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2013 Cadillac ATS review: Heavy on horsepower, skimpy on silicon

The 2013 Cadillac ATS gives the BMW 3 Series a run for its money, in all areas except cabin electronics.

Wayne Cunningham
Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
9 min read

For a few years, it seemed like Cadillac's only passenger car was the CTS, offered in sedan, wagon, and coupe variants, but now America's oldest luxury brand has been setting about expanding its lineup, last year releasing the XTS and the ATS. The latter is the new entry-level Cadillac, a car built from the ground up to compete with that perennial champ of the compact sport segment, the BMW 3 Series.

2013 Cadillac ATS

2013 Cadillac ATS

The Good

The <b>2013 Cadillac ATS</b> handles extremely well, whether in the daily commute or spirited driving. Driver assistance features help prevent accidents, and the cabin electronics offer first-rate navigation and digital-audio capabilities.

The Bad

The CUE cabin electronics interface's response times are far too slow. The suspension can jar harshly over bumps.

The Bottom Line

The 2013 Cadillac ATS is a fun, nimble little luxury car that offers an easy all-around driving experience, and while its cabin electronics features are solid, the touch-screen performance proves frustrating.

The ATS presents itself with the sharp lines of Cadillac's Art and Science design language, looking like a shortened CTS. This look may not appeal to everyone, but it makes the car instantly recognizable and sets the brand apart. Vertical light pipes in the headlight casings also lend a unique look to the ATS at night.

Cadillac makes the ATS available with three different engines, and with trims labeled Luxury, Performance, and Premium the car can appeal to first-time luxury buyers and driving-glove-wearing adrenaline junkies. The engines range from an economical 2.5-liter four-cylinder through a 2-liter turbo to a 3.6-liter V-6, all using direct injection to increase efficiency.

2013 Cadillac ATS: An enticing compact sport sedan (pictures)

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CNET tested a 3.6-liter ATS with all-wheel drive, and despite its Performance trim, it did not seem the best choice for straightening the curves. The all-wheel-drive option nixes the Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension, leaving the car with a fixed sport suspension. And ATS might as well mean Automatic Transmission Standard. CNET's 3.6-liter could only be had with the six-speed automatic. A six-speed manual is only available on rear-wheel-drive cars with the 2-liter turbo.

The curse of the CUE
As one of Cadillac's newest models, the ATS features the CUE infotainment system, combining access to phone, audio, and navigation controls on the car's touch screen. Although the system lacks the internal hardware to be tablet-quality, the interface design on this 8-inch touch screen shows promise. The home screen uses an app paradigm, hinting at future expandability, and the existing functions are as modern as they come.

2013 Cadillac ATS

The CUE home screen's smartphone paradigm presents icons for cabin electronics functions, with room for expansion.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The first sign of inferior silicon comes on starting the car, when an "Initializing Application" message appears on the touch screen. As I tested the capabilities of this system in the ATS, it often responded slowly to input, making me wait a beat or two before it brought up the audio, phone, or navigation screens. This laggy performance won't help Cadillac's reputation, especially for buyers cross-shopping Audi and BMW models, which offer much more reactive in-cabin electronics.

Unlike those European competitors, which rely on indirect controllers, Cadillac goes with a touch screen featuring haptic feedback. I liked the pop under my finger as I touched the different buttons on the screen, even if I did have to wait for the result. I was even more impressed by the proximity function. When driving with the navigation function up, for example, the map filled the screen. When I put my hand near it, strips of previously hidden buttons showed up on top of the map, letting me enter destinations or switch to other functions.

Drivers might be less appreciative of the touch controls for volume and climate below the screen. The volume control requires sliding a fingertip along its surface rather than turning an old, familiar knob. However, once I got used to it in the ATS, I found this control worked smoothly, and passengers unfamiliar with the car couldn't just reach over and change it.

I found that voice command in the ATS made the touch screen almost superfluous. It accurately, if not quickly, interpreted my requests for music, phone numbers, and destinations. To enter an address into navigation, I was able to speak the entire number, street, and city all at once, much less tedious than saying them all separately. With my iPhone plugged into the car, I could ask for music by artist, album, genre, and track name.

3D buildings
The CUE system comes with a set of flash memory-stored maps that look good, making a clear distinction between roads and surrounding terrain features. In perspective view, the maps showed detailed renderings of San Francisco's downtown buildings. However, topographic features were lacking for surrounding mountain areas.

2013 Cadillac ATS

A proximity sensor makes buttons appear on the touch screen when you move your hand near it.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Operating under route guidance, the system showed useful graphics, along with lane guidance, for upcoming turns, enhanced by voice prompts, which read out street names. Traffic information was displayed on the maps and was used by the system when calculating a route.

Other icons on the home screen lead to OnStar, weather, and Pandora Internet Radio. The touch-screen interface for OnStar lets you see what services are available through the telematics service, while weather brings up a neat little local weather map and forecast. The weather function alerted me to nearby weather events with a message on the instrument cluster display.

Pandora only works when running in conjunction with a smartphone that has the app installed. As it relied on my iPhone, all my personal stations were available in the interface, and I could give songs a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. My only complaint here is that Pandora should really be listed as a source under the audio menu, not sitting out under a separate icon.

The audio menu encompasses radio, both HD Radio and satellite, and digital media in the car. Whether I plugged an iPhone or thumbdrive into the USB port, the system parsed the music files, showing them on the touch screen organized into a proper music library. The system seamlessly played music over Bluetooth from my smartphone, displaying track information on the touch screen along with Play and Pause controls.

2013 Cadillac ATS

Whether from a USB drive or an iPhone, the ATS shows music in an easily browsable library format.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The 10-speaker Bose audio system came as an upgrade in CNET's car, with settings for surround or a focus on specific seating areas. I found its sound quality very good, with nice separation between frequencies and clear reproduction, but it lacked the heart-warming elevation of some other high-end systems. Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer," for example, sounded like a recording, never quite hitting that live sound. A little better dynamic range or staging might help.

This audio system performs another duty in the car, enabling noise cancellation. Similar to systems used by automakers such as Acura, the ATS' noise cancellation relies on three microphones in the car. These pick up cabin noise, and a processor identifies engine and road noise, then sends an opposing frequency out through the car's speakers. I was impressed by how well it kept the ATS' V-6 to a distant hum, making it easier to hear music or other people in the car.

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
Model2013 Cadillac ATS
Trim3.6 Performance AWD
Power train3.6-liter direct-injection engine, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy18 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy19.8 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based with traffic
Bluetooth phone supportStandard, with contact list integration
Digital audio sourcesPandora, Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, satellite radio, HD Radio
Audio system10-speaker Bose audio system
Driver aidsRearview camera, cross-traffic alert, collision warning
Base price$33,990
Price as tested$48,785
2013 Cadillac ATS

2013 Cadillac ATS

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 8Performance tech 8Design 7


See full specs Trim levels PerformanceAvailable Engine GasBody style Sedan