At an invitation only event held at Detroit’s College For Creative Studies, last night Cadillac revealed its new BMW 3 fighter, the ATS. The location was appropriate since CCS is located in a former General Motors’ building, actually the first location of Harley Earl’s “Art & Colour” department, the progenitor of what is now called GM Design. In fact there’s a lounge where Earl’s corner office used to be right around the bend from the hall where the reveal was, and the hall itself was formerly used by GM styling for in-house displays. Twenty of the 170 CCS graduates at GM Design worked on the ATS project and Cadillac is a major benefactor of the school. The choice of the location was anything but a coincidence. Cadillac is undoubtedly using styling to set the ATS apart from its luxury C segment competitors.
At least from the front, the ATS makes a visual statement that’s more dramatic than anything that BMW, Mercedes or Audi offers in that segment. When you see the ATS’ ‘face’ you’ll know immediately that it’s a Cadillac but also that it’s a new Cadillac. Choosing to not take a page from the same German sausage in different sizes cook book, the ATS is also distinctive from the CTS and other current Caddies. The grille is a bit narrower top to bottom than in the CTS, the hood is raised from the fender line giving it a power bulge look, and the headlights extend back into the fender well over the wheel well. Those lamps are have a contour that’s slightly raised from the fender. I asked if that was to create some kind of aerodynamic flow past the rear view mirrors but was told that it was strictly a styling decision. At the back it’s more Art & Science, with a nice looking contrasting color lower valence/diffuser that integrates two chrome exhaust tips. Following the trend of “four door coupes”, sedans with rooflines like that of the Mercedes-Benz CLS, the ATS has a fastback profile, with the short deck lid continuing the line of the back window, culminating in a little ducktail spoiler cum CHMSL brake light. While the flanks are a bit generic, in profile the ATS does have an nice, aggressive stance. Cars in this class are “self rewards”, there’s an aspect of wanting to stand out from the crowd. Cadillac says that their market research shows that the more cars that BMW sells in that class, the more common they become, the less aspirational the 3 becomes to those who want to show that they’ve arrived. So the ATS was designed to stand out in a crowded country club parking lot. You may be less likely to see it at your local senior center. If my 22 year old daughter’s reaction is any gauge, the ATS will not be seen as an old folks’ car. She said it was “sexy” and that she thought people her age would like it. That brought wide smiles to the faces of the people wearing Cadillac pins.
Taking on the relatively staid Germans with dramatic styling is one thing. Detroit has always been known for styling. Taking on the Germans’ reputation for performance is a much more difficult task, and make no mistake, it is the Germans that they are taking on. The words Infiniti and Lexus were never mentioned, though BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi certainly were, as was the word “Nurburgring”, where the ATS’ suspension was tuned. Subsequently much of the press conference’s emphasis was on performance, stressing how a manual transmission will be available with all three engines, perhaps an allusion to rumors (since denied) that BMW would not be offering a stick shift on the next M5. The three engines are a 2.5 liter normally aspirated four, a new 2.0 L turbo motor that has the highest specific output in its class, and Cadillac’s 3.6 L V6. The V6 is tuned for 320 HP in this application, and they were sure to point out that figure is higher than that offered in the segment’s benchmark, the BMW 3. GM marketing and communications folks made it clear that we can anticipate ATS variants along the same line as the CTS nameplate has been expanded. I don’t know about a ATS wagon, but I think it’s safe to anticipate high performance V versions and probably some kind of two-door coupe.
The autojournos were crowding into the three sample ATSes on the stage, so I didn’t get a close look at the interior, but it does have one trick feature that I noticed, the nav screen flips up to reveal a secure storage area. The three cars represented three different levels of interior trim out of the five that will be offered. As with recent Cadillacs, there is a surfeit of detail stitching on the upholstery and interior trim. The metallic black car was kitted with rather flashy red and dark grey upholstery along with real carbon fiber panels. The top trim line represented had a dove grey interior with very impressive looking zebrano wood panels on the doors.
In his remarks Mark Reuss said that the design brief for the car was to make it nimble, quick and fun. Towards that end, he said that they worked hard to reduce weight, paying attention to grams, not just kilograms. The paddle shifters, for example, are made of magnesium. The result is that the ATS, at just under 3,400 lbs, weighs less than the BMW 3. Yes, I know that the General has had a weight problem, with its cars sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds more than competitors, but in this case Florine Mark would be proud of them, they’ve watched the ATS’ weight. That weight is said to be distributed equally over the front and back wheels, 50/50. It’s a rear wheel drive platform, though it’s also available in AWD. Another thing that Reuss said should give hope to those that think that the bankruptcy has changed the culture at GM. Reuss said that he hates the word “competitive”, that their intention was not just to make a competitive product but rather a class leader. We’ll know if that’s just marketing talk or not in a few months when the ATS goes on sale in the US this summer and in other markets, particularly Europe later on.
Nobody would give me projected production figures for the ATS, which will be built in Lansing, Michigan. I was told, repeatedly, though, that they expect the ATS to be Cadillac’s volume leader. The ATS is being priced deliberately to create space between it any future variants and the CTS line. Hopefully for Cadillac the ATS won’t cannibalize too many sales from the CTS. If that’s the case and the ATS does indeed turn out to be the brand’s volume leader, that means total sales for the Cadillac brand could increase dramatically. On paper and in person the ATS looks like a winner. How it will perform on the road and in the showroom, though, is a different question. Reuss is correct. Competitive sets the bar too low. BMW dominates that segment perhaps like no other car company dominates an automotive market segment. If Cadillac is going to do something about that, it has to be compelling, not just competitive.