Reader Review: 2014 Cadillac ATS

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User carguy gives his take on the Cadillac ATS

Few cars have been the subject of so much lively debate among TTAC readers than those made by Cadillac – and no more has been more polarizing than the ATS. As it happens, I have been driving one of these controversial machines for the past 15,000 miles and thought I’d pen an objective, non-hyperbolic retrospective about owning this car before I bid farewell to it next month. While it would be easy to argue that the Internet doesn’t need another ATS review (and it really doesn’t) my words here are not really intended to be a traditional review. I promise you that I will not to expose you to my views about the latest iteration of the art and science design school or any musings about track performance numbers. No, today I will break all the automotive press rules and share with you what it was like to actually own this car: what was good, what was OK and what was infuriating. Sounds exciting, right? No? OK I’ll promise to keep it light so hear me out and then feel free to throw rotten tomatoes at my views in the comments section.

So what made a middle age car freak and 4 times BMW owner like me buy an ATS to begin with? Was it the petite 10 cu ft trunk or just the realization that I am now old enough to own one? Neither really. Having found the current F30 3 series to be dead from the waist down and the IS350 with the non-F suspension not much better, I headed to my local Cadillac dealer in the hope of finding a daily driver that was fun in the curves and with an engine slightly more reliable than the N54 in my previous 335. I found a nice-priced Luxury trim ATS with Nav and sunroof to be just the ticket. Fast forward 14 months, here is the good, the OK and the ugly.

The Good
You will not be surprised to hear that the ATS’s party trick is its chassis. In luxury trim it is a delightful blend of responsiveness and comfort that is currently unmatched in this segment. It dances in ways that most German manufacturers can only reminisce about and the steering complements this with precision, feedback and an eager turn in that provides for smiles even during slow speed grocery runs. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the “Brembo” markings on the brakes are any indication of track readiness (it is more of a co-branding exercise) but they are fantastic for street use, providing linear and progressive feel and none of the overly grabby bite that many BMWs exhibit. I will spare you further “this car drives really well” clichés with a note that the sports suspension in the “Performance” trim was too firm for me and that the magnetic suspension in the Premium trim was fabulous but also ridiculously priced.

To my eyes the interior is also better than anything you will get at the high 30s price range that most ATS’s sell for. No materials are fake and, to me, it feels special and luxurious in ways that Acura will never quite understand. No rattles developed in my car nor did I notice any in the abused ATS rentals that I have also driven. Even the controversial retro cluster gauges grew on me. It may lack visual wow factor but it makes up for it with no-BS day and night clarify and an easy to configure 3-part LCD panel. Configure the large center LCD to show the speed and you wonder why heads-up displays are even an option.

Likewise, the outward visibility is a pleasant surprise. When adjusted correctly, the large side mirrors offer an excellent view either side of the car that makes for confident lane changes even in crowded traffic. That may not seem like such a big deal to you but after having to deal with the postage stamp size aerodynamic sports mirrors on my previous BMW it seemed like a magnificent feature. The high trunk line does limit the rear view but it is adequately augmented by a clear wide angle backup camera.

The OK
Out of the three engine choices you’ll find the V6 simply too heavy for the front end and the 2.5 liter entry level mill wheezy and less refined than most agricultural machinery. The 2.0T was the clear choice for me delivering smooth acceleration while maintaining the car’s light feel. It delivers great low RPM torque and makes the car feel quick in town but becomes a little disappointing nearer the top of the rev gauge. The engine is not as good as BMW’s N20 but on par with what Audi is offering in the A3 and A4 much better than the dreadful 1.8T Mercedes used to put in the C250. Fuel economy is average with about 32 MPG at 75 MPH highway speeds and 20 MPG in town (my 15K mile average was 25 MPG). A driveline quirk is the complete absence of any engine braking but a real downer, for anyone with a short commute, is engine efficiency after a cold start. All cars struggle when they are cold but there seems to be no excuse for the 2.0T seems to drink like a V8 for about 5-7 miles of the morning commute.

There is also nothing remarkable about the GM 6-speed auto. It can’t match the ZF 8-speed in the BMW for shift speed and smoothness but it is eager to downshift and never had me really wishing for anything better. It may not be the newest piece of technology but I would choose it over the Mercedes dual clutch setup in the CLA every day of the week. It will also most likely still work well when most dual clutch transmission are already at a metal recycling facility.

You don’t read much about paint quality in auto reviews but I always thought it an essential differentiating factor for cars that claim luxury status. The ATS gets a mixed review here for having a smooth hard clear coat but suffering from thin paint – an undesirable weight saving trend in many modern cars. Expect stone ships to get through to the undercoat which is not a good look on a black car.

Also firmly in the “meh” category is the Nav system. On the upside this option is a bargain price when compared to the European competition and it does have a nice 8” display. However, it is very slow and has a frustrating search function that insists you spell everything 100% correctly or it will simply not find what you’re looking for. The software is also third party so if you want bugs fixed you will have to pony up $150 for a map and software upgrade. In the mid 30k price range this might be barely acceptable but anyone finding this unit in a $70K CTS V-Sport will not be pleased.

The Ugly
He’s going to talk about CUE! Not so fast. The ugly actually starts before you even buy the car and are pondering the options list, which is clearly the product of a near government size bureaucracy. The available top three trims Luxury, Performance & Premium are not so much option packs as different suspensions with ever increasing standard and optional equipment as you move up. So you want HID headlights? You will also need to buy the hard-as-rock suspension as they are only available in Performance trim or higher. Want a heads-up display? Clearly you will also need that firm sports suspension. Whoever thought that bundling common features with arbitrary suspension packages was a good idea needs to lose their “employee of the month” parking spot. Considering how easy it would have been to copy the European brands successful (and profitable) option packages, this craziness really is an unforced error.

So let’s talk about CUE but before we do, let’s get something clear: the disadvantages of having touch-screen only controls are obvious and I knew this when I bought the car. I also knew the system was a little slow. What I didn’t know was just how many glitches were still hiding in every corner of this complex system. Starting with annoying audio system habits like forgetting the track you were on when you restart the car (I have heard way too much of my music collection that starts with an “A”) to outright crashing at random, events such starting or ending a phone call using Bluetooth.

Then there is the HVAC system. Built on the premise that its automatic mode will take care of everything from temperature to humidity, clearly the designers saw no need for much in the way of manual controls. However, if you don’t like what the automatic system has decided to do then you are in for a frustrating time. For example, if you have the audacity to want to turn off the AC compressor when it is cold out it will blast you with hot air until you sweat even though the temperature is set to 70. Why not just turn off the fans you say? Unless you put the system in recycle it will still let air through the vents by air forced in from the outside when you’re doing more than 60 MPH even when the fans are off. Other HVAC highlights feature a de-misting function which, in humid Florida, will fog up your windscreen in seconds by blasting it with super cold air. And just to drive home the folly of “automatic or nothing” systems, things then went into comedy overdrive when an HVAC temperature sensor failed late last year and the system acted like it was possessed. I will spare you the sweaty details of the mobile sauna that this fault turned my car into, but it suffices to say that I was thankful for small mercies as it was winter and the electric windows worked just fine.

The story of the rest of the electronics unfortunately doesn’t get much better. Sometimes the door handle lock buttons refuse to work until you either us the fob or open and close the door again. Once the system got so confused it would lock from either the fob or the door buttons. I had to park the car outside my office window and wait for the ECU to go to sleep until normal locking functionality returned. Then there are minor fails like placing the outside temperature sensor clearly way too close to parts of the car that get hot during normal use, resulting in hilariously inflated readings. If you don’t believe in global warming now, you will after owning an ATS.

Then there was the ugliest of glitches that prevented the electronics from entering sleep mode when the car is turned off and completely draining the battery overnight. Fortunately that only happed a few times but, like most of its glitches, was also impossible to reproduce for diagnostic purposes. However, once you find yourself having to share your 10 cu ft trunk of your new car with a jump start batter pack, you know it’s time to cut your losses.

So by now you may have figured out that I did have few visits to the dealer and may be wondering how that experience was. You dealer mileage may vary but mine was extremely friendly and helpful and always fixed what they could. Unfortunately dealers simply can’t do much to fix broken computer code or poor design. They were also not helped the fact that the pace of software updates seems to have slowed to a trickle. I am guessing those GM developers are busy working on new system.

So where does that leave my feelings about owning the ATS? Part of me is encouraged that GM has the engineering prowess to turn out a new platform that, in its first iteration, is better than most of what European premium brands can manage. The other feeling is dismay in that they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by cursing this car with a crazy half-baked set of electrics. It’s an old-school RWD sports sedan – all it needed was the old-school reliable system from the Impala or Malibu and it would have been the best compact sport sedan you could buy. Instead I am left pondering an expensive mistake while I wait for my BMW 2-series to arrive.

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