Since the days when "Cadillac" was shorthand for quality, the brand has taken a backseat to Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and especially BMW in the sporty luxury car market.
Revitalized after the 2009 government bailout, GM has big plans for a Cadillac resurgence. The newly introduced XTS and ATS join the CTS to make a full luxury sedan lineup, with offerings that cover 80 percent of the luxury car market.
Don Butler, Vice President of Marketing for Cadillac, says the ATS is made to compete with BMW's 3 Series, easily the top dog in the segment.
Butler admits the all-new ATS has not won every comparison, but says it is gaining ground. For Cadillac to hit its targets, ATS sales have to be at least 50 percent "conquest" — winning over drivers of other brands. So far, it is actually beating that goal: GM reported this month that 70 percent of drivers who traded in a vehicle to buy an ATS were new to Cadillac.
Whether or not those buyers traded in other luxury cars is not clear, but the numbers are good for Cadillac either way. Apart from conquest sales, Cadillac is targeting young, first-time luxury buyers, whom it dubs "move-ups."
Among critics as well as customers, it seems the German hold on the compact sedan crown is loosening. Motor Trend compared the sportier iterations of each (the BMW 328i and ATS 2.0 Turbo), and gave BMW the win "by the skin of its teeth." The Los Angeles Times wrote the ATS "is not a better car" than the 3 Series, but that it is nonetheless "a massive step in the right direction."
I have not driven a recent 3 Series, but after a weekend in the ATS, I agree.
GM put me in a 3.6L Premium version of the ATS worth $50,035; the least expensive ATS starts at $33,990.
Unlike the large XTS, branded as a luxury, spacious, high-tech car, the ATS is built to be "nimble, quick, and fun." I criticized the cocoon-like feel that isolates the XTS from the road; that does not apply to the ATS.
The 321 horsepower in the 3.6L version provide a 0 to 60 time of 5.4 seconds, a solid time that matches the BMW 335i, according to Motor Authority.
I put nearly 500 miles on the ATS in two and a half days, on a weekend trip from New York to Boston. Most of that was highway driving (a lot of it in traffic), but the performance of the car still impressed me. It handles hard turns easily, accelerates quickly, and brakes smoothly.
The various safety alerts were well calibrated, and I love the lane departure warning system: Drift over the left lane line, and the left side of the driver's seat buzzes.
The fuel efficiency numbers (19 MPG city, 28 MPG highway, 22 MPG combined) are not especially impressive, but accurate. On my trip from Boston to New York, I averaged 27.3 MPG.
Erasing Cadillac's reputation as a passé car loved by old men requires great technology to appeal to young drivers. That's where the Cadillac User Experience (CUE), a touchscreen system that controls just about everything the car does, comes in.
In my review of the XTS, I said the CUE has lots of upside, but still needs work. Again, the voice recognition did well with phone contacts, but failed me on navigation: "Navigate to Logan International Airport" got me "Tune to Hair Nation XM."
Apart from that, the CUE is top notch, and makes controlling the climate, sound system, and various settings easy to control.
The navigation system (once the location is set) is excellent, and recalculated almost immediately every time I missed a turn.
For most of the weekend, I was alone or with one passenger, and we were both very comfortable. While it does not compare to an amazing interior like the $110,000 Audi S8, the seats are easily adjusted and heated (so is the steering wheel).
When I picked up a second passenger, things got tight, as the back seat is not spacious. After all, it is a small sedan; that's why Cadillac makes the larger CTS and XTS.
Cadillac has its work cut out for it if it wants to overtake any of the foreign automakers that currently dominate the American luxury market. So far, it has done a great job of winning over customers and critics, justifiably so.
The ATS may not beat the BMW 3 Series just yet, but it's an excellent car should attract "move-ups" and luxury owners alike.