2013 Cadillac ATS review:

Heavy on horsepower, skimpy on silicon

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The roar of the cylinders
Of course, some drivers might want to hear the growl of the ATS' engine. The direct-injection 3.6-liter in our ATS carries over from the CTS. Producing 320 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque, it gives the little car quite a bit of push; and pull when you take into account all-wheel drive.

One of Cadillac's goals with the ATS was to keep it light, using technology such as the aforementioned noise cancellation to eliminate the need for excessive damping materials in the body panels. Our car's curb weight was listed at 3,629 pounds, but most of the ATS models hover around the 3,400-pound mark, hitting the BMW 3 Series' weight class almost exactly. The weight distribution comes in at nearly 50/50, with a slight bias toward the front in all models.

2013 Cadillac ATS
Dual exhaust pipes stick out from under the ATS. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On the road, the ATS makes for a remarkably easy driver. Trudging through city traffic, the 3.6-liter engine responded immediately to accelerator input, taking off quickly with just a little tip-in. It felt very nimble, the short wheelbase and responsive steering helping me take advantage of breaks in traffic. There was no disguising the electric boost of the power steering, as the wheel turned with that rheostat efficiency I have gotten used to in so many new cars. It felt a bit overpowered -- I could turn the wheel with very little effort -- with more of a luxury feel than a sport note.

The car's easy driving nature may lead to daydreaming, but its collision warning system will pull you right out of any mental dandelion fields. Part of the Driver Awareness package, cameras determine if a collision is imminent, flashing a red light on the windshield and causing the seat to bump the driver slightly, very effective signals that you should be hitting the brakes. Although it lit up a number of times when I did not need it, I will take a few false alarms over an expensive and time-consuming rear-ender.

The Driver Awareness package also had cameras for lane identification, using the hyperactive seat as a signal whenever I drifted across a lane line. Available, but not included on this car, are a set of radar-based driver assistance features, such as adaptive cruise control and blind-spot monitoring.

Driving on the freeway was equally effortless, the V-6 and the six-speed automatic conspiring to keep the engine speed down to 2,000rpm most of the time. Where the roads were well-paved, the ATS delivered a smooth ride, but bumps caused jarring shocks, exacerbated most likely by the car's sport-tuned suspension and 18-inch wheels wrapped in low-profile Michelins. There was nothing soft about the ride, but most of the time it was comfortable.

The transmission's hidden potential
For driving enthusiasts, the automatic transmission might seem like a drawback despite its paddle controllers and manual shift mode. Manual gear shifts happen with typical torque converter sluggishness, although not as bad as in some cars I have tested. However, push the button labeled Mode on the console until the instrument cluster display says Sport, then hammer the gas pedal, and the ATS assumes a radically different character.

The transmission programming holds the engine speed above 5,000rpm, and the noise-cancelling tech no longer keeps up with the reverberations from under the hood. The car gives the guttural roar of a lion as it leaps forward, holding horsepower at its peak value. The transmission will downshift aggressively to keep the power up in situations such as braking ahead of a turn.

2013 Cadillac ATS
A Mode button, below the shifter, switches the car's driveline between Sport, Touring, and Ice/Snow settings. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Although fun, I found it was impossible to keep the ATS in this frame of mind without getting extraordinarily reckless on public roads. As soon as I had to lift for slower traffic up ahead, the transmission settled back into cruising mode.

Relying on the manual shift mode to keep the revs up, I found third gear could handle a wide range of speeds while delivering satisfying power. Even better, the ATS showed very good handling character, taking hard corners extremely easily. It was only hampered by a little body roll, which the Magnetic Ride Control option probably would have eliminated.

I thought the electric power steering remained a little too light when hammering the ATS, and there was not much in the way of road feedback. This type of electric power steering, which felt similar to that of the new Porsche 911, delivers point-and-shoot action. It was very precise and the wheel did not fight back at all, as cars with hydraulic power-steering systems tend to do.

Find the right ATS
Given the only occasionally rainy California weather, my preference would have been for the 2013 Cadillac ATS with rear-wheel drive. Add to that the manual transmission, 2-liter turbo, and Magnetic Ride Control suspension, and the ATS could be a very interesting car for drives on twisty mountain roads. And I think it would stand up very well as a BMW 3 Series competitor.

The ATS I reviewed handled quite well, something I would attribute to an excellent platform. It can do daily driving duty, allowing easy control during the weekly commute and a little bit of fun when traffic opens up. The rear-seat legroom is limited, so don't expect any adults back there to enjoy an extended drive. And potholes or bumps deliver such a shock that it can feel like something broke.

Fuel economy came in at just under 20 mpg, not great for a compact car. Either of the four cylinder engine options should push the average closer to mid-20s.

The CUE infotainment system in the ATS' dashboard shows a lot of potential, combining many useful and advanced features. The app structure of the home screen is particularly interesting, giving Cadillac the flexibility to add more functions over time. While I like the voice command and the haptic feedback of the touch screen, the laggy response will ultimately deliver an unsatisfying cabin tech experience.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Cadillac ATS
Trim 3.6 Performance AWD
Power train 3.6-liter direct-injection engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 18 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 19.8 mpg
Navigation Optional flash memory-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard, with contact list integration
Digital audio sources Pandora, Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system 10-speaker Bose audio system
Driver aids Rearview camera, cross-traffic alert, collision warning
Base price $33,990
Price as tested $48,785

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