Expectations were high when Cadillac introduced the ATS for the 2013 model year. It was America’s first real 3 Series fighter, and it followed in the footsteps of the well-received CTS. But since then, the ATS has slipped from the spotlight to make room for a number of fresher models including the Audi A4 and Mercedes C-Class. It has never gained the same clout as its German rivals, and despite incentives, U.S. sales have decreased by double digits every year after the car’s first full year on the market. Is it possible we’ve forgotten how great this car is?
We liked the ATS sedan from the very beginning. In its first year and beyond, it was able to stand right up there with the 3 Series in terms of ride and handling. “Whether traversing snow and ice, used as a daily commuter, or as a comforting road-trip buddy, the ATS met every challenge with a quiet ride, decent fuel economy, and plenty of power at the ready,” we said in our 2014 ATS 2.0T Long-Term Verdict. The same is true today, and in many ways, the ATS has grown more appealing despite its age.
“I didn’t think it would, but this car is aging like wine,” said associate editor Scott Evans. “CUE works perfectly fine for me now, the gauges look much better, the styling is sharper, the engine is smoother, and the materials are nicer.”
For the 2015 model year, Cadillac sharpened the front styling and recalibrated the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine to deliver more torque. The next year, Cadillac updated its CUE interface with a more powerful processor to make the system faster and easier to use, and although it’s still not entirely intuitive, usability has improved. Updates for 2017 are minor, but Cadillac finally drops its ungainly 2.5-liter naturally aspirated base engine. Meanwhile, the ATS gains a Carbon Black package, a feature that cost $2,950 on our most recent tester. The look is attractive but subtle. Dark finish wheels, black chrome-accented trim pieces, and an aggressive V-Series rear spoiler are some of the exterior upgrades. Inside you’ll notice Recaro front seats and low-gloss carbon-fiber trim.
The new package underscores the ATS’ athletic focus. Unlike many others in its segment, this car isn’t a luxury cruiser. In fact, the ATS remains almost obsessively focused on performance. From the seriously bolstered Recaro seats to the surprisingly stiff suspension and finely tuned steering, the ATS has placed its bets in one area.
“The ATS remains a very light, nimble, and tossable feeling sports sedan,” said technical director Frank Markus. “It’s a willing accomplice on a twisty road.”
Several editors on staff praised the performance of the chassis especially while cornering.
The engine delivers plenty of power, and despite the stiff suspension, the ride feels well controlled. The Cadillac also accomplishes something else that’s hard to do: a stop/start system that can turn the engine back on without disturbing the driver.
Although it feels like one of the best handling cars in its class, its numbers aren’t quite at the top of the game. In fact, not much has changed on the Cadillac’s 0-60 mph run over time. Our 2017 Cadillac ATS ran to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds, matching the time we achieved on the 2013 model we first tested. That’s a hair slower than the 2017 BMW 330i we tested at 5.5 seconds, but quicker than the 2017 Mercedes-Benz C300 Sport, which completed the run in 6 seconds. A 2017 Audi A4 tester, equipped with all-wheel drive unlike the others, made the shortest work of the task by achieving a 5-second time.
Caddy breezed through the quarter mile in 14.2 seconds at 98.3 mph, and the figure-eight run took 26 seconds at an average of 0.71 g. These numbers are remarkably similar to the BMW’s figures (14.2 seconds at 98.5 mph in the quarter mile and 26.1 seconds at 0.71 g in the figure eight), though the Mercedes lagged behind with runs of 14.5 seconds at 96.1 mph and 25.7 seconds at 0.71 g. Once again, the Audi performed well with a time of 13.7 seconds at 100.4 mph in the quarter mile and a time of 25.7 seconds at 0.74 g in the figure eight.
The sultry sedan is rated 22/31/25 mpg city/highway/combined by the EPA. But in our Real MPG tests, the ATS outperformed those numbers, achieving 23.4/32.2/26.7 mpg.
Despite its confident ride and respectable numbers, the Cadillac can’t hide a few coarse mannerisms, including some road and tire noise that seeps into the cabin while driving. “The transmission is the worst part of this car dynamically,” said senior features editor Jason Cammisa. “It is occasionally confused, constantly and continually slow, and occasionally very rough.”
Evans had a slightly different take. “It’s quite smooth, but I wish it would sense sporty driving and respond,” he said.”It won’t give a downshift out of the goodness of its heart. You order one.”
Given the car’s rough-and-ready personality, it might be possible to overlook a transmission that needs massaging. But other aspects of the ATS put into question its lack of balance. For one thing, it suffers a big hit in depreciation over a five-year period, retaining just 37.63 percent of its value. Other competitors hover in the 40s, including the BMW, which retains 44.06 percent of its value over the same time span.
Practicality takes another hit when it comes to interior space. “This rear-seat is absolutely ridiculous,” said senior production editor Zach Gale. “It’s a deal-breaker. Why not just get the coupe?” Cammisa summed it up: “This is the car you’d buy if the driving experience is far more important than any other factor.”
Revisiting the ATS has enhanced the fond memories we formed when we first drove the sedan several years ago. Yet even more, it highlighted the sedan’s few but significant drawbacks, which become stronger when compared to new cars today that are increasingly focused on luxury and comfort. Although it might not be perfectly well-rounded, the ATS is one of the best driving cars in a highly competitive segment, and that won’t soon be forgotten.