NAIAS Preview: Cadillac ATS Reveal

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
naias preview cadillac ats reveal

Note: Photos courtesy of Cars In Depth. Click here for a complete gallery of photos from the Cadillac ATS reveal.

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.

GM CEO Dan Akerson, VP of Design Ed Welburn & GM President Mark Reuss

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  • Jerome10 Jerome10 on Jan 10, 2012

    I commented in the other thread that it just didn't look right. It looks better here, but seeing more "real life" photos, unfortunately I still do not think it is aggressive enough. This is the sporty, entry level car, and the CTS looks meaner, lower. It isn't a deal breaker, none of the competition is particularly aggressive either, but in my opinion this is one of the things I really like about the newer KNOW it is a Cadillac. It is different because a Cadillac driver is likely not content to drive a somewhat bland German car everyone else is driving. I admit, I have loved the BMW's for years. I absolutely adore the current car every time I'm behind the wheel. I'm impressed with my GTI....then I take a 3 on the same roads and its amazing how it makes the GTI feel as if i'm manhandling it to not even keep the same pace I can in the 3. It is magical. It fools you into thinking you're the best driver on the planet. Yes, it is kinda boring in side, nice but plain. Seating area is OK. Etc. But the feel behind the wheel is the winning formula. Though having driving a new 7, the new 5 quite a bit, reading some reviews, I have to agree I worry with a previous post BMW is slowly drifting. Lighter steering. Worse steering feel. A little cushier. A little softer in reactions. They are still great cars, but the magic I felt when I first drove an E39 540i in the late 90s and still sticks in my head to this day, I just haven't gotten on the last few cars. Seeing what they are becoming, electronics, various settings, techno doo dads....I can take some of that, but when the cars drive worse because of it, then there is a problem. Anyway, I could go point here is that I've felt the BMW flame flickering in me a bit too. I have wanted a BMW for well over 10 years but my financial side never allowed me to say yes. I want a 1 (oh man I had hoped it would be 5k less) I am to the point where I can nearly afford such a car, yet, that feeling of driving straight to the BMW dealer I can feel wavering. Do I want an Audi? No. A Mercedes? Heck no. A Japanese car? No. So, I can be talked into looking. A car like this could get me. If it had just looked truly aggressive without being over the top (again, like the CTS) I would be really intrigued. So now what?

  • Daveainchina Daveainchina on Jan 10, 2012

    As many have said here, BMW is starting to lose its way. This I think creates opportunities for Cadillac IF Cadillac can deliver. One nice thing about this is that GM has Buick for chasing volume luxury/near luxury sales. This allows Cadillac to be edgier and a bit more of a niche product. If done right, like the CTS this could eventually lead to a very good thing for GM. We'll just have to see how this plays out. For now, this is definitely a step in the right direction. I like it, I hope it just has room for my shoulders.

  • Bobbysirhan I'm surprised by the particular Porsches to make the list, and also by the Cadillac. Most of all, I'm shocked that the 2-door Mini Cooper is on here. I didn't even know they still made them, let alone that anyone was still buying them.
  • Ajla I assume the CT5 is on the list due to the Blackwing variant.It would be interesting to take the incentives that existed in October 2019 and include that in an analysis like this as well. The thing about the used market is that while you'll pay less in total dollars, in some cases the percentage increase from 2019 is even worse than with new cars. Buying a Saturn Relay for $6k isn't exactly a winning move.
  • VoGhost Reminder: dealers exist to line the pockets of millionaires who contribute to local politicians.
  • Cprescott The pandemic changed the sales game. No longer do dealerships need inventory. After two years people are accustomed to having to order what they want and then extorted on the price by the dealer for that privilege. Now used cars with 75k are selling for $5k more than I paid for my 21k, 2016 model back in January 2019. I pray my car won't get totaled and I have but 13 payments left to make on it. I may never buy another car again.
  • Grein002 I hope you meant "take the Ranger out behind the *barn*" rather than "bar". I think something completely different happens "behind the bar".