New Cadillac ATS chases BMW 3-Series

2013 Cadillac ATS compact sedan rivals 3-Series ride

Associated Press
New Cadillac ATS chases BMW 3-Series
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This undated image made available by General Motors shows the 2013 Cadillac ATS. (AP Photo/GM)

  The smallest and lightest-weight car from Cadillac, the ATS, is a sharp-looking, smart-handling, rear- or all-wheel drive sedan whose exterior dimensions are almost spot on with BMW's top-selling 3-Series sedan.

It's no coincidence. Cadillac officials hope the ATS, introduced for 2013 as their new, entry-level car, pulls some would-be buyers away from the long-popular, German 3-Series.

Certainly, the ATS is fresh and different, even as BMW has introduced a new-generation 3-Series.

Besides the sleek, distinctive exterior, the ATS gives buyers a lot to talk about, including an iPad-like, 8-inch, touch-and-display screen on models equipped with CUE, for Cadillac User Experience.

The ATS has safety cred, too, with its across-the-board, five-out-of-five-stars safety rating in federal government crash testing.

In comparison, the 2013 BMW 3-Series tested earned four out of five stars for passenger protection in a frontal crash and five out of five stars in side crash testing.

Another highlight: The ATS is competitively priced. Starting retail price is $33,990 for a base, rear-wheel drive, 2013 ATS; that's $545 more than the starting retail price of $33,445 for a 2013 BMW 320i.

The ATS' base engine — a naturally aspirated, 202 horsepower four cylinder that comes with standard six-speed automatic — compares with the base, 180-horsepower, twin-turbocharged four cylinder that's in the 2013 320i. The 320i base engine is available with a six-speed manual or eight-speed Steptronic automatic.

Standard equipment on both base cars includes 17-inch wheels and leather-like seat trim, but not real leather.

Another competitor in the entry luxury performance sedan category is the front-wheel drive, 2013 Audi A4 sedan, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $33,395.

The base A4 sedan includes 211-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder, continuously variable transmission and leather-trimmed seats.

A turbocharged four cylinder is among the three engine offerings of the ATS. In fact, the ATS' 282-horsepower, turbocharged, four cylinder, with six-speed automatic, provides the lowest starting retail price for an all-wheel drive ATS, at $37,795. This mid-range engine also is the only one that offers a six-speed manual transmission in the ATS.

The most powerful ATS engine is the 321-horsepower, direct-injection V-6 that was in the test car. Starting retail price for a V-6-powered ATS is just over $42,000.

On the outside, the ATS has a refined quality as the chiseled edges of Cadillac's longstanding angular design have been eroded nicely.

But it doesn't look old. The careful attention to updating the styling while keeping the familiar Cadillac look was appreciated by many passersby who asked what new Cadillac this was.

Also not overlooked was the compact size of the ATS. At 15.2 feet long, from bumper to bumper, it's about the same overall length as a 3-Series sedan.

The size, plus easy, variable assist, electric power steering, made for nimble turns in tight spots and effortless entry into compact-sized parking spaces.

The ATS tester rode and handled compactly, too, on twisty mountain roads, where the firmness in the sport suspension and a fine weight balance made for a poised, planted and well-controlled car.

Note the ATS is built on a new chassis from Cadillac's previous smallest car, the CTS. The chassis is lighter weight and on the test 3.6-liter Performance model included MacPherson-type front suspension and a multi-link rear but not Cadillac's high-tech Magnetic Ride Control.

Front brakes on all ATS models are Brembo performance units and worked great on the test car to slow and solidly stop the car, with no fade. Even the feel of the brake pedal and the comfortably progressive brake force were impressive in this Cadillac.

Power came on strongly from the 3.6-liter, double overhead cam, direct injection V-6, and engine sounds during acceleration came up in volume and pitch perfectly. This is the same engine that's in the CTS, by the way.

Shifts from the updated six-speed automatic in the ATS were noticeable but not obtrusive, and while paddle shifters were on the steering wheel, the automatic worked quick shifts easily on its own.

Torque peaks at 275 foot-pounds at a high 4,800 rpm, so acceleration isn't as forceful as it can be in the A4 with 211 foot-pounds coming on at a low 1,500 rpm.

Still, the ATS weight, which ranges from a slight 3,300 pounds to just over 3,600 pounds, depending on powertrain and whether the car is rear- or all-wheel drive, makes for a sprightly performance.

In comparison, the starting weight for an A4 is 3,500 pounds, while the base 3-Series weighs in at less than 3,300 pounds.

The ATS isn't a fuel miser. The tester with V-6 averaged a ho-hum 20 miles per gallon in admittedly spirited driving. The federal government estimate for this model was 18 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

But even ATS models with smaller, more fuel-efficient engines — such as the turbocharged 2-liter four — don't surpass the 3-Series and A4 competitors.

As an example, the ATS turbo four is rated at 21/31 mpg by the federal government, while the 3-Series' turbo four sedan is rated at 23/36 mpg.

So, with the ATS tester's average mileage, a single, 16-gallon tank could last for just 320 miles. At least, this ATS with V-6 only needed regular unleaded gasoline. Premium is recommended for the turbo four.

The ATS' shortcomings are few. The Cue system can be frustrating to learn, and sometimes the touch-sensitive controls are baffling.

Plus, when the display screen goes dark, fingerprints become visible and unsightly.

The back seat can feel cramped for tall passengers, with only 33.5 inches of legroom.

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