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Which Base Luxury Sedan to Buy: Cadillac ATS or Lexus IS250

While the BMW 3-Series continues to be the top dog in the small luxury sedan class, the new Cadillac ATS and the Lexus IS offer impressive levels of luxury even in their base form and today, we break down the two strongest competitors in the compact luxury segment.

The modern luxury car segment is truly fantastic, often combining state of the art interior and exterior technology with striking styling and – in many cases – a high performance engine. The problem is that the influx of high end, high performance luxury cars has come with a steady increase in prices, and these prices prevent many hopeful buyers from parking a new luxury sedan in their garage at home.

Fortunately, in recognizing the need for more affordable luxury cars that don’t cut out much of the luxury, we have seen a similar influx of smaller, more affordable luxury cars that focus more on luxury and less on performance. Two key players in this down-market shift of the luxury segment are the Lexus IS250 and the Cadillac ATS.

The Competitors
The Lexus IS lineup has been around for years, offering a range of vehicles that include an affordable “base model” and a premium high performance package, and that spread has helped the IS grow. In fact, the IS has done so well in the past decade that Lexus opted to split off the 2-door models to create the new RC, but at the same time, the Japanese luxury brand has worked to improve the overall luxury quality of the entry level IS250 – an effort which is easily recognized with the newest version.

is250 frontc 1

On the other hand, Cadillac has really never been able to put together a solid compact program in the past, with rebadged Chevys like the Cimmaron doing a miserable job of competing with the rest of the luxury segment back in the 1980s. However, that all changed with the introduction of the ATS. Like the Japanese and European competitors, the ATS comes in both sedan and coupe form with a wide range of performance models that can comfortably challenge anything from around the world. For the first time in the last few decades, Cadillac has a small car that can go toe to toe with the best luxury cars in the world and most importantly, that includes a low price, high volume base model that features all of the luxury goodies that you can expect from the competition.

ats front 2

Today, we look at how the Cadillac ATS sedan with the 2.5L engine sizes up against the Lexus IS250 – comparing two of the strongest up-and-comers in the luxury segment. The key aspect of this comparison is that both cars come nicely equipped with a price just over $40,000 and while $40k is no small chunk of change, it is a very reasonable price for these two modern luxury sedans.

The vehicles in this Which to Buy comparison are the Lexus IS250 with the blind spot monitoring system, navigation and the Premium package, while the Cadillac is an ATS 2.5 Luxury with the Sun and Security package, the cold weather package and the CUE infotainment system. The Lexus has a price as tested of $41,150 while the Cadillac costs $41,355.

The Drive
Before I get into vital aspects of a proper luxury sedan comparison, I want to address the performance of the Lexus IS250 and the Cadillac ATS.

The Lexus is powered by a 2.5L V6 that sends 204 horsepower and 185lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels via a 6--speed automatic transmission. The Cadillac ATS is powered by a 2.L 4-cylinder engine that delivers 202 horsepower and 191lb-ft of torque, which is also sent to the rear wheels via a 6-speed automatic transmission. Those power numbers are nearly identical, but the Lexus makes slightly better use of that power, making the IS250 the more engaging of the two to drive as it just plain feels faster in every situation. The Lexus also offers better handling than the base ATS and better shift controls with the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, so if a main concern in buying a new entry level luxury sedan is performance – the Lexus is going to be the better pick for you. Even with the smallest engine in the lineup, the IS250 still feels like a performance luxury sedan while the Caddy focuses solely on luxury.

One place where the Cadillac drivetrain shines is in fuel economy, as the ATS with the 2.5L engine is rated at 22 city, 33 highway and 26 combined while the Lexus is rated at 21 city, 30 highway and 24 combined. In my experiences driving both cars, the Cadillac had a clear edge in fuel economy that went slightly beyond the advantage on paper in both highway and combined driving.

Another area where the Cadillac offers a slight advantage is in ride quality. Don’t get me wrong – the Lexus rides like a dream – but you still get some of the stiffness of a luxury sport sedan. I love the sporty feel of the IS250 suspension, but someone who is less concerned with handling and a sporty feel will almost certainly prefer the smoother ride of the Cadillac. Both cars are remarkably quiet inside while driving even on Detroit’s rough highways, with very little of the road’s imperfections making it to the driver and passengers, but the sporty suspension of the Lexus provides a better feel for the road, and that comes with slightly more sound and vibration over rough roads while the Cadillac does a better job of muting those annoyances in exchange for diminished handling.

However, the odds are good that many of the people shopping these two base model luxury sedans will be far more impressed with the smoother, quieter ride of the Caddy.

The Exterior
I am well aware that opinions of exterior designs vary from person to person and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I need to at least mention the styling of the IS250 and the ATS simply because they are so radically different.

is250 taillight

The Lexus IS250 is designed with the same familial look at the rest of the brand and that means distinct, aggressive styling while the Cadillac ATS has a more subdued design that we can see throughout their current lineup. Both have a look that works well with the luxury approach, but the Caddy goes for more of a traditional, full-luxury look while the Lexus clearly has a sportier approach. Both cars utilize HID projection headlights with LED taillights and – as luxury cars go – both the ATS and the IS250 are relatively light on chrome while still maintaining the luxury look.

atsa rear

I love the look of the Lexus IS250, but when driving it, I found that quite a few people didn’t love the massive grille and the overall sporty design of the Lexus while the Cadillac’s exterior design seemed to resonate well with pretty much everyone who checked out the ATS while I had it. It seems that for some people, the Lexus design is just too aggressive, so for those folks, the Cadillac ATS should be ideal while those who want something that looks very sporty will likely lean towards the Lexus.

The Cabin
The cabins of the Lexus IS250 Premium and the Cadillac ATS 2.5 Luxury are remarkably similar, making this a battle of inches…and that is IF they are separated by inches.

If you haven’t noticed a trend in the first few portions of this comparison above, the Lexus IS250 is designed with a sporty nature, and that continues into the interior. The IS250 front seats are a touch narrower, with more prominent base and back bolsters that wrap around the driver and front passenger a bit, which is ideal for sporty driving. The ATS has wider, flatter front seats that don’t provide the lateral support that you get with the Lexus, but those folks who don’t like the deep-ish seating position of the IS250 (especially larger drivers) will likely prefer the seats of the Cadillac. Both cars have plush padded front seats that are heated and cooled with full power control and memory, but the Cadillac seat will be comfortable to a wider range of people whereas the Lexus sport seats might turn off those folks who don’t want to be cradled while driving.

IS250
is250 front seats

ATS
ats front seats

Next we have interior space, and this is one of those areas that is truly separated by inches. While testing each of these luxury sedans, I made a 40 minute trip with four adults in the cars, with their heights varying from 5’1” to 6’3”. Everyone found that both the Lexus and the Cadillac offered great leg room up front, but the Lexus offered a bit more knee room for the taller passengers. Other than knee room, the IS250 and ATS were pretty much a wash in terms of front seating space, with the shorter drivers having no issue adjusting the seat so that they could reach the pedals and the taller drivers and passengers having ample hip, elbow, shoulder and head room when seated up front. In the long run, none of the adults had any real complaints about the front seats with the exception of the taller passenger preferring the knee room in the Lexus.

IS250
is250 rear seats

ATS
ata rear seats

Where there was an issue was in rear seating space, as my taller passenger found a significant difference in leg and knee room when seated in the back seat. Both rear footwells are a little tight (and that is true of all modern compact luxury sedans), but when the front seats were adjusted to comfortably accommodate people who were 6 feet tall up front, the 6’3” guy was more comfortable in the back seat of the Cadillac. Both cars offered similarly styled rear seats with comfortable padding and plenty of passenger space in every other direction, but the Caddy gets the nod for slightly better leg and knee room in the back seat.

Interior Technology
Finally, we come to the gadgets that make a modern luxury car so attractive to so many buyers. Both of these test cars were equipped with the brand’s high end infotainment package, which includes a big, bright screen mounted high on the dash that incorporates the vast majority of the interior controls into one easy interface.

The Cadillac CUE system has been beaten up a bit by some of the less tech-savvy media members, but I really like the system. The ATS infotainment system is unquestionably higher tech, with touch sensitive controls not just on the big screen, but also on the center stack and on the steering wheel. The virtual “buttons” on the screen disappear when not being used and as you reach for the screen, the system senses your hand approaching and the buttons pop back up. This system oversees the sound system, the navigation system, the climate control and the hands-free phone system along with vehicle settings and in my time with the CUE system – I have had no real complaints about it. I love how the layout looks with the massive amount of gloss black providing a very high-end look and I like how the system functions – from the touch screen to the touch sensitive controls on the center stack to the steering wheel controls. Also, the Bose speaker system that comes with the CUE system in the ATS is predictably impressive.

IS250
is250 dash

The Lexus IS250 has many of the same features at the Cadillac, but the controls of the Lexus are completely different from the ATS. The Lexus infotainment screen is mounted further up the dash, making it hard to reach from either of the front seats, and that is because the Lexus screen is not a touch screen. Instead, the Lexus system uses a control interface that is very much like your home computer, with a mouse icon on the screen being controlled by a joystick of sorts that is mounted near the center armrest. With your right elbow on the armrest, your hand naturally rests over this joystick, so the ergonomics are ideal for the driver while being easily accessible for the front passenger. Unlike the Cadillac system that wraps all controls into one system, the Lexus system controls just the navigation and sound system, leaving the climate control system to exist in its own panel in the middle of the center console. This system also has traditional knobs and buttons on the center console along with buttons on the steering wheel so when coupled with the computer mouse-like control system, there is no question that the Lexus system is easier to figure out.

ATS
ats dash

Also, while both cars have push button start, the IS250 does not offer remote start (which is nothing short of mind-blowing to me), but it is standard on the Cadillac.

In the end, if you are one of those buyers who doesn’t like touch screen controls, you are likely going to have an issue with the Cadillac ATS infotainment system, as it is almost entirely all touch sensitive. The Lexus system is far easier to learn, but it is less inclusive so if you prefer having your controls spread out across a variety of buttons and knobs, the Lexus system will be better for you.

The Final Word
So when comparing the Cadillac ATS 2.5 Luxury and the Lexus IS250 Premium, you have to consider a few chief factors.

If you are concerned about a car that is more fun to drive, sportier looking, sportier feeling and which has interior gadgets that are a little easier to navigate, the Lexus might be the better choice for you.

is250 front 2

If you are less concerned with performance, but you want a smoother ride, better fuel economy, slightly more rear seating space, a more traditional luxury look inside and out and a truly state of the art infotainment system, you may find that the ATS Luxury better fits the bill.

ats front 1

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Comments

Not sure about Cadillac fans, but I'm sure Lexus fans won't ever consider a Cadillac when deciding on a new vehicle.
The ATS pictured does NOT have HID headlights. You have to move up to the Performance Collection to get HIDs. +1 for the Lexus.
They're both fantastic machines
They're both fantastic machines
The Lexus IS 250 ABSOLUTELY HAS A REMOTE STARTER BUILT IN - starting in 2015 if an IS has navigation then it automatically comes with the Lexus Enform Remote (which is both an iPhone/Android phone Application AND a functionality activated on the key fob. It is spectacular; and does quite a bit more than just act like a Remote Start). There is a subscription after the complimentary 1st year to keep these features active.
As an owner of an ATS with the 2.5, I'm surprised to hear the IS 250 feels faster, or more fun. I have beaten IS250's stop light to stop light several times, and the ATS is a blast to drive, handles like a quality sports car. I would put my ATS 2.5 against an IS250 in any performance test or race, autocross or straight line bursts.