It's worth rooting for the home team no matter how rough the past has been. Just ask any real Chicago Cubs fan. Like the Cubs, fellow long-lasting American institution Cadillac had a bit of a dark period but has done some really cool things in the past 20 years. Caddy grabbed everyone's attention when it came out with the CTS in 2003, and then proved 10 years later that it could truly squab with the best that Europe and Japan had to offer when it debuted its smaller sibling the ATS.
The compact luxury Cadillac ATS was sold as new during the 2013-2019 model years and came in several trims and body styles, including the BMW-M3/M4-hunting ATS-V. But even the non-V ATS was a monumental move by General Motors (GM) and finally gave the Detroit brand a true competitor against the BMW 3 Series, Mercedes C-Class, Lexus IS, and Alfa Romeo Giulia, especially at the badge's peak between 2017 and 2019. It had chops in its chassis, engine performance, and luxury appointments, and even came equipped with a manual transmission. Here's why the right spec for the right price could be a solid used buy over its class rivals.
The Cadillac ATS was based on GM's Alpha platform that is shared with the CTS, Chevy Camaro, as well as the newer Cadillac CT5 and Cadillac CT4. When it debuted, Caddy boasted that it possessed excellent overall chassis rigidity, featured sporty MacPherson front and fully independent multilink rear suspension, front performance brakes by Brembo, and performance-tuned steering by German company ZF. Then, Cadillac threw its Magnetic Ride Control adaptive dampers in certain option packages to enable drivers to choose their preferred kind of damping, from cushioned to sporty.
The ATS debuted as a sedan, and a coupe was later added to the lineup. Cadillac offered it with an eight-speed automatic or six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and a few engine choices. Between 2016 and 2019, which are the years to keep an eye out for and what we'll cover here, the base 2.0-liter turbo-four was marketed as the most powerful turbo-four in its class with as much as 272 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. At its peak, the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 produced 335 and 285, respectively. The 2.0 hit the 60-mph mark from a standstill in 6 seconds, the six in 5.4 seconds—not bad for a car with a curb weight that sits right around 3,500 pounds, depending on the engine and transmission that's bolted up.
As far as luxury appointments go, reviewers (including The Drive's Edouard Portelette) at the time found the ATS to be put together well, comfortable, and a nice place to be. Though, Cadillac's CUE infotainment system was (and still is) widely regarded as a pain in the neck. To make matters worse, a lot of chintzy piano black plastic is featured prominently below its screen on the main stack. The front seating was good, but one of the biggest complaints was a lack of backseat room regardless of body style.
Overall, it's a handsome package, and I think it looks especially good in sedan form with optional 18-inch wheels. No matter the color, this combo really sets off the chassis' sporty credentials, especially with Brembo brakes sitting behind the front spokes.
Noteworthiness To Consider Tracking Down
Although it's hard to nail down an optimal spec on the used market, there are a few neat features to look for. Personally, I'd go for the turbo-four—sure, it's not going to sound all that good, nor is it the ground-pounder of the bunch. But it makes great power for its displacement, and when matched with the six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive (RWD) and mechanical limited-slip differential (the latter is standard on all manual RWD models, huzzah!), surely it'll slide around with some gusto.
Just like its sibling Chevy, which sometimes seems like an options package company that sells cars, Cadillac offered some cool equipment for the ATS. Some of it depends on trim level, and what's available with what is a little hard to keep track of—some of the trims include Luxury, Premium Luxury, and Premium Performance.
Cadillac offered different levels of suspension tuning, ranging from what it dubbed the FE1 package at the softest to FE3 at the firmest and most versatile. FE3 is where Magnetic Ride Control exists, as well as the limited-slip differential for automatic-equipped models. It also features a sportier steering ratio and 18-inch forged alloy wheels with summer performance tires. Then, there was the Carbon Black sport package that added Recaro seats and a black chrome grille, and a carbon fiber package that tacked on some cool exterior accents, including suede on the steering wheel and shifter. Other interior niceties and tech options included UE4 Driver Awareness Package with some helpful advanced driver assistance tech, Seating Package for a more comfortable and adjustable driving position, and Cold Weather Package for heated seats and an automatic heated steering wheel (crucial for Cadillac's own backyard, the Midwest).
For enthusiasts, FE3 suspension seems to be the sweet spot when matched with rear-wheel drive, the manual transmission, and either powertrain. Reviewers seemed mixed when it came to manual versus automatic—three pedals are always more fun, and some found the automatic to be quick yet jerky.
With this spec serving as a baseline, there's some neat stuff one can then do with it in the aftermarket.
It might sound like I've been living under a rock for the past 10 years, but there's a surprising amount of aftermarket support for the ATS. I guess that's rooted in the fact that it has a Cadillac badge affixed to its grille, but indeed the ATS is no stranger to anyone who's inclined to do a little wrench turning.
Companies like Renick Performance, Mod Bargains, Race Chip, Trifecta Performance, Vermont Tuning, RPM Motorsports, and ZZ Performance offer substantially cool stuff for this compact steed, like tunes, intake and exhaust systems, suspension components, brake upgrades, wheels, and more. For those hungry for more grunt, adding at least 60 horsepower to the 2.0T engine is an easy proposition. Then, with enough digging, straight-from-GM options are out there, too, including throwing some gently used factory upgrades onto a less-appointed example. Though, big swaps like integrating Magnetic Ride Control would be a bit of a bear—it might be better to consider aftermarket passive damping options from KW, Eibach, H&R, and BC Racing.
On the whole, things don't appear to be too bad with the Cadillac ATS, at least compared to its more complex European rivals (*cough* N20B20 engine in the F3X BMW 3/4 Series). According to CarComplaints.com, shaky automatic transmissions, the CUE infotainment system, and wheel discoloration are the top three complaints. The shaky auto is an easy fix, though, just opt for the manual transmission.
Diving deeper, other sites discuss a few other odd issues, including failed drivetrain seals, broken axles, coolant leaks, misfiring engines (particularly for the 2.0T), electrical failures on early-generation models, transmission cable failures, and power steering failures. The latter two are open recalls that can be fixed free of charge. Forums also have lots of informative discussions about these issues, so check those out if you’re in the market.
As always, a thorough test drive and inspection is always a good idea, and the more service history that's available the better. There are still some very low mileage examples out there on the used market, too, which could bode well for minimizing deferred maintenance.
Worth a Closer Look?
Pricing-wise, it seems like early 2.0T-equipped, automatic, and rear-wheel drive models can be found with less than 120,000 miles for as little as $10,000. However, something with a manual transmission and less than 80,000 miles is more in the $18,000-$25,000 range and is a bit more rare.
The Cadillac ATS seems like an underrated enthusiast choice for those on the lookout for used compact luxury fare. Its chassis and steering are highly regarded, it possesses some good performance minerals, and it's quite cool to find such a platform in something that was designed, engineered, and assembled by our fellow Americans in the great state of Michigan. As much as I write about depreciated options by European brands, I still root for the home team, too, and don't think I'm alone in this sentiment.