Disclosure: Accommodations, meals, test vehicles and a pre-determined driving route, including laps around Canada's finest race track, were provided to the writer by the automaker.
When I was growing up, the thought of driving a Cadillac on a race track was unheard of.
Today, it's entirely the opposite — Cadillac develops their cars on the legendary Nürburgring Nordschleife, and for the Canadian launch of the new ATS, they brought it to Canada's most daunting road course, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
CTMP is a circuit that I've been driving since my first race in 1992 and if I said I know the track like the back of my hand, it would be an understatement.
While the track is a great way to reveal a car's fundamental dynamic characteristics – and while the ATS is certainly track-worthy – few ATS owners will choose to pound around a racetrack over a casual round of golf.
What's really remarkable about the ATS is the chassis. The car is not only an all-new product from General Motors, but it's also an all-new platform. The ATS is the first car using this architecture.
You may see Cadillac ads with the ATS being flung around the famous Nürburgring racetrack
and it's no joke. If you think I'm kidding, consider that, among other features, the robust brakes are clamped by Brembo (the famous Italian racing brake manufacturer) calipers custom-engineered specifically for the ATS.
With rear-wheel-drive and the right options (the Magnetic Ride Control shocks and limited-slip differential), the 2.0-litre turbo is the driver's car of the ATS range. With the six-speed manual, you can take advantage of that engine's 272 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque.
What makes this package better is that this engine is about 75 pounds lighter than the more powerful V6, making this version of the ATS a better dance partner. In fact, the ATS weighs in lighter than most of its competitors, as well.
The steering is almost sport-sedan-perfect. It's quick and linear, and feedback from the front tires is above average for an electric system. If anything, I'd suggest to Cadillac that the power steering assist is a little overboosted in most driving conditions (except when parking).
Add on the Track Performance Package option for a reasonable $525, you'll get an oil cooler and better brake pads — and a car that can take on the best sedans from Germany on the racetrack. But as my editor likes to ask, how is any of this relevant to a Cadillac buyer?
Fortunately, entry-level luxury sedan buyers aren't looking for track-ready four-doors. The people who are, in Canada, make up a market of about eight cars. They are, however, looking for sedans that drive well, look good, are comfortable, and make for easy commutes.
So, it stands that I spent more time testing the top ATS: the Premium AWD with the 321-hp V6 with a welcome 275 lb-ft of torque. This kind of power fills in any gaps that the turbo four lacks and makes for a more relaxed and refined motoring experience. But it is roughly $2,500 more than turbo, depending on trim level.
You'll also pay for the V6 at the pump — I averaged a better-than-expected 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres in mixed urban and highway driving, plus the V6 is rated to consume slightly more fuel than the turbo (the V6 is thirstier by 1.4 L/100 km city and 1.1 highway). Still, the additional power and crisp throttle response makes the V6 the more satisfying motor.
The all-wheel-drive adds a level of confidence to winter driving here in Canada. Unfortunately, autumn in Ontario doesn't have much snow, so I can't render an opinion on the AWD system's performance on snow and ice. However, at the car's limits of grip at the racetrack, the system seamlessly transferred power, wherever it was required.
Ergonomics / Comfort / Quality
It's exceptionally remarkable for a first effort, but Cadillac got the seating position right. The driver's seat has wide range of adjustment and can be lowered almost to the floor. The tilt-telescoping wheel is the perfect diameter and thickness. Everyone who drove my ATS tester had no trouble finding a comfortable seating position.
Although Cadillac is chasing the established German marques with this car, the seats are very American — flat, soft and confortable. For enthusiastic driving, they could benefit from more bolstering and could be firmer for more support over long distances.
The ATS follows its big, big brother's form with the CUE infotainment system and new-school touch controls with haptic feedback. When I first sat inside the ATS, I remarked that it resembles the XTS, which is a good thing.
If you're coming from a car with traditional knobs, this will be a short adjustment period — not with the interface, but learning how to make gestures with it. For example, there are three different ways to adjust the volume. First, you can simply hold your finger at either end of the volume slide. Second, you can swipe your finger along the volume slide, or, third, simply use the buttons on the steering wheel.
CUE's "killer app," if you will, is its voice recognition, and it makes inputting a destination to the navigation system or changing your audio selection a breeze. Once you're accustomed to CUE, you wouldn't want to go back to BMW's iDrive or Audi's MMI systems.
Functionality / Usability
Rear seat room is always a contentious issue with these compact luxury sedans. We found that getting into the back might result in some passengers hitting their heads on the low, angular C-pillar. Once inside, though, most passengers will be comfortable, though my taller colleagues complained about a lack of headroom.
The full-colour heads-up display is definitely a leader in the class and can be configured to show the information you want to have at a glance.
With the ubiquity of smartphones and MP3 players in this digital age, there are few good reasons why the ATS is equipped with a CD player — which also takes up valuable space in the glovebox.
What is missing from the Cadillac ATS is not something that it can possess. Rather, unlike the experiences customers of Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi receive at the dealer level, Cadillac typically doesn't have any stand-alone stores. The Germans understand that their customers are looking to be treated differently than economy car buyers. They're spending a lot more, so why shouldn't they?
All of this American sport-luxury goodness starts at $35,195 for the 2.5-litre, rear-drive four cylinder model. My favourite, the six-speed manual, rear-drive 2.0-litre turbo starts at $35,490, while the top-spec 3.6-litre Premium AWD fully loaded runs to $56,870.
For the sake of comparison, the ATS is a slightly better value than the German sedans Cadillac is targeting. A BMW 335i xDrive starts at $53,800, but prices out at over $63,000 when fully optioned. A fully-optioned Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC is $58,725 and the four-cylinder-only Audi A4 TFSI quattro tops out $55,300.
For a brand that's been trailing the Germans and Japanese luxury marques for years, the ATS puts Cadillac back at the top — and it's now the best reason for you to put a Caddy in your driveway.