When a Cadillac Doesn’t Look Like a Cadillac

Sleek. Small. Lightweight. These are not words one generally associates with the Cadillac badge. For decades, Cadillac has been defined by big fins, big bodies, and size. Granted, GM wasn’t really noted for its tiny cars as it embraced pickup trucks and SUVs, but Cadillac stood out for its enormity. Cadillac’s biggest recent hit was the Escalade, an enormous SUV.

But huge cars are on the way out. The Escalade has sunk from a sales high of 60,000 a year to a more modest 25,000 a year. GM especially is struggling to redefine itself in the wake of a federal bailout and a promise to the American taxpayer that it would fight to stay relevant in an ever-changing automotive world. Which brings us to the Cadillac ATS.

This might be the first Cadillac that weighs less than two tons. It’s small, sleek, and sporty. Instead of design that emphasizes the car’s size and weight, it emphasizes the aerodynamics and styling, including the headlights and grill. The changes go beyond just weight and looks: The ATS has touchscreen controls, for example, something that was a rare sight in a Cadillac until now. Under the hood, the base engine will be what the Cadillac faithful may see as rank heresy: it’s got a four-cylinder engine, although that can be upgraded to a V6 depending on your desire for power.

Is It Cadillac on a Diet?
So, why is GM putting the Cadillac on a diet? The short answer is that the car market has changed, and GM needs Cadillac to change with it. GM intends the ATS to compete with luxury cars like the BMW 3-Series for two markets: The younger driver willing to splurge on a small luxury vehicle, and the executive type looking for a luxury vehicle that communicates wealth and status while still being a good deal. In fact, the 3-Series was their benchmark as they were building the ATS around the Alpha rear-wheel drive platform. But it’s not quite as radical a step as you may at first think.

Cadillac has been attempting to compete with the European luxury car makers for quite a while, most notably with the Cadillac CTS. Cadillacs infamously did not handle as well, so the CTS was designed to handle one of the most dreaded courses in the world: The Nurburgring, a German F1 racing course full of difficult turns. The results were actually a hit, with the CTS selling the way the Escalade used to and the car pulling a ranking on Car and Driver’s Ten Best List for three straight years between 2009 and 2011.

But GM found that buyers were looking for either a larger sedan, which Cadillac already had covered, of course, or a smaller vehicle.

Despite its name, the ATS is not a shrunken CTS: Reducing that car in size would have made it much too heavy.

Will the ATS win buyer hearts? It’s a bit early to tell. Cadillac expects it to be their best-selling car for the model year. But one thing is for sure: Cadillac doesn’t think being the biggest is the most important thing anymore.

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