With award shows of all sizes, shapes and credence blanketing cable television, network airwaves and cyber-screens, it's easy to get dizzied amongst the din. The auto universe isn't immune either to a plethora of old-school pulp-driven magazines and new-style online upstarts eager to associate their particular publication or site with an honorarium or two. With no shortage of sometimes self-congratulating awards, how does one distinguish pretenders from contenders?
Longevity certainly should be considered a key criterion. The 'North American Car of the Year honors,' given out annually for the past quarter century at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, qualifies as time-tested with no direct ties to any one specific outlet. A jury of 49 journalists from varying media throughout the continent confer and debate. In automotive circles, it's a big deal and highly coveted. This past January, Cadillac's all-new 2013 ATS took the honor, beating out two worthy finalists: Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.
The four-door ATS sport sedan, built in Michigan's capital, Lansing, offers performance-minded rear-drive or Chicago-friendly all-wheel drive built around an impressive all-new platform. The Lansing facility, operational since 2001, also assembles the larger Cadillac CTS (with a third-generation makeover for the upcoming 2014 model year) and within two years, the next-generation Chevrolet Camero.
ATS is already miles ahead two previous Cadillac stumbles in this important prestige-entry segment, the Chevrolet Cavalier-inspired Cimarron of the 1980s and Euro-flavored, but problem-plagued Catera (1997-2001). While Cadillac and Lincoln, America's most prominent luxury nameplates have scored points with up-market sport utility vehicles, the all-important entry-level sedan has long been a tough nut to crack.
Cadillac left little doubt within promotional literature that it's aiming squarely at the industry darling of the compact, upscale luxury segment, BMW's well-crafted 3-Series sedan. Cadillac's new entry easily classifies as a driver's car, worthy of a 'sport' sedan designation.
ATS bests the 3-Series with lightness of foot (or rubber). Thanks to lighter-weight materials, including magnesium, an aluminum hood and lightweight engine mounts from Brilliance Auto, a newly added Chinese auto supplier, ATS has one of the lowest overall curb weight in its class, enhancing handling, fuel economy and ride quality. Electronic variable steering eases ATS into its next maneuver with little resistance.
Be prepared to select from three engine choices: two four cylinders or a more potent V-6. Pricing varies greatly depending on the powertrain selected. A naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter, DOHC four-cylinder delivers 202 horsepower. Those demanding more fun from a four should explore the 2.0-liter turbo-inspired variant delivering an impressive 272 horses. The lone V-6, a 3.6-liter, cranks out 321 horses. All include variable valve timing and direct, high-pressure fuel injection. The 2.5-liter four cylinder includes rear-drive standard while the other two offer both rear and all-wheel drive. The 2.0-turbo (mated to rear-drive) is the sole option for the six-speed manual transmission. A responsive six-speed, electronically-controlled automatic is optional with the turbo and standard with the other two powertrains.
Along with three powertrains are four trims: Standard, Luxury, Performance and Premium. The 2.5-liter four cylinder comes in Standard and Luxury trims. The turbo may be had in all four trims while the V-6 includes Luxury, Performance and Premium.
The lowest-priced ATS checks in at $33,095 for a 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated four. Cadillac supplied the turbo engine wrapped around a top-level Premium trim and a $45,995 starting price. The few option packages at this level include a $3,220 'Driver Assist Package' (side blind spot and rear cross traffic alerts, adaptive cruise control); $600 'Cold Weather Package,' along with $995 'Thunder Gray Chromaflair' for a bottom line of $51,705 including an $895 destination charge. The lowest-priced 2013 BMW 3-Series sedan starts at $32,550.
Thick, strap-like door handles (illuminating at night when doors unlock) work together well when large gloves get called upon during Chicago's inclement months. Chrome trim surrounds side windows. Narrow, vertical, foot-high red LED tail lights surround the trunk with the red brake light trimming the top edge lid edge, coming to a point in the middle. Headlight housing is vertical and narrow as well, ensconced between the hood and fenders. Cadillac's familiar wreath crest resides inside a five-point chrome frame grille and in back on the trunk lid.
The colorful, glance-friendly, backlit instrument panel includes a center-positioned, half-moon analog speedometer with a rectangular message center below also displaying digital speed numbers. A push-button start control (in the shape of a gray shield) resides right of the steering column. Cadillac may wish to illuminate this shield as it blends in almost too well with the rest of the dash during daylight hours. Three thick, steering wheel spokes concave inward with secondary volume and media controls. Electronic parking brake controls are found on the underside of the far-left-side dash. Three months of satellite radio is complimentary.
Also included in the price of admission in most trims is the first-generation of 'Cadillac User Experience' (CUE) combining touch-sensitive screen graphics with infotainment interface. Introduced two years ago, it's GM's answer to Ford's Sync and Mercedes-Benz COMAND multimedia systems, both of which have earned their fair share of criticism. Updates to CUE are on the way in 2014 based on customer feedback during the past couple of years including faster interaction time and more navigation features.
Both front seat travelers easily have access and a push along the bottom raises the face to reveal a USB port and portable electronic storage. However, the touch screen interface remains confusing and, at times, overshot desired radio station frequencies when attempting to zero in with the correct 'touch.' Note to automakers: tactile knobs are not evil and make wonderful secondary options, especially when eyes need focusing on the roadway ahead.
The fuel tank holds 16.0 gallons. Our turbo four tester recommended premium fuel (as with many turbos) while the other two get away with 87-octane regular. The six-cylinder also accepts an E-85 blend with a higher percentage of vegetable-based ethanol. Respectable four-cylinder turbo fuel estimates with automatic transmission include 21 mpg city and 31 highway.
Interior, goose-neck-style hinges get well wrapped inside sturdy soft-touch coverings, eliminating the possibility of cargo 'crunch.' In fact, the entire trunk is well insulated, helping keep cabins quiet. At 10.4 cubic feet, trunk volume measures in at the smaller end of the spectrum, but versatility increases (in most models) two ways: second row backrests fold down with a 60/40 split, or a center pass-through window behind the fold-down arm rest opens up a small passage way. Performance trims have fixed rear seats with just the pass-through window. Below the flat trunk floor resides the traditional lead-acid battery, relocated from the under-hood region for optimal balance. Cadillac's ATS boasts a nearly 50/50 mass distribution between front and rear, enhancing glide characteristics.
Firm leatherette bucket seats translate into back support worthy of a long weekend get-away, although positioning is rather low to the ground. Our Premium tester's attractive color scheme included red/black seats, doors and dash with black graphite accents. Rear leg room measures a tight 33.5 inches. The vertical floor transmission hump doesn't help matters, so limit rear passengers to two adults. Expect average headroom, front and back, nothing SUV like.
Eight air bags (including knee protectors) come standard. Rear thorax air bags are optional. Expect a coupe ATS version in the not-to-distant future along with a high-performance sedan V-Series.
At a Glance2013 Cadillac ATS
Price as tested: $51,705
Wheelbase: 109.3 inches
Length: 182.8 inches
Width: 71.1 inches
Engine: 2.0-liter turbo four cylinder
Curb weight: 3,543 pounds
City/Highway economy: 21 mpg city/ 31 mpg highway
Powertrain warranty: Six years/70,000-mile transferable limited warranty
Assembly: Lansing, Michigan