Review: Just how German is the 2013 Cadillac ATS?

I’m not the first to say it- on paper, the 2013 Cadillac ATS is a car worthy of competing against the 2013 BMW 3-series.

But what’s 500 miles in an ATS like to someone who has owned two BMWs?  What if you’re one who prefers German apple strudel to American apple pie, and you’re suddenly faced with a pie that has set out to prove that it tastes more like a strudel?

Enter the 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6-L Performance, an offering whose flavor I honestly don’t like.  And I’ll tell you why right off the bat.  The 3.6-L engine is too unrefined, the CUE infotainment system is infuriating, the steering is too light and there’s not much room inside.  It’s an appealing crust with mediocre filling.

Let’s start with that crust which, by the way, the bakers at GM have perfectly conceived.  You’ve heard terms like “subtle contouring” and “graceful lines” before, but nothing has ever looked quite this cohesive.  Really, the automotive offspring of a Chip Foose and Pablo Picasso project couldn’t be more drool-worthy.  Where the latest BMW 3-series has taken on an added dose of frump, the ATS looks svelte, modern and appealing.

Inside, the ATS does its best to flex some serious high-tech muscles.  Like an iPad, most of the car’s optional CUE infotainment system responds to virtual clicks and swipes, answering your request with pronounced haptic feedback.  Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

Despite a logical layout and hi-res display, I found CUE to be absolutely dreadful.  It’s not fundamentally flawed, but the “buttons” fail to respond half the time and for goodness sake, is it too much to ask for rotary volume and tuning knobs, just in case I’m feeling lazy?

Furthering the interior’s foibles are a chintzy-feeling engine start/stop button, a disobedient turn signal stalk and a contrived 1980s-style instrument cluster which looks hewn from a solid piece of 1990 Chevrolet Lumina.  Not the sort of luxury you’d expect from a 3-series fighter.

Under the hood, things don’t get much better.  GM’s coarse 3.6-L direct-injected V-6 makes an appearance, this time with 321 HP and 275 lb-ft. of torque.  It runs on regular unleaded, a nice touch, but the six-pot mercifully lacks refinement when driving around town.  Compared with the 335’s creamy N55 3.0-L I-6, the ATS’ top-level mill feels lumpy and coarse.

The powertrain’s bright spot is the standard six-speed Hydra-Matic transmission.  Upshifts and downshifts are snapped off with surgical precision as the unit does its best to cope with the engine’s brash nature.  BMW’s optional eight-speed ZF tranny is intuitive, but it can’t compare to the silky refinement of this particular GM slushbox.

Overall ride and handling characteristics mostly favor the Cadillac as well.  Even without the optional FE3 magnetic ride control package, my FE2-equipped tester’s traditional MacPherson strut front and five-link rear suspension never got out of shape.  Blessed with 50/50 front/rear weight distribution, it’s a refined and capable chassis.

The ATS’ electrically assisted steering is refined and precise, but it lacks effort and genuine feel.  For the same reason, the BMW 335i’s electric rack is no gem, but the Cadillac’s setup feels even more lifeless in comparison.

In terms of real world utility, the Cadillac ATS comfortably holds two adults up front, but the rear seat’s miserable 33.5 inches of legroom fails to accommodate all but the most Napoleanesque of adults and the trunk only swallows 10.2 cubic feet of cargo.  For comparison, the BMW’s bench boasts 35.1 inches for lower extremities and its trunk has 17 cubic feet of storage space.

Through mixed city and highway driving, my 3,467-pound ATS 3.6-L Performance test car averaged a paltry 21.2 MPG.  In mostly identical test conditions, I have seen the 3,582-pound BMW 335i (automatic transmission) return similar numbers.  Their fuel tank capacities are nearly identical at 16.0 gallons (ATS) and 16.1 gallons (3’er), so the Cadillac wins purely on its ability to burn regular unleaded.

While neither car is particularly cheap, the 2013 Cadillac ATS 3.6-L Performance does present good value against a comparably equipped 2013 BMW 335i Sport.  When optioned almost identically, the BMW commands a wallet-puckering $53,320 MSRP while my Cadillac politely requests $47,780.

To be fair, the Cadillac ATS isn’t at all a bad car.  The optional mid-level 272-HP 2.0-L I-4 is a gem, especially when mated to the six-speed Hydra-Matic.  And given a year or two, I have no doubt the infernal CUE system will be updated and a dash of authentic steering feel will have been imparted.

For now, the 2013 Cadillac ATS is just trying too hard to be something it’s not.  When I look for a good slice of apple pie, I’m seeking authenticity.  If the ATS were unapologetically American like the Corvette, I’d have more sympathy for its flaws.  But until it either becomes strudel or accepts the fact that it’s not, I’ll stick with the real thing.


On the recommendation scale of:

-Buy it

-Lease it

-Rent it or

-Forget it

I give the 2013 Cadillac ATS a RENT IT!

Spend a few days with the 2013 model sans-commitment.  When the 2014 model comes around, I’m fairly convinced the recipe will have changed a little, and I just might have to give it another try.

Daniel Buxbaum has had a life-long passion for all things automotive. His background as a Porsche, Audi and BMW service advisor brings a more technical approach to his writing. Dan’s passion for automotive journalism secured him a position as regional manager and contributing writer for Parts & People, a multi-region automotive trade publication. Dan is also an active member of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Press (RMAP) and Motor Press Guild (MPG).