Opposite Lock: The ATS Lands a Few Punches; Gets Knocked Out

Featured Posts, Interesting | January 20th, 2012 by 50
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You have to respect an underdog. That skinny man at the bar who stands up to the Schwarzenegger-looking ‘roid-popping dude hitting on his girlfriend. The Jamaican bobsled team in “Cool Runnings.” The Cadillac ATS.

BMW have long set the bar so high in the sport/luxury sedan segment that their German and Japanese competition have had an impossible time keeping up – let alone surpassing. With the launch of the new F30 sixth-generation 3 series, BMW have once again pole-vaulted a good field ahead of the competition, and those looking at the back-end of the 3 series have a lot of catching up to do. But perhaps not as much as with previous generations. The gap is narrowing – there is no doubt. Audi have finally figured out that understeer sucks, weight should be further aft, and more power should be sent to the rear wheels.

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Well – in actuality all power should be sent to the rear wheels and weight should be distributed equally, or predominately over the rear axles, but at least they’re getting closer. The Japanese have mounted an honorable fight with their sport sedans, namely Infinity with their G and M class sedans. A stint behind the wheel of the G37 coupe will have you thinking, “who put wasabi on this bimmer?” as you hang the tail out through a corner. And finally the Koreans have thrown their flag in the ring with the launch of the Genesis sedan and coupe – the latter squarely aimed at stealing Infiniti G37 and BMW 3 series drivers. The Americans, meanwhile, have always been about an ocean away.

Have the Yankees finally stepped up with a worthy competitor in the midsize sport sedan segment? Let’s take a look at the fighter’s specs before we place a wager. Of course, we’ll need to get behind the wheel – preferably on a racetrack – before we can pass final judgment.

Cadillac lands a punch or two. Maybe three.

Right off the bell Cadillac lands a punch with superior power output from their 2.0 liter turbo four. BMW’s N20 unit of the same specification puts out 240 hp, while the ATS’s unit churns out 270 hp. That is a significant power advantage from an engine of the same size and aspiration. Then, a surprise left hook from the Caddy, as its sport suspension (FE3) adds a mechanical limited slip differential (LSD) between the rear wheels. Wow. Where were you on that one BMW? Not only does the Cadillac deliver more power, but it more effectively transfers it to the road when getting on with it. The Germans are left in a stupor, knees bent, clinging to the ropes.

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Finally, a third swing. Did Cadillac land the blow? Hard to say – we won’t know until we drive the ATS. Mark Reuss, GM’s North American President, stated that the ATS sports, “the best steering [he’s] ever tested.” Them be fighting words. But will the driving experience stand behind them? We can’t wait to find out for ourselves. Cadillac has fitted a ZF sourced (sound familiar?), belt-driven, rack-mounted, variable-assist electronic power steering (EPS) unit. Bespoke to the Cadillac, we’re very curious to see how much information the system will translate up, into the steering wheel. BMW has set the bar so low in this department relative to previous generation 3ers that, frankly, we wouldn’t be shocked if Cadillac betters the BMW for steering feel and feedback. Somebody alert the driving Gods: Hell hath frozen over.

Round two, equal match.

Both the ATS and 3 series tip the scales at an impressive 3,300 to 3,400 lb window – and bearing in mind the lengths BMW went to in order to reduce weight, the fact Cadillac goes toe-to-toe in this arena is extremely impressive. The ATS touts magnesium engine mounts, an aluminum hood, and clever use of steel in the suspension to shed pounds.

Both cars are available with 6-speed manual transmissions, which should keep the purists happy. I’m not sure how many Cadillac drivers are drivers, but I expect the manual take rate to be much lower on the American cars. At least they offer the manual transmission, should you be one to connect with the driving experience on a regular basis. That Cadillac even offers it lends credibility to their affront in the sport sedan segment.

Cadillac has finally lost the knife and brought a gun to the gun-fight with a more advanced 5-link independent rear suspension, appropriately weighted with 50% of the mass resting over the rear wheels at a stand-still. Don’t forget about that LSD mounted between the rear wheels – not even an option on any BMW 3 series short of an M car. Cadillac spent ample time honing the suspension setup on the N’ring and several other race circuits; we get the feeling the ATS may actually ‘bring it’ on track and at least keep up with the BMW.

BMW strikes back.

The F30 finds its feet and returns blows with its hewn-from-granite build quality and fine materials. Its advanced EcoPro technology – usable tech that is incredibly well applied in the car – adds value to the car and improves efficiency by a large margin when in use. iDrive extends BMW’s lead in the tech area, and creates a mobile office the likes of which Cadillac can only dream.

Self-inflicted blows?

Finally, Cadillac does the strange (but not entirely unexpected) and knocks a few of its own teeth out. Yes, the resultant look is, umm, how do I say this? Somewhere from Alabama? Your right to bear arms can’t touch me here in Toronto… fire away. Take the interior build quality for example. It’s atrocious. I mean, it’s horrendously bad – let’s say roughly where Hyundai was 25 years ago, with employees drinking a few too many Soju mid-shift on a Monday. Check out the photo below, showing lumpy, fat-roll-esque leather surfacing on the side bolster of the brand new show car. Is that cellulite? Remember: this is the best example Cadillac could find to showcase to the world’s media. Yikes.

Next, consider the unequal gaps on either side of the center-dash console. The difference is nearly a cm wide, and stares you in the face like a hideous hairy mole at the tip of the nose.

The cup holders don’t offer much in the aesthetics department either, feeling of cheap plastic and in no way belonging in the company of luxury cars. Not everyone orders the “Biggie Size” fountain drinks – do they really have to be so large? It appears that far too much space has been devoted to them, and with their placement at your elbows, McDonalds may be in for a “burnt elbow” hot coffee suit.

The touch screen info-tainment display is a bad idea on many levels. The screen will constantly be dirty and smudged since your fingers are frequently all over it. The reach is too far while driving, and requires you to lean forward from your seat, and the overall look and design of the software is not up to par with systems from the European competition.

But worse still is the uber-cheesy center console flip-up button pad, revealing a small cubby hole once lifted. Button activated, the swing up device feels cheap and screams “Gimmick” from the mountain tops. It’s sure to impress the 3 year olds in the car, and no one else. Why do the Americans lower themselves like this in the company of such refined competition? They finally brought the fight dynamically, even equalling the curb weight of the 3 series – only to throw it all away with a hilarious gadget stolen from a Fisher-Price Transformers toy? I don’t get it. I’d love to be at the board room table when Billy makes these suggestions. And who invited a toddler into the design process anyway? If you want to fight the Europeans and Asians, you have to add refinement and quality beyond rental car levels. After 5 minutes poking and prodding the ATS from the driver’s seat I thought, “this would make a great rental.” And nothing more.

Moving to the exterior, the ATS gives a lot up to the BMW aesthetically, but since looks are subjective, I won’t dwell heavily here. In short, the 3 series offers more shape, and more sophisticated lines embellishing its perfect proportions. The Cadillac falls down here, with more simplistic metal work that doesn’t capture light and shadow the same way. It looks less dynamic at a standstill, and while I don’t mind the industrial, sharp line design approach, somehow the ATS looks a bit dated even before its release. In a few years time the BMW will be growing on us while the ATS will be scrapping the bottom of the Blue-Book resale values.

Spending a little time in the cockpit of the ATS undid all of the hope we held out for this latest American effort. We expect it to win back some points once we get the keys, but if the dynamics and character are on par with the interior build quality – it seems Munich has little to worry about.

You’ve got to respect an underdog, but not if it’s just a dog. Was the model we examined pre-production, rife with tolerance issues and poor materials (again with the pleather-feeling leather)? Time will tell, and we look forward to giving a production model ATS a fair shake – on the track, and under bright lights. We will gladly crown the ATS or any other competitor the superior car – but it must earn this victory.