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Friday
Jul272012

First Run: 2013 Cadillac ATS

By Christopher A. Sawyer

It was a Monday unlike any other. The first leg of the drive from Buckhead to Atlanta Motorsport Park was uneventful. First impressions of the all-wheel drive 2.0-liter turbocharged ATS were as positive as the sunshine that flooded the back roads. A student of the “smooth inputs” school of driving, I tried to keep speeds within reason, but the ATS proved to be an impeccable liar; the indicated speed was routinely 10-15 mph higher than the speed I thought we were doing. And what we were doing we were doing very quickly.

Minutes before we had been scything through morning traffic; pockets of stop-and-go punctuated by mirages of open road that disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Others in our group pushed on with more aggression, juking in and out of traffic, each intent on being the first to the initial stop and driver change. It’s a common problem on vehicle launches as folks drive quicker and more aggressively than they would in their everyday life; some out of passion, others out of need.

Thank God our car had the optional Brembo brakes.In less than an hour this leg of the journey was done, and car and driver both were changed; a 2.5-liter Luxury, which—as it would turn out—thankfully added Brembo’s fixed calipers and larger discs to the list of options. Speed and force substituted for finesse as we curled our way, at speed, toward the second stop on our three-leg journey. Georgia’s aggressive, “grimbly” roads provided plenty of grip, even along the twisty stretch that cut through a residential area of modestly large houses set well back from the road. That’s when it happened.

In much less time than it takes to describe, a Ford F450 Super Duty, white with the name of the local cable provider emblazoned on its sides, appeared ahead, and slowed as it prepared to turn across our path. From the front passenger’s seat I noted the slight dip of the big Ford as it appeared to slow before it would come to a complete halt. But it didn’t. Instead—for reasons that I cannot fathom—it made a lazy arc in front of us at diminished speed, the driver looking at the target driveway while his passenger noted with alarm the Glacier Blue Cadillac ATS barreling in his direction.

My driving partner for the day nailed the brakes as hard as he could, but my mind had already calculated that there would be, at a minimum, moderate damage to the Caddy’s nose. However, the ATS did something unexpected, it tucked its tail down and shed speed quickly. Not only did we not hit the oncoming truck, it passed unharmed feet ahead of us. Surprisingly little drama for so tense a situation, and with responses that reinforced impressions made on the first leg of this journey. This isn’t just a good Cadillac, it’s a good car; a substantial difference that doesn’t make excuses for the formerly bankrupt American automaker, but acknowledges that it will have to compete toe-to-toe with all of the vehicles in the small sport sedan segment. Audi. BMW. Mercedes. Infiniti. Lexus. Based on our impromptu test, it can.

I’ll admit, I didn’t like the ATS when I saw it on the floor of Cobo Hall during this year’s North American International Auto Show. In that sterile setting it looked slab-sided and dull, narrow and derivative. But out on the road, its curves came to life, though Cadillac should be readying a new take in its “Art & Science” design language for the next CTS. The current iteration is too common to be considered truly fresh.

The interior continues familiar themes established by the CTS and broadened by the cruiser class XTS, though they seem a bit more intimate in the cozier confines of the ATS. (The rear seat is a bit tight and the trunk, all 10.2 regularly shaped cubic feet of it, is small.) You will never mistake this for an Asian or German car, it’s too brash—bordering on arrogant—for that, though the craftsmanship, materials and shapes used this time around owe nothing to GM’s recent past. There are no parts bin refugees here, and no reasons for excuses. If this is the new direction for Cadillac, the brand is off to a good start.

The third leg of the journey saw my driving partner grab an ATS that was suddenly free, leaving me to spend a few moments grilling ATS Global Marketing Product Manager Ken Kornas—who had never missed a beat from the back seat of the Glacier Blue model, even when headed toward almost certain carnage—about the 915 buildable combinations, and the four countries (China, Germany, England, America) where extensive interviews and drives took place with sport sedan customers. “Five-thousand customers and more than 5,000 hours,” was his shorthand for this examination. His team drove with these subjects, looked at what they said versus what they did (a major reason for the storage area hidden behind the infotainment screen), examined how they used the car, and how they lived. It was an event worthy of Lexus and showed that Cadillac didn’t assume it knew what the customer wanted, it found out what they wanted.

The third leg was blessedly uneventful, and took us to Atlanta Motorsport Park, a 16-turn roller coaster covering nearly 2 miles with a maximum width of 40 feet, and a more than 100 feet of elevation change. After just two laps of lead-and-follow behind an instructor we were let loose one-by-one to see if we could remember which way the roller coaster went. Thankfully, each lap ended at the entrance to the pits, Cadillac’s PR staff not wanting to see its fleet of ATS’s wadded up in Turn 1 at the end of a 2,950-ft straight.

I sampled each of the cars on offer (the 2.5-liter was not one of them), and kept coming back to the various flavors of 2.0-liter turbo. Lighter on its feet, and blessed by a torque curve that is both broad and flat, it danced across the tarmac confidently, and shed speed easily. Whether slicing across the esses that are turns 2 and 3 or climbing toward the double-apex Turn 4 before plunging downhill at speed toward the floor of the valley leading into the tight Turn 6, the turbocharged ATS  was amazingly composed, helped, in no small part, by the computer-controlled magnetorheological shocks and Summer performance tires that are part of the FE3 suspension setup. Not only do the dampers eliminate most, if not all, of the compromises between ride and handling, their independent control means they can be used to settle the car and improve its response to changing conditions. Which is a perfect description of the uphill run through turn 7, back down through turns 8 and 9, and into the 90-degree Turn 10. This demands an exit that takes you across the undulating short chute before hard braking for the entrance to Turn 11. From there the climb is nearly vertical, or so it seems, to Turn 12 with its middle-of-the-road apex that is beyond the line of sight. Drifting out to the right edge of the track, Turn 13 comes up quickly and demands an aggressive arc toward the left before the track begins to climb through turns 14 and 15.

2.0-liter turbocharged engine is the sportiest, and most fun.My biggest complaint is this: even though Cadillac’s engineers hinged the accelerator at the floor, just like most of the Germans, there’s too much space between it and the brake pedal to make error-free heel-and-toe downshifts. A shame, really, when you consider all the work that went into making the clutch take-up so crisp and linear, the brake pedal reassuringly firm, and the gear linkage satisfyingly notchy and slick. Yes, most buyers will opt for the six-speed automatic and its magnesium paddle shifters, but those visiting automotive country clubs like Atlanta Motorsport Park or who are truly keen drives will want the manual and expect better.

The return to Buckhead was another revelation. Behind the wheel of a 3.6-liter V6 with all-wheel drive, I was impressed by how effortlessly the brawniest ATS—it has 321 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque versus the 272 hp and 260 lb-ft of the turbo—gobbled up the twists and turns of Georgia’s back roads. The 2.0-liter would have been more engaging, but older drivers or those more interested in the luxury of effortless speed will find this a compelling choice. It’s not so much more refined as it is more mature, and it strings corners together with a surprising turn of speed, though with a bit more weight on the nose. Even more amazing is the fact that, except for the base ATS, all models are fitted with run-flat tires yet showed none of the harshness you find in current BMWs. But, before you assume Cadillac has performed a miracle, remember these impressions are base on Georgia’s grimbly but otherwise smooth two lanes and freeways. A more in-depth analysis will have to wait until production versions are available for use on less perfect roads, and under more normal circumstances.

Which brings us to pricing. The standard 2.5-liter ATS starts at $33,990, the 2.0-liter turbo model at $35,795, and the 3.6-liter V6 model at $42,090. All prices include destination and handling charges, and can be raised significantly by checking boxes on the options list. Somewhat surprisingly, these prices are very close to those of the competition; Cadillac believing the ATS capable of standing tall against its established opposition. Based on initial impressions, the ATS is a competitive small sport sedan with a distinctly—and distinctive—American twist. Whether it is Keyser Söze to the segment’s “usual suspects” remains to be seen, but the initial impressions are promising. Very promising.

Sidebar: Technical Details

  • It took two years and six “mules” (prototype test vehicles often built up from other vehicles) to fine-tune the ATS’s suspension design.
  • A major finding of that effort was that the suspension members and subframes should bolt to straight underbody rails in order to feed all their forces along a linear path. This eliminates any handling surprises.
  • The ATS is 4.0-in shorter, 1.4-in narrower, 500-lb lighter, and sits on a 4.0-in shorter wheelbase than the CTS,
  • The front suspension is a virtual four-bar, dual-pivot/double ball joint design. Audi has used a similar design for years to reduce steering feedback over harsh surfaces.
  • To keep weight down, the front suspension is mounted to an extruded and welded aluminum subframe, and the anti-roll bar’s drop links are plastic.
  • A less expensive electric power steering system could have been used, but Cadillac engineers went with a premium (in both price and feel) ZF belt-drive electric power steering unit.
  • This is the first Cadillac to have a five-link independent rear suspension. The toe link increases control over the rear wheels on a horizontal plane.
  • A cast-iron differential is used in place of aluminum to help keep the 50:50 weight distribution, reduce bearing pre-load and better suppress noise. In addition, the driveshafts are bolted on, eliminating the spline take-up and increased noise, vibration and harshness found in other premium sport sedans.
  • The base ATS uses sliding calipers on its front disc brakes. However, ordering either the Luxury or Premium Collection packages swaps these for Brembo fixed calipers at all four corners.
  • The brakes are FNC (Ferritic Nitro Carburized) coated to 10 microns. This should double the discs’ service life and prevent them from rusting.
  • High-strength and ultra-high-strength steel is used liberally in the body, as is aluminum and even magnesium. The engineers used adhesives and welds on the A- and B-pillars, and cut away as much of the flange as possible to save weight.
  • A base Cadillac ATS weighs 3,315 lb. A 2.0-liter BMW 328i tips the scales at 3,461 lb.
  • The base motor is a direct-injected 2.5-liter inline four producing 202 hp @ 6,300 rpm and 191 lb-ft @ 4,400. You can only get it with a six-speed automatic and rear-drive. It’s rated at 22 city/32 highway by the EPA.
  • Next up is a 2.0-liter direct-injected turbo four with 272 hp @ 6,300 rpm and 260 lb-ft @ 1,700-5,500. It can be ordered with  either a six-speed manual with magnesium paddle shifter or a six-speed automatic. Rear- and all-wheel drive are your other options with this engine. The EPA ratings are the same as for the base motor, which makes you wonder why, other than cost, Cadillac offers the 2.5-liter engine.
  • You can get everything but the manual gearbox with the 3.6-liter V6 option. It produces 321 hp @ 6,800 rpm and 373 lb-ft @ 4,800, and has estimated fuel economy of 19 city/28 highway
  • The front fascia has a raised center section that establishes a throat for underbody airflow to follow. Light transverse ridges on its underside help control boundary layer formation, and the air is funneled toward the vehicle’s center to draw air through the engine compartment, cool the exhaust and pull heat away from the transmission and differential.
  • Flaps in front of the rear wheels and covers over the lower rear suspension arms reduce turbulence and steer the air back toward the center of the car.
  • The airfoil-shaped transverse muffler acts as a diffuser to scavenge air from beneath the car, and produce slight negative pressure.
  • The sharp-edged rear spoiler/CHMSL unit on the trunk lid not only encourages clean flow separation, it helps keep the underbody airflow attached for maximum efficiency. This allows the ATS to do without a front fascia-mounted splitter.

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