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"We're making no bones about it," says Scott Meldrum, Cadillac canada's product manager.
"We are targeting BMW directly with our new ATS."
Those 15 words are either the height of hubris or the conviction of true self-confidence. Either way, it signals that Cadillac is ready to step its game up a notch, sort of like moving up from the American Hockey League to the NHL or taking on Floyd Mayweather after an entire career made of punching out tomato cans.
The 3 Series is the most iconic of luxury sedans, affordable enough to be almost mass-market, superbly engineered enough to build a loyal following of even the toughest critics. Taking on the established champion always promises the greatest of rewards, though the pitfalls are equally calamitous.
Cadillac's success will not be for lack of effort. The engineers have expended no end of effort to build the sportiest, most European of Cadillac sedans. They talk of incredible lengths taken to save weight (cutting out the parts of flanges that aren't spot-welded together), suspension bits determinedly made straight (instead of curving them around other bits, which would have been easier to manufacture) and benchmarking the 3 Series to such an extent that a 2012 328i and the 2013 ATS 2.0T could probably use the same brochure.
Indeed, like the 3 Series, the ATS is available in a plethora of guises. There are three engines available -- a 2.5-litre base four, the mid-range 2.0T turbocharged four and the Mac Daddy 3.6L V-6 -- and the top two iterations are available with rear- or all-wheel drive, though only the 2.0T rear-driver is available with the six-speed manual transmission. All others use GM's ubiquitous six-speed auto-box.
As an entry into the lower end of the luxury segment, the 2.5L is an able, if not enthusiastic, performer. Its 202-horsepower peak output is more than the comparable BMW 320's, it's not particularly vibey for an in-line four and there is more than enough torque to remain in the lower -- and smoother -- part of is powerband. Really, the 2.5L's only problem is that the 2.0T makes so much more sense.
Indeed, Cadillac expects that fully 25 per cent of its ATS sales will be the base model 2.5, a seemingly optimistic projection when you consider that the comparable 2.0T costs only $1,800 more (that gap is only $295 more if you opt for the manual transmission), yet it pumps out 70 more hp (272) and 69 more pound-feet of torque (260) than the 2.5L. It's more than a second-and-a-half quicker -- 5.7 versus 7.5 -- to 96 kilometres an hour and yet it consumes barely more gas than the naturally aspirated version.
Meldrum points out that the 2.5L can get by on regular gas while the turbocharged version requires premium, but that seems like small solace for the loss of 70 hp.
Besides, the smaller engine is easily the more delightful of the two. With smaller, lighter pistons, there's none of the coarseness typical of larger fours, it revs sweetly all the way past 6,000 r.p.m. and there's precious little lag when you mat the throttle. Indeed, at $1,800, the upgrade to 2.0T is one of the better bargains in the entry-level deluxe segment. At a starting price of $35,490 (again, for the manual version, while the automatic 2.5L costs $35,195), it's also something of a bargain, especially considering its performance is essentially identical to the BMW 328's.
Of course, the bruiser engine is Caddy's ubiquitous (it's used in all three of its models) 3.6L V-6, but this is my favourite application of this willing engine. In the much larger and heavier XTS, it felt strained, much like a quarter horse trying to pull a Budweiser beer wagon. In the ATS, it feels far more sprightly, never feels overwhelmed and, indeed, feels smoother and sounds far more melodious.
No, it doesn't quite match BMW's silky-smooth turbocharged 3.0L in-line six in NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) or melodious exhaust note, but it's a gamer, eager to rev and quite smooth for a V-6. And with 321 hp, it's actually a little more endowed than the 335i Bimmer, though its actual acceleration times are barely more rapid than the 2.0T's. As refined as it may be, unless you really need that "3.6" badge on your rump, consider saving the $3,995 premium GM Canada is demanding for the 3.6 over the 2.0T (a fully loaded 3.6 AWD, by the way, tops out at more than $53,000).
Beyond just straight-line acceleration, the ATS does bear direct competition with the mighty BMW. Lightness has its virtues and the baby Caddy is light -- just nine kilograms heavier than the smallest Bimmer and more than 50 kg lighter than anything else in the segment, including the 328i. And not only is the Caddy light, but its weight is in all the right places, the ATS boasting roughly the same 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution BMW so often brags about.
Combined with McPherson struts in the front and a new five-link rear independent suspension as well as adjustable electric power steering, the ATS is the first compact luxury sedan in recent years to give the 3 series a run for its money. In fact, it's the Cadillac that feels more stiffly suspended and more tightly steered, offering excellent turn-in and precious little roll, especially when the high-tech magneto-rheological (the damping fluid in the shock absorbers changes thickness, or viscosity, in reaction to electrical input) variable damping system is switched to Sport.
I suspect the 3 Series still provides more feedback to the driver (a BMW wasn't there for direct comparison, but I had been driving one all week), but for the first time in a while, BMW should feel challenged in the handling department.
There is a price to be paid for the ATS's handling prowess, however. Even in its softer Tour mode, the suspension is surprisingly firm. I say surprising, because the Camaro ZL1 I just tested has a similar MR system and it provided a far greater range of suspension compliance when switching between Tour and Sport. Over pockmarked roads, one feels more creases and cracks in the Cadillac than in a BMW.
The Cadillac also offers its rear-seat passengers a little less legroom than the BMW, even though both cars are, for all intents and purposes, the same size.
The ATS, however, does move Cadillac interiors up the pay scale a notch or two, the ATS's attention to detail almost as luxurious as Audi's. The gauges and switchgear are also well laid-out, though the haptic controls, of which the company's designers are so proud, would seem to be a change for change's sake rather than any great ergonomic advancement. After all, no matter how nifty it might be, the ATS radio's sliding volume control is no improvement on the bone-simple knob. Nonetheless, this is, by far, Cadillac's best interior and most definitely worthy of comparison to the BMW's.
The ATS is still far from perfect. I could, for instance, do without the aforementioned switchgear Cadillac is all in a tizzy about. I would also counsel the company's engineers to provide a little more of the compliance I know is in its way-trick magneto-rheological suspension. And really, now, bragging about a six-speed automatic when BMW and just about everyone else has an eight-speed (and Hyundai is planning a 10-speed)? Who do you think you're fooling?
But there should be no doubt that Cadillac is now playing in a different league. Determining whether the ATS is actually better than the 3 Series will require a direct confrontation on road and track. But just the fact that the long-suffering American is in the same ring with the Teutonic icon is proof that Cadillac has indeed come a long way, baby.
-- Postmedia News