For a few years, it seemed like Cadillac's only passenger car was the CTS, offered in sedan, wagon, and coupe variants, but now America's oldest luxury brand has been setting about expanding its lineup, last year releasing the XTS and the ATS. The latter is the new entry-level Cadillac, a car built from the ground up to compete with that perennial champ of the compact sport segment, the BMW 3 Series.
The ATS presents itself with the sharp lines of Cadillac's Art and Science design language, looking like a shortened CTS. This look may not appeal to everyone, but it makes the car instantly recognizable and sets the brand apart. Vertical light pipes in the headlight casings also lend a unique look to the ATS at night.
Cadillac makes the ATS available with three different engines, and with trims labeled Luxury, Performance, and Premium the car can appeal to first-time luxury buyers and driving-glove-wearing adrenaline junkies. The engines range from an economical 2.5-liter four-cylinder through a 2-liter turbo to a 3.6-liter V-6, all using direct injection to increase efficiency.
CNET tested a 3.6-liter ATS with all-wheel drive, and despite its Performance trim, it did not seem the best choice for straightening the curves. The all-wheel-drive option nixes the Magnetic Ride Control adaptive suspension, leaving the car with a fixed sport suspension. And ATS might as well mean Automatic Transmission Standard. CNET's 3.6-liter could only be had with the six-speed automatic. A six-speed manual is only available on rear-wheel-drive cars with the 2-liter turbo.
The curse of the CUE
As one of Cadillac's newest models, the ATS features the CUE infotainment system, combining access to phone, audio, and navigation controls on the car's touch screen. Although the system lacks the internal hardware to be tablet-quality, the interface design on this 8-inch touch screen shows promise. The home screen uses an app paradigm, hinting at future expandability, and the existing functions are as modern as they come.
The first sign of inferior silicon comes on starting the car, when an "Initializing Application" message appears on the touch screen. As I tested the capabilities of this system in the ATS, it often responded slowly to input, making me wait a beat or two before it brought up the audio, phone, or navigation screens. This laggy performance won't help Cadillac's reputation, especially for buyers cross-shopping Audi and BMW models, which offer much more reactive in-cabin electronics.
Unlike those European competitors, which rely on indirect controllers, Cadillac goes with a touch screen featuring haptic feedback. I liked the pop under my finger as I touched the different buttons on the screen, even if I did have to wait for the result. I was even more impressed by the proximity function. When driving with the navigation function up, for example, the map filled the screen. When I put my hand near it, strips of previously hidden buttons showed up on top of the map, letting me enter destinations or switch to other functions.
Drivers might be less appreciative of the touch controls for volume and climate below the screen. The volume control requires sliding a fingertip along its surface rather than turning an old, familiar knob. However, once I got used to it in the ATS, I found this control worked smoothly, and passengers unfamiliar with the car couldn't just reach over and change it.
I found that voice command in the ATS made the touch screen almost superfluous. It accurately, if not quickly, interpreted my requests for music, phone numbers, and destinations. To enter an address into navigation, I was able to speak the entire number, street, and city all at once, much less tedious than saying them all separately. With my iPhone plugged into the car, I could ask for music by artist, album, genre, and track name.
The CUE system comes with a set of flash memory-stored maps that look good, making a clear distinction between roads and surrounding terrain features. In perspective view, the maps showed detailed renderings of San Francisco's downtown buildings. However, topographic features were lacking for surrounding mountain areas.
Operating under route guidance, the system showed useful graphics, along with lane guidance, for upcoming turns, enhanced by voice prompts, which read out street names. Traffic information was displayed on the maps and was used by the system when calculating a route.
Other icons on the home screen lead to OnStar, weather, and Pandora Internet Radio. The touch-screen interface for OnStar lets you see what services are available through the telematics service, while weather brings up a neat little local weather map and forecast. The weather function alerted me to nearby weather events with a message on the instrument cluster display.
Pandora only works when running in conjunction with a smartphone that has the app installed. As it relied on my iPhone, all my personal stations were available in the interface, and I could give songs a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. My only complaint here is that Pandora should really be listed as a source under the audio menu, not sitting out under a separate icon.
The audio menu encompasses radio, both HD Radio and satellite, and digital media in the car. Whether I plugged an iPhone or thumbdrive into the USB port, the system parsed the music files, showing them on the touch screen organized into a proper music library. The system seamlessly played music over Bluetooth from my smartphone, displaying track information on the touch screen along with Play and Pause controls.
The 10-speaker Bose audio system came as an upgrade in CNET's car, with settings for surround or a focus on specific seating areas. I found its sound quality very good, with nice separation between frequencies and clear reproduction, but it lacked the heart-warming elevation of some other high-end systems. Muddy Waters' "Folk Singer," for example, sounded like a recording, never quite hitting that live sound. A little better dynamic range or staging might help.