I CONSIDER myself uniquely qualified to comment on the performance credentials of the 2013 Cadillac ATS. That's because I'm surely one of very few people to have owned a Cadillac Cimarron and a BMW 3 Series within the last five years.
What does that have to do with anything? Well, the Cimarron represents Cadillac's misguided past, a textbook case from the 1980s of the wrong way to fight high-end European competition (in that case, by simply rebadging a front-wheel-drive Chevy Cavalier). And the 3 Series is the ATS's contemporary muse, the car that Cadillac aspires to dethrone as the king of small luxury sport sedans.
While the ATS helps to banish memories of the Cimarron (and the Catera, inasmuch as anyone remembers that), I'm not sure it's quite ready to erase the 3 Series as the modern reference for all-around sport-sedan excellence.
There are some areas, notably chassis tuning, where the Cadillac's talents surpass those of the BMW. It's in the totality of the thing, across the lineup of 4- and 6-cylinder engines, rear and all-wheel drive, where BMW's decades of experience comes to bear.
It's strange to think of Cadillac as a precious upstart, but in this realm that's exactly what it is.
Cadillac did manage to create a top-of-the-class chassis. The ATS is agile but not nervous, the controls transmitting a level of feedback that makes the car feel alive even when you're just moseying around town. The last sedan that I remember accomplishing that feat was the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo RS, a frothing high-strung psychopath with no radio or air-conditioning. To achieve such a degree of man-machine communication while ironing out the potholes is a significant achievement.
The optional magnetic-ride-control dampers, which can vary from boulevard-supple to racetrack-aggressive in five milliseconds, certainly help the cause. But fancy shocks cannot disguise a piggish chassis, so it's important that the basic ATS architecture is the stuff of serious performance cars.
The base ATS weighs 3,315 pounds, a mere 26 pounds more than a Corvette Grand Sport convertible. Throw in nearly perfect 50-50 front-to-rear weight distribution and a suspension that was tuned on the fabled Nürburgring course in Germany, and you've got a small sedan that's a blast to drive on the road and the track.
Lift the throttle before diving into a corner, and the rear end rotates around smartly, hastening the moment when the driver can get back on the throttle. The limited-slip differential, part of the Premium Package, helps to enable big, controllable drifts. The ATS's handling definitely wasn't dumbed down to accommodate pensive drivers.
Under the hood, the base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder generates 202 horsepower, which will probably be enough for the business-traveler rental fleets where that version will surely land. The midlevel motor is a new 2-liter 4-cylinder with a dual-scroll turbocharger, direct injection and variable valve timing. The turbo 4 is rated at 272 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, and can be ordered with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. The mightiest power plant is General Motors' ubiquitous 3.6-liter V-6, which makes 321 horsepower and is available only with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
I drove a turbocharged car with the manual gearbox as well as a pair of automatic V-6s (one with all-wheel drive) and concluded that the V-6 is what you want under the hood. The turbo 4 does a workmanlike job of hustling the ATS down the road, but only the high-revving V-6 provides the aural feedback that tells you this is a performance car.
The turbo motor is actually a little too polished -- it could use a measure of the exhaust blat and turbocharger chuff that enlivened G.M.'s previous 2-liter 4-cylinder in cars like the Saturn Sky Red Line. That old motor was available with a factory computer upgrade that raised output to 290 horsepower and 340 pound-feet of torque. Cadillac would be wise to woo the tuner crowd with a similar package for the ATS. (And, no, the performance upgrade for the old engine won't work on this one; I asked.)
Opting for the turbo engine will earn you slightly better fuel economy, with a rear- drive automatic car earning an E.P.A. rating of 21 miles per gallon in the city and 31 on the highway, compared with 19/28 for the rear-drive V-6.
The ATS interior is well wrought, especially in the Premium Collection trim. We can debate whether carbon fiber's voguish status will stand the test of time, but at least the stuff available on the ATS's dash is real carbon fiber. The interior strives for flash, which is fun and useful in some cases (like the color heads-up display projected on the windshield) and more confounding in others -- like the eight-inch CUE screen that dominates the middle of the dashboard.
CUE, short for Cadillac User Experience, is hit and miss. Literally. There's a sensor on the dash that anticipates your hand's approaching the touch screen and changes menus before your finger jabs whatever virtual button you were going for. While there's an undeniable gee-whiz moment the first time this happens, you quickly start wondering why the relevant icons aren't just displayed all the time.
For instance, if you want to change the satellite radio tuner to its browse view, the button appears only when your hand is on its way toward the screen. So initially, you're not pushing a button -- you're aiming for a spot where you hope the button will appear, the electronic equivalent of a trust fall. I found myself grateful for the old-school volume buttons on the steering wheel, which always remained volume buttons, even when the car was parked in the garage at night.
I do appreciate CUE's navigation system, which allows you to type in an address all at once rather than scrolling through multiple screens to laboriously narrow down the state, town, street and number of your destination. All navigation menus should be so simple.
In a traditional Cadillac review, this would be the point where I argue that even if the ATS has some foibles, it's at least priced to undercut the mighty Europeans. Except it's not.
The least-expensive ATS with the 2-liter turbo engine is $35,795 and the V-6 starts at $42,090. The ATS 3.6 Premium that I tested had a sticker price of $49,185. Not to belabor the BMW comparisons, but these prices are right on top of the 3 Series, straight down the line. I understand that Cadillac doesn't want the ATS to be perceived as the car you buy when you can't afford a BMW, but the fact is that BMW gives you more for your money: the sweetest engines in the segment, 8-speed automatic transmissions, a better in-car electronic interface and decades of sport-sedan pedigree.
When Lexus first took on the Germans, it offered bargain prices that undercut the established players. As a succession of high-quality cars burnished its reputation, Lexus gradually ratcheted up its prices. Cadillac is skipping straight to Step 3, setting prices that imply parity with the Old Guard even though the blank-slate product hasn't yet earned a following. This seems a recipe for omnipresent rebate packages, which then undermine the confidence asserted by the sticker price.
What I'm saying is, I think the ATS costs a bit too much.
The smaller Cadillac is a strong first effort, one that brings something new to the compact sport-sedan world -- chiseled American style mated to a world-class chassis. But there's work to be done, notably in the drivetrain department, where it's ambitious to ask $42,000 for a car that uses the same V-6 engine as a $24,000 Camaro.
The ATS reminds me of a star college freshman who leaves for the N.B.A. and finds the game is a lot different at the pinnacle of the sport. The raw talent is there, but it might take a few more years to arrive at greatness.
INSIDE TRACK: Cadillac goes big with its smallest car.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.