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Cadillac challenges 3 Series, C-Class

That's fighting talk from any American brand - even Cadillac - given US automakers' long-standing reputation for shoddy build quality, outdated engineering and tacky styling.

But if the new Cadillac ATS, revealed on Sunday night at the Detroit auto show, lives up to its spec sheets, it could just rattle a few cages in Munich and Stuttgart.

ATS compact luxury sedan will expand Cadillac portfolio into a crucial global segment.

To start with, GM has finally re-learned the one sacred lesson of car design: premium cars, especially smaller ones, are rear-wheel drive. Then it sacrificed the iconic V8 on which American car designers have fixated for close to a century in favour of two fours (one turbocharged!) and a hard-revving V6, with an unspecified diesel still to come.

The styling, while unmistakeably derived from that of the current CTS, is smoother and visibly pared down - the ATS is about 200mm shorter overall than its older, bigger sibling - with shorter overhangs, a relatively long wheelbase and the wheels closer to the corners of the body.

Signature vertical head and tail light styling includes fashionable LED daytime running lights, while at night illuminated door handles prevent fumbling in the dark (quiet, Cyril!) and active grille shutters close automatically at highway cruising speeds to enhance the car's aerodynamics and improve fuel consumption to a claimed 7.8 litres per 100km.

Weight distribution is near-perfect (GM quotes 51:49, front to rear), suspension is by double-jointed MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar in front, with Cadillac's first five-link independent rear suspension at the other end.

And, most telling of all, kerb weight has been kept under 1550kg, although it took an aluminium bonnet and magnesium-alloy engine mounts to do it.

Electric power steering by ZF of Germany and a comprehensive suite of driver aids are standard across the range and higher-spec models even offer all-wheel drive and Brembo brakes.

The engine menu starts with a 1998cc turbo four that pushes out a creditable 201kW at 5300 revs and 353Nm at 2400rpm. Its 2.5-litre, naturally-aspirated sibling is considerably undersquare at 88 x 101mm but still spins to 6200 revs to deliver 149kW (and 255Nm at a high 4500rpm).

Finally, the big bro of this family is the 3564cc V6, way oversquare at 94 x 85.6mm and revving to 6800 revs for 237kW and 4900spm for 362Nm.

All three engines boast dual overhead knockers with variable cam timing on both camshafts and high-pressure direct fuel-injection - and can run on either E85 or regular (i.e. low-octane) petrol.

Transmission is by either a six-speed manual or a six-speed electrically controlled auto transmission with a conventional torque converter.

Don Butler, vice president of marketing for Cadillac, said at CoBo: “The ATS has been designed with nimble and fun-to-drive dynamics to expand Cadillac's portfolio into a crucial global segment.

“We aim to change the status quo of this European-dominated market.”

The interior mirrors the European influence with the horizontal lines of the dashboard flowing smoothly into the door trim and the centre stack neatly integrated with the console below it.

The gauges have LED lighting, the leather upholstery is beautifully saddle-stitched and the trim is either “real wood” or carbon-fibre. Even the twinkly bits are chrome-plated metal rather than vacuum-plated plastic and, believe us, that is a step up for an American car.

The ATS also introduces Cue (Cadillac User Experience), an attempt to simplify the increasingly complex infotainment controls that clutter up the consoles of luxury cars.

GM reckons most luxury cars have about 20 buttons to look after sound and satnav functions; Cue uses only four, plus a 200mm LED touchscreen at the top of the centre stack and a 140mm touchplate that's also the lid of a 1.8-litre storage compartment in the top of the centre console.

The touchscreen is laid out like a smartphone to display the system's home page, and can be set up to handle as many as 10 Bluetooth-enabled devices, as well inputs from a USB port, mini jack and SD card slot, for the seriously connected - or the home page can be re-configured with fewer, bigger icons for people who just want to listen to music, adjust the interior temperature and possibly take the occasional phone call while driving.

GM says the system is designed to be unique for each driver, from the “simple user” to the fully connected “super user.”

Standard safety systems include eight standard air bags seat-belt pretensioners and load limiters, an electronic stability control system with traction control and four-channel anti-lock braking, as well as short-range radar and ultrasonic sensors to warn the driver of impending collisions and, if they don't listen, apply the brakes automatically.

The list of options would do credit to a German car, starting with a bewildering range of interior trim choices and progressing to adaptive cruise control, 'intelligent' brake assist, brake pre-fill automatic collision preparation, lane departure warning, blind spot alert, rear vision camera with dynamic guidelines and adaptive headlights.

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