We appreciate why BMW's 3 Series sedans have been popular for so long. Apparently Cadillac has a similar appreciation, as its engineers make no bones about using the BMW sedan as the benchmark for their new ATS.
Good choice, and after our first drive of the small Caddy sedan we have to say they are on target.
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How closely did Cadillac emulate BMW? The 3 Series and ATS are within an inch of each other in exterior dimensions except for the BMW's 1.3-in. longer wheelbase. These by the way are the 5th-generation BMW's measurements, not the new, slightly larger car.
The biggest variance between the two is, of course, the exterior design. The 3 Series face is a classic. BMW's designers know just how to let the feeling flow from there rearward.
Cadillac still uses the Art and Science approach to design. Fortunately, it has evolved into a softer yet strong form that works on the CTS, XTS and now the ATS. There's a proper Caddy face proudly showing the wreath, a nicely formed greenhouse and a rear design that lets you know you've just been passed by a Cadillac. We do, however, wish the rear quarters showed more muscle.
Our test car was painted a color best described as "Dorothy's Ruby Slippers Red."
As with the exterior, the design of the interior is signature Cadillac, now seen through the eyes of an enthusiast. The steering wheel features numerous controls. To demonstrate just how involved the car's developers were in performance, discussions got as detailed as the radius of the thumb rest at the 3 and 9 points on the wheel.
Ahead are honest dials, not projections, and to the right is the center stack with the CUE option. This is Cadillac's new information center that combines an 8-in. LCD screen with (thankfully) a small number of control buttons. The haptic feedback provides makes you feel a little vibration when you make with the control, minimizing eye time from the road.
Cadillac emulated the 3 Series' packaging, but might have been better off its back seat were a bit more spacious. Set the four seats for 6-foot-tall folks and the ATS is tight in back. Yes, there are tens of thousands of 3 Series sold that prove this may not actually be a problem, but another inch of rear seat legroom would have been nice in the ATS.
Our test car had the high-line "performance" seats with multiple adjustments, and they proved both comfortable on the road and supportive at the track.
Cadillac has three ATS engines. The direct-injected base 2.5-liter twincam 4-cylinder with 202 bhp and 191 lb.-ft. of torque compares is somewhat comparable to the Mercedes Benz C250's turbocharged 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, which has 201 bhp and 229 lb.-ft. of torque.
The fun part is the Caddy/BMW comparo. Start with both company's 2.0-liter dohc direct-injected fours: Cadillac's puts out 272 bhp, while the BMW generates 240 bhp. Both engines produce 260 lb.-ft. of torque. The Cadillac turbo four is recommended to run on premium, but will operate on regular--like the 2.5 and 3.6—though down about 20 bhp.
Both turbo fours can be had with 6-speed manuals, and the employs a 6-speed automatic, while the BMW has an 8-speed.
With its direct-injected V-6 model, Cadillac goes to 3.6 liters with 321 bhp and 275 lb.-ft., while BMW's turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 has 300 bhp and 300 lb-ft. This ATS is available only with a 6-speed automatic; the BMW, a 6-speed manual or an 8-speed automatic. Of note, the ATS with the turbo four and V-6 can be ordered with all-wheel drive.
Cadillac uses a MacPherson strut suspension at the front of the ATS and, like the 3 Series, a 5-link independent rear layout. Caddy provides two levels of suspension setup, the FE2 and the high-performance FE3 with Magnetic Ride Control. Both systems use ZF rack-mounted electric-assist steering. Optioned models get Brembo brakes and both 17.0- and 18.0-in. wheels are available, as are all-season or summer-only tires. Cadillac engineers didn't have to adapt all this to an existing GM platform, as the ATS's is totally new.
Our drive route took us from Atlanta to the hilly base of the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlanta Motorsports Park, a private road course designed by Hermann Tilke. Naturally we cooled it on the way there, as it would be silly to stuff one of these new Cadillacs on a public road. Ride quality was quite good and we had time to work with the CUE system and the info controls on the steering wheel, which can tell you just about everything but your Zodiac sign.
On the track the ATS is, simply, a great deal of fun. We didn't get to go back-to-back with BMWs, but tried both the 2.0 Turbo manual and V-6 automatic. The former loves to rev and is a bit buzzy well up the tach, with a shifter that makes it easy to get there. The V-6 automatic's large magnesium shift paddles make it more relaxing to drive quickly. The exhaust note, distant when cruising, encourages track speeds.
A touch of understeer followed by neutral manners characterize the ATS on the track. Push it hard into a corner, back off just a bit to tuck the nose in and then ride the throttle. Nothing untoward, no surprises. Just predictable good fun.
Is the new Cadillac ATS as good as a BMW 3 Series? Remember "the same, only different?" The pair does share quite a bit—in everything from overall size and drivetrains to intent. They are remarkably close.
And yet they come from two different places—Detroit and Munich. That's obvious in their design, both outside and in. We leave that to the eye of the beholder. Given a choice of which to drive up California's Highway 1, from New York City to Lime Rock or through Texas Hill Country for some great barbecue, we'd have to flip a coin.
If Cadillac has one problem with the ATS, which starts at around $34,000, it will be getting people into it to find out how well it is done. Caddy also needs to make the point that what it is doing with the CTS, XTS, ATS and a few future automobiles is a long-term strategy.
Don Butler, marketing VP for Cadillac, talks about a 10-year plan to win over new buyers. The ATS sedans aren't like the 1993 Cadillac Northstar STS, which showed so much promise for its era but turned out to be a one-shot phenomenon.
Chat with Cadillac engineers and you often find yourself discussing racing or their love of muscle cars. Several are certified on the Nürburgring Nordschliefe in Germany, and there isn't a wallflower on the team. Butler needs to make note of wherever Turner Motorsports is racing their swift BMW 3 Series and start taking them on head to head.