The Gauntlet

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2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD Premium Collection. All photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2013 Cadillac ATS

This past Super Bowl, a gauntlet was thrown down.

It had nothing to do with the victors who emerged from the stadium. Nor did it have to do with some halftime entertainment – M.I.A.'s middle finger notwithstanding.

It had to do with a commercial.

Every Super Bowl, some advert pops up that provokes thought and induce reactions beyond the reach of the television audience. We could discuss Chrysler's "Halftime in America," but this was something even more audacious.

The advert in question was shot at the Nordschleife course at the Nurburgring. It is a nasty piece of racetrack, one that claimed lives during its lifespan. Throughout the commercial, you hear a car making its way through the course. Then, it emerges – a red car with some familiar cues.

It is not unusual for a Cadillac to run on the Nordschleife. The CTS-V was tested there before being unleashed upon us. But, this one is different. It is being pitted against some of some of the most sought after cars in the world.

A few weeks earlier this past January, the new Cadillac was unveiled at a private media event before the start of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. While some of its competitors were making their North American debut inside Cobo Hall, the buzz about this new small Cadillac was off the scale. The buzz centered on the car's mission: To battle directly with the BMW 3-Series.

Back to the commercial, the final line of the narrative made it clear that this new car would send its competitors back to "Green Hell" – the nickname of the Nordschleife.

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Granted, there is a history of making such audacious statements. Muhammad Ali (then, Cassius Clay) stated he would beat Sonny Liston in his first championship bout. Joe Namath "guaranteed" a victory for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. All backed up with extraordinary performances ensuring victory.

What about the Cadillac ATS? Would it back up its claim to send its premium/luxury compact sedan competitors back to "Green Hell?"

Loaded with the gumption of Ali and Namath, the new ATS culminates one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in General Motors history.

It begins with the newest interpretation of Cadillac's Art&Science design language. On a smaller frame, the ATS combines traditional Cadillac design tenets with modern angles and lines befitting of a car in its class. If you think about it, Cadillac follows a similar pattern as its competition by incorporating its key design signatures for every generation of their vehicles.

There is an edge to the ATS's overall look. There is nothing restrained about its bold grille, the crest-and-wreath badge, illuminated door handles, the vertical headlamps and its rear fin tail lamps. Amongst its competitors, the Cadillac is the most distinctive car in its class. It is unmistakably bold and aggressive.

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Step inside the ATS and the theme continues throughout the cabin. There are plenty of distinctive Cadillac touches all around, considering the tasteful touches of chrome along with new textures never seen with this brand. Who would ever thought to drive a Cadillac with carbon fiber trim?

However, Cadillac has taken a step further thanks to a very distinctive center stack. It is crowned with one of the most talked about bits of vehicular technology this year: The Cadillac User Experience – CUE.

CUE takes the infotainment suite up a few notches. For one, you are entertained with a series of screens, including the big center screen above the center stack. Though the functionality may be familiar to anyone who uses a screen-borne infotainment system, CUE also employs both haptic feedback and pinch-touch zoom. The initial buzz over the CUE focused on how it feels like an iPad to operate. There is also voice recognition functionality, which is perhaps one of the best in the business. In all, CUE is not perfect, but once you get the hang of how to use the main screen and set up all of the presets, you should be fine.

Another point about the CUE is its intuitive navigation screen. Normally, you would see a map floating around on the screen and see your position move accordingly. With CUE, there is a three-dimensional quality to its main readout screen. If you approach a downtown, it shows you images of the skyline as exactly seen from a camera, but in a CGI-like readout. Imagine cruising any downtown only to see you drive "through" tall buildings – in a single bound. This is true geekery in motion.

Sound from CUE is filtered to ten Bose surround sound speakers. Radio and media functions work through the screen – including SiriusXM satellite and HD Radio broadcasts. There is also Bluetooth connectivity with your phone with a real touch screen interface on the CUE's screen.

Seating inside the cabin is quite appropriate for a sports sedan. The front seats may appear to be a bit hardcore for a Cadillac, but the enthusiast would be thoroughly entertained. Choosing the red leather seats guarantees the entertainment value – if not raising the coolness factor. There are enough adjustments to ensure a sporting seat set-up behind the wheel – from thigh adjustments to a power lower lumbar bladder. These seats are designed for action, not leisure.

You also might think that the ATS would feel more appropriate as a grand touring coupe than a four-door. The reason is the back seat, which may not fit the average-sized adult, let alone anyone with larger feet. The foot wells seem a bit small for a sedan.

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The real story of the ATS lurks a foot or so in front of the driver. There are three engines available for the new small Cadillac. This example has the 272-horsepower 2.0litre turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood – a choice amongst enthusiasts for this car. It is a very good choice indeed. There is no turbo lag, so the power is immediate from the accelerator pedal. You are entertained by a wonderful noise from the exhaust as the turbo simply goes through the gears with ease. If you do not like turbos, a 3.6litre V6 is available with 321 horsepower on tap. For those of you who are not into performance, the standard 202-horsepower 2.5litre engine is available on only a couple of trims.

Connected to the turbo four is a six-speed automatic transmission with all-wheel drive. The driver has plenty of options to control the shifts, including a pair of paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel. In all, this is an absolutely superb driveline keeping the power down to all four corners of the car. The eighteen-inch alloy wheels shod with Michelin all-season Primacy MXM run-flat tires add to the package by putting down some serious grip with some moderate road noise as a drawback.

In terms of the ride/handling mix, the ATS has two choices: Touring and Sport. You always start off in touring with mixes a smooth ride, decent handling and a somewhat loose steering feel. Touring is good if you are on the highway gobbling up long distances. The ATS does handle with minimal body roll and good feedback from the road.

If you choose Sport, you get a better handling mix. Sport eliminates body roll and tightens up steering feel both on-center and in the curves. Steering action is perfectly weighted for better control in Sport. The flip side of Sport mode is the ride where its firmness is felt through imperfect road surfaces. Warped highways are usually felt through the cabin – which normally would prompt one to switch back to Touring mode.

Between Touring and Sport is the feeling of driving one of the best Cadillacs ever. In either mode, steering is very sharp in turning radius and overall feedback. Braking is superb – which is what you expect out of a set of Brembos. The ATS is a poised machine designed for enthusiastic driving or a good ride home from a long journey.

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Being a performance sedan, fuel consumption is a strong consideration when examining the ATS as a viable option. The turbocharged Premium model returned a 22.7MPG average – which is honestly right what was expected.

Pricing-wise, the ATS starts off at $33,990 with just the 2.5litre engine and rear-wheel drive. This turbocharged, all-wheel drive Premium collection tester was at the top of the line, coming in at $51,705. If you consider the market segment, these prices are just about right with the ATS's intended competition.

To answer the big question on everyone's mind – is this on par or better than the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Audi A4, Infiniti G Sedan and/or Lexus IS?

Yes and no.

The ATS is a damn good sports sedan. It actually does a few things better than all of its competitors. It is the first Cadillac to truly nail down a global footprint needed for it to succeed in this highly competitive and image conscious segment. The ATS has all the right moves, makes the right sounds and acts like it owns the place.

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It even drew a crowd amongst hardcore automotive enthusiasts. Perhaps it was the illuminated door handles and LED lighting all around.

But, this Cadillac is not going to win over the hardcore brand evangelists who fly the flag of their preferred brand. Their chauvinism is too entrenched for anything that appears to be better than their own to understand the ATS. Perhaps it could simply sway the most loyal of luxury car owners away from their steed to embrace the Cadillac as at least an equal.

Having driven a few vehicles in this segment, I have to put the Cadillac on the top of pile for now. It is fun, but not perfect. Perfection is a tough thing to attain, but I have never seen a perfect team win a Super Bowl by doing everything right – ask Garo Yepremian.

For now, this Cadillac ATS was worth a blast down the highway to accept the gauntlet thrown down on "Green Hell."

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by General Motors.

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