General Motors has pulled out all the stops to make the 2013 Cadillac ATS the car that can go bumper-to-bumper with the BMW 3-Series - the acknowledged benchmark in the compact sport/luxury segment.
While the ATS has a tough road ahead, it has been surprisingly well-equipped for the task.
It starts with an all-new front-engine, rear-wheel-drive platform. The state-of-the-art underpinnings include bits of light alloys, such as aluminum and magnesium, to keep weight in check.
By shuffling various bits, such as the battery in the trunk, the ATS is very close to the ideal 50/50 front-to-rear weight distribution.
The centre of the car is the driver's door post.
Three engines are available, a base 2.5-litre four, a 2.0-litre turbo four and a 3.6-litre V-6. The cars are further differentiated with four "collections": Standard, Luxury, Performance and Premium.
My test car was a Performance model with the 3.6-litre engine and all-wheel drive.
Producing 321 horsepower and 274 lb.-ft. of torque, the V-6 is super-smooth when driven sedately and a snarling beast when the pedal is to the metal - just my kind of engine. Enthusiasts used to the growl of a BMW six-cylinder won't feel homesick behind the wheel of an ATS.
What's more, Cadillac has given the powerplant a bit of free rein - manually shift and the engine will hit redline easily. While it sounds like chaos, it is a controlled chaos, with the pure mechanical sounds one doesn't usually equate with a Cadillac.
But while performance is front and centre, economy is hardly mentioned.
Surprisingly, Cadillac has chosen not to include an engine stop/start system to the ATS, a feature becoming increasingly common (should I need to mention it is found on the BMW?) in vehicles in this category.
On my tester, the six-speed automatic came with steering-wheel mounted paddle shifters, which added to the sporty feel.
When in manual mode, the transmission will hold a gear, instead of automatically shifting up when the engine's redline is reached.
My only complaint is that the gear indicator on the dash minimizes after a few seconds. The resultant image is small and easily missed.
The engine rev-matches when the transmission is shifted down - a nice touch.
Our tester was also equipped with all-wheel drive, giving the fast runs on back roads an extra margin of security in rainy weather. I have heard anecdotally that the rear-wheel-drive cars are more fun for more experienced drivers, as they can get the back end to come around easier - but that's another drive.
Cadillac boasts four-wheel vented brakes with front calipers courtesy of Brembo. This baby stops as well as it moves.
While Cadillac wanted to beat the Bimmer, it certainly didn't want to look anything like one.
The styling is edgy and the body lines are strong. But the ATS shines even when the sun goes down, thanks to a whole suite of lights. Bright - and I mean bright - LEDs are used on the front as daylight running lights.
These vertical shafts of white light set the tone. There are lights in the door handles as well. Walking to and from the car at night is an experience.
The only item that looks small to me are the wheels - despite my tester wearing the optional 18-inch bright wheels. Personally, I think the car would look great with 20-inch rubber.
The cabin is a continuation of the exterior design theme, with lots of rich, yet cutting-edge materials and lines. Be prepared to have a pair of sunglasses handy - when the sun hits the dash, the reflection can be a tad annoying.
The instrument panel is comprehensive. There are analogue gauges for the tachometer, speedometer, gas and engine temperature. At the bottom of the speedo, a driver can customize the information he receives from three screens.
The seats have power side bolsters for spirited drivers and seat-bottom extenders for people with long legs. The back seat is cosy - about the same as the Bimmer (of course). The back passengers sink into their seats. While it's comfortable, I can see some elderly people having a problem getting out.
The jewel in the crown is the Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, which serves as the interface for audio, navigation, telephone, climate controls and vehicle telematics. Tech-savvy people will instantly recognize it as a neat gadget, akin to an iPad mini stuck on the dash. Unlike some, the CUE is quite user-friendly.
What sets it apart are two neat features: a proximity sensor - the dash typically minimizes information shown after a few seconds, but it springs back to life as soon as it detects a hand coming towards it - and a capacitive screen that employs haptic feedback. When a visual button is pressed, the system gives a tactile "bump" to the finger to inform the user it has received a command, for example.
Encouraged by their success, the engineers went further: The driver's seat is fitted with vibrators under each thigh. They tingle to warn the driver if the car departs from its lane on the highway. The system is deactivated when the driver uses the turn signal to indicate a lane change.
The system also gives the driver a buzz (as well as a flashing amber warning triangle on the centre screen) when it detects an obstacle while backing up.
My ATS was also equipped with a forward-collision alert - bright-red LEDs that will project on the windshield (akin to a heads-up-display) if it detects the vehicle approaching an object too rapidly.
Has the BMW 3-Series finally met its match? On paper, and behind the wheel for a too-short test drive, the ATS certainly has the goods to take on the Bavarian point by point - and then some.
My advice is to set aside an afternoon, book the two cars back-to-back and take them both on a scenic - and suitably twisty - ride. While there will be a winner, there are no losers between these two cars.
THE SPEC SHEET
Type: Compact premium four-door sedan, front-engine, all-wheel drive
Engine: 3.6-litre V-6 with direct injection, 321 hp at 6,800 r.p.m., 274 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,800 r.p.m.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Dimensions (mm): Length, 4,643; width, 1,805; height, 1,421; wheelbase, 2,775
Curb weight (kg): 1,646
Price (base/as tested): $49,160/$55,380 (includes $1,595 freight and PDI and $100 AC tax)
Options: Sunroof $1,395, metallic paint $1,295, Cadillac User Interface with navigation $995, 18-inch bright wheels $840
Tires: 225/40 ZR 18 run-flat tires on alloy wheels
Fuel type: Regular
Fuel economy (L/100km): 11.7 city/ 7.5 highway
Warranty: Four years/80,000 km new car, six years/110,000 km powertrain, roadside assistance and courtesy transportation
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