a tad smaller than the 328i I tested a few months back. Either way, the driver’s perch felt tailor fit to my frame with all major controls easily reached. The gauges were legible and easy to read while the center stack…well, I’ll circle back to that in a bit. The dash features hand stitched leather and the front seats offer multi-way adjustments for maximum comfort whether holding the occupants in place during spirited driving or providing support for long highway stints. Rear seat legroom is, well, compact. There’s not a whole lot of leg space back there but not enough that occupants will riot. My cohort Robert Mullings is a pretty large guy and with him seated in the driver’s seat set for his comfort and myself seated behind him, my legs were splayed to either side of the seat. This was exaggerated by the area where the carpet meets the seat bottom. Usually, rear seats have a bit of overhang to them but I noticed there was none to speak of in the ATS…or maybe my posture is bad. Regardless, two can sit back there in relative comfort while three across is tight. Trunk space is also good, though the rear wheel well intrusions are noticeably visible and do make storage a bit tricky in some instances.

Taking the ATS for a short spin from one side of the track to the other for some dynamic testing, the car’s feel and suspension poise were immediate. The steering has good heft and weighting to it, but assist was great and transmitted ample information through the hands. Not many EPAS (electronic power assist steering) systems can do this and Cadillac must be applauded for sweating this sporty detail. .After a short presentation regarding the tire choices for the ATS as well as details regarding the suspension, safety and electronic damper controls, we were let loose on the cars (instructors riding shotgun of course).

The test would consist of three sections: Emergency braking from speed into a turn (to demonstrate the ATS’ stability and powerful brakes), acceleration testing (more of a fun event that not only showcases the impressive pulling power of the 3.6 V6, but also tests our reaction times) and finally the slalom (showcasing the impressive magnetic shocks, the ATS’ agility and directional control). We would tackle the entire course over three laps, every one of them with the Sport mode engaged. This mode changes the throttle mapping to a more aggressive setting, primes the magneto-rheological dampers and adds increased heft to the steering.

For the emergency braking, the intention was to simulate coming into a corner at speed and braking hard to a stop in order to avoid an obstruction (imagine a dark, blind corner then suddenly coming up on a boulder…or a deer…or roadkill). This involved nailing the throttle out of the stops and then immediately hitting the binders after reaching 40 – 50mph, while turning. We did this a few times and the ATS’ four piston Brembos hauled us down every time with minimal fuss, the suspension remaining flat and level. I must also add that Cadillac seems to have quelled the high rpm graininess that plagued earlier versions of its 3.6 V6. As a matter of fact, the intake roar at full throttle was quite pleasing. From the outside I was reminded of Nissan’s big bore VQ V6, but without its coarse note. Circling around to perform the acceleration test, our car and another ATS lined up at the strip to see not only who was the faster, but who’s reaction time was quicker. Since no Christmas tree lights were available, we settled on one of the instructors counting down from three via radio. All three times, our car won (pops collar) although I do feel obligated to insert a disclaimer here. The final two laps had me lined up against my Robert (who outweighs me by at least 50lbs) so I had an ever so slight advantage compounded by, according to him (which I only found out later) an electronic problem with his test car that never allowed him to gain full access of the engine’s 321hp, handing me the win each time.

Sure Rob, sure.

The next test involved the slalom and, goaded by my instructor (let’s call him R.J. Schmidt), I was able to thread the cones nicely and with good speed. Each subsequent pass garnered an even faster time and, with it, inspired more confidence. The ATS never surprises with its responses and goes exactly where you point the nose, giving adequate feedback to the driver. When it comes to sporty driving, a car that breeds confidence in the driver is exactly what you want in challenging conditions. In this regard, the ATS is every bit the 3 Series competitor that Cadillac envisions it to be. The car remained flat through the cones, grip from the tires was very impressive and the feedback from the steering wheel enabled me to assess the levels of grip I had to get on the power quicker. After the track session, I came away having a new perspective of Cadillac and its aspirations of beingĀ  the American equivalent to the established German players of the luxury segment. What started with the CTS has been effectively transferred to the smaller ATS, and with it, the means to directly challenge the compact luxury segment.

There’s just a tiny chink in the armor that I’ve neglected to mention until now: CUE.

The chink

CUE? What’s CUE? It stands for Cadillac User Experience and is Cadillac’s much ballyhooed answer to Ford’s Microsoft-based SYNC and MyFord Touch system. On the center console, there are no buttons and knobs to speak of. An 8″ touchscreen dominates the top half and below that, a black, nicely finished acrylic touch capacitive surface to control most of the car’s systems. As far as the digital presentation, think of how you’d use a tablet and you get the idea. Icons can be moved around the ‘home page’ and a list of often used systems are represented in the lower portion of the screen. In navigation mode, you can change the size of the display by squeezing or pinching the screen the same way you would on a tablet or smartphone. CUE also enables destinations to be directly uploaded from your paired smartphone, eliminating the need to enter an address from scratch. Unlike the Ford system which in my experience was infuriating to use for its non responsive touch surfaces and slowness of operation, CUE attempts to circumvent this by using haptic feedback of the touch surface to acknowledge the user’s selection. Say you want to access the navigation system, touching the icon on the screen induces a slight vibration felt through the finger, acknowledging your selection. The lower touch surface operates in much the same way with all controls for volume, radio station selection, climate and entertainment accessed via touch sensitive surfaces. It takes some practice to master and with time, I don’t doubt the user will be used to it. The problem I see with this system, much like the Ford version, is that too often you have to look down from the road to make sure your input was received and you touched the right area. CUE does lessen this to a certain extent but personally, I much prefer knobs that are more intuitive to use and don’t force me to take my eyes off the road to ensure I made the correct selection. Call me old fashioned.

You can largely get around all this by using the excellent voice control system that will recognize almost any vocal command you give it, unlike Ford’s system which requires you speak in a very specific way for it to acknowledge your wishes (and relentlessly coaches you on how to do it, even when you’d just wish the annoying lady would shut up). Press the steering wheel mounted button, say a command (like FM Station 105.1 or climate 70 degrees) and the system simply does what it’s told. And quickly. While driving, the touch surface fades to black to minimize distraction. Wave your hand over it and a proximity sensor immediately lights up the surface in anticipation of your selection.. Touch the bottom of the panel and it flips up to reveal a padded storage area that also includes a USB port. I was a bit perplexed by this, especially when finding the CD/DVD drive in the glovebox. Why not have the port in the lower area behind the shift lever and the optic drive in the dash? After some thought it dawned on me: no one really uses CDs anymore (well besides me anyway) as all media is electronic in nature nowadays, so it does make sense to have that kind of feature front and center. Once your phone is paired to the car’s system (via Bluetooth or USB), you can store in the dash storage cubby and leave it there, the car’s system handling most everything from that point.

The 2013 Cadillac ATS is definitely a sedan that’s poised to take on all comers and with other body styles in the pipeline, as well as a much anticipated V model (twin turbo V6 anyone?) Cadillac is certainly pulling all the stops and leaving no stones unturned in fighting for its slice of the compact luxury segment.

Many thanks to Cadillac for inviting me to this exhilarating event and to my instructor whom I’ve dubbed R.J. Schimdt for his vast knowledge and patience with me (yes you picked the right driver buddy!). Also, special thanks to Andy Pilgrim who drives the #8 Cadillac CTS-V race car for taking the time out to talk shop about Cadillac’s venture into the world of racing and its plans for the future as well as the vehicles themselves. On behalf of Robert Mullings and myself, again, thank you.

0 thoughts on “Track Test – 2013 Cadillac ATS”

  1. Great to hear comments on CUE. I have seen similar complaints on the system, but I'm still waiting for somebody to report real-world Navigation attempts like one does on an Android smart-phone. Say "Find Starbucks" and see the nearest three to five Starbucks, then "Navigate" or "Directions" or "Call". Or not even "Find Starbucks" but "Starbucks" because you are going to dril down from there by voice. But it is a very good first step. They put a lot of time and people on this (see the online Esquire article "How to Build an American Car – Cadillac ATS". Unfortunately, doesn't sound like they watched and asked tech-savvy people how it should be used instead of average (or less) people on how they currently use tech in their car, lol.

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