Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2014 Cadillac ATS

Art and science. If there is a more eloquent expression of a design principle anywhere in the automotive world I haven’t heard it. It’s a line that resonates with me, and one that I find is translated beautifully into practice in Cadillac’s ATS sedan.

The same bold lines and sharp creases from the larger and even-more stunning CTS are here, but the effect is slightly softer. At the front, the headlights are trimmed in sophisticated LED but the LED strips aren’t as domineering as they are in the CTS.

At the back, two large exhaust tips protrude from under the bumper bar, but inboard of the rear wheels. It’s a neat place to put them and unusual too – most manufacturers put the exhausts at the outer edges or pair them in the middle. The effect is eye-catching and helps accentuate the exhausts. The familiar Cadillac “V” is here, accentuated by a crisp red LED lighting cluster that also forms a lip spoiler on the boot lid.

The large, sloping C pillar and short trunk lid help with the cabin-back stance – another elegant-but-tough feature beautifully executed.

Looking at it in isolation it’s surprising that the ATS is the entry-level Cadillac. With a base price of $35,695, it’s a great jump-off point for buyers looking for Cadillac style and flair but who aren’t quite ready to cough up the $50,895 needed for a CTS sedan. Bracket creep is the scourge of the automotive industry though, and my tester came in at an as-tested $54,885.

The base level ATS comes with a 2.0T but this tester comes with the same 3.6L V6 as can be had on the CTS, mated to the same six-speed automatic gearbox with driver shift control. It weighs 114 kg less than a CTS at 1,646 kg – and that’s important. There is the same 321 hp at 6,800 rpm and 275 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 but with less to haul, it feels like it pulls the ATS off the line a tad harder than the CTS did.

Unlike the CTS I tested in March though, this ATS did not have the paddle shifters – and that’s important too. It’s not surprising, this is a far cheaper car, but it is disappointing given that Cadillac has set their sequential “manual shift” mode up wrong. Forward for up, back for down is wrong. So very wrong. I complained about it in March, but shrugged it off because you’d use the paddle shifters if you want to shift anyway. Here you need to use the shift lever, and with it set up in this unintuitive, backwards and out-of-step way you are prone to making embarrassing shift errors – which I did. Only once, though – I’m not a complete imbecile [No comment –Ed.]. Trying to change down right when you need to shift up leaves you hanging on the rev limiter and not able to use the engine where you need it – like the exit of an off-ramp.

I don’t think I am the only journalist to have made the error either. In fact, I’d bet my life on it. See, the whole reason I had decided to try manual mode (instead of just ignoring it as the pretend bit of fakery that it is) was because the automatic had left me hanging during hard acceleration already. Launching myself from a set of lights, through a minor on-ramp and on to the freeway the ATS changed rapidly and appropriately into second up near the redline, but when it came time to change into third – nada. I was left, hanging on the rev limiter in second, unable to coax a shift out of the box. I looked down to make sure I hadn’t knocked the lever into manual and confirmed that I hadn’t. Even the dash showed that I was still in automatic. So what was the issue? I’ve driven this gearbox enough to know it’s not a common issue so I put it down to this one having been abused by journos in the past – and I bet that dodgily set-up gear lever is to blame.

It could also be that journalists have been exploiting the ATS’s excellent handling and steering to have far too much fun. Yes it’s all-wheel drive, but it still has an edgy, sporty flair to it. The steering is well-weighted and crisp – yes it’s electric and “boo-hiss technology rabble rabble” but it’s a well-sorted system.

The suspension comes in two flavours, Sport Tuned or Performance Tuned – and this tester had the standard Sport Tuned suspension. Both have independent five-link suspension at the rear but the lower spec gets twin-tube shock absorbers and the up-spec gets Magnetic Ride Control with monotube shocks. Up front sits MacPherson-type suspension with dual lower ball joints, twin-tube struts and a direct-acting stabilizer bar – again losing the MRC and monotube shocks available in higher-spec trims.

The lack of magnetic wizardry can’t detract from the fundamentally good geometry and balanced chassis, so the ATS turns in willingly, holds a flat body position, maintains track and even changes direction well. It’s confidence inspiring, and agile and rewarding – exactly what a sports sedan should be.  There is a little understeer mid-corner, but it is corrected with a bit of trail-braking to point the nose. Throttle steering is possible but the AWD system prefers to stamp out throttle-induced oversteer.

It is stiff, though, and every single road imperfection is translated directly into one’s coccyx. Part of that is the stylish P225/40ZR18 ultra-low-profile tires and polished aluminum 18-inch rims. It makes for great road feel but a disconcerting experience crashing down a pothole infested Toronto road. You know the one I mean – all of them.

I raved about the braking feel of the CTS and the same is true here. The pedal is responsive, progressive and firm even after repeated applications.

The ATS is marketed as a world leader in handling, and it really does stack up well against the German offerings. It’s also impressive in terms of noise and vibration, with little to no wind noise or engine noise at highway cruising. But hit a bump and the outside world comes thundering into the cabin with belligerence – reaffirming that the suspension is tuned for sport, not comfort.

The engine is tuned for sport, too, just like my right foot. I ended the week at 12.3 L/100 km, a little off the EPA combined rating of 11.2. On the highway you should get 9.0 and in the city 13.1 L/100 km.

Inside, the cream leather seats look and feel excellent and the leather-wrapped, stitched steering wheel is a joy to hold. The dash and centre stack also get stitched leather and the entire cabin feels rich, luxurious and solid. It is well put together with tight tolerances and not a hint of a flimsiness or cheapness. The only criticism I could level is the wood trim – lacquered wood always looks fake to me even when it’s not. In my opinion it’s kitschy and naff; I prefer porous wood or brushed aluminum to lacquered wood grain.

The ATS gets some clever infotainment add-ons, like a 115V power outlet on the back of the console, and a special cutout in the console bin designed to hold an iPod in place. Next to that hidey-hole there is an auxiliary input, two USB slots and an SD card reader. You’ll also find a third USB slot in the clever hidden cubby under the centre stack and a CD player in the glovebox for a grand total of six audio inputs – that’s in addition to the AM/FM and SiriusXM radio tuner, plus Bluetooth audio capability. In total you get 10 (TEN!) different music source options.

I am one of those people who really enjoys the CUE system. Most of my appreciation for it in the CTS was the sensational fully digital instrument cluster. In this ATS you get analogue displays for the tach, speedo, temperature and fuel, but nestled underneath them is a wide TFT that has three separate customizable sections. It’s not as gorgeous, elegant or fun as the infinitely customizable full digital display but it is still very good. Using the centre section you can scroll through music options and stations using the steering-wheel controls. Having the ability to control music in front of your face and without having to take your hand off the wheel is my favourite thing about CUE.

Less favourite things include the finicky virtual slide for the volume control, the slow response of the touchscreen and automatic climate control buttons, and the fact I could never find the “sync” button for the dual-zone climate control.

The maps on the GPS are gorgeous though, especially when you’re in a city and it shows you surrounding buildings in 3D.

The sunroof on my tester was a $1,395 option and I have to say I would feel a bit ripped off by it. When so many cheaper cars charge a similar price for a panoramic sunroof, this itty-bitty offering is uninspiring. My daughter was equally unimpressed.

My disappointment over the sunroof was abated by the size of the trunk/boot. It is narrow yet deep, so its 290 L volume visually looks bigger than it is. You can easily fit a Radio Flyer wagon in here. The 60/40 split-folding seats are punctuated by a ski pass-through, too, so there is plenty of flexibility – the seats don’t quite fold flat though.

Passenger volume is a respectable 2,573 L, and I found enough footwell room for my wife’s handbag, my legs, a couple of bottles of wine and another bag in the passenger seat. Three people will fit in the back, but shoulder space is at a premium.  Larger men than I might find it tight but the roof liner is scalloped to improve rear head room and the rear seats are reclined sharply – it’s a neat trick that demonstrates the role of packaging versus outright size.

And equipped as this ATS is, there is little difference between it and its larger brother. The CTS is more refined perhaps, and larger, but the ATS is sportier and sharper. Visually the ATS has a similar impact and it would take a discerning eye to spot the difference between the two. For impact, style and performance, the ATS might be the better value.

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Volvo S60

Model Tested 2014 Cadillac ATS
Base Price $46,675
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,700
Price as Tested $54,885
Optional Equipment
Advanced security package - $440, Driver Awareness package (forward collision alert, lane departure warning, rear side-impact airbags, automatic high beam control, automatic wipers, safety alert seat) - $945, Cue with navigation and Bose Surround Sound system - $1,495, moonroof - $1,395, white diamond tri-coat paint - $1,295, 18-inch polished wheels - $840.