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2013 Cadillac ATS may be lightest in segment, but GM misses tech-setting opportunity

What this country needs is a company and a brand that will lead the auto industry with lighter, safe cars that do not compromise performance and sets the tone for the future; and, while the 2013 Cadillac ATS might be aiming to please, it is not enough.

Lightest car in its segment? Really, is that enough considering future MPG mandates? Yet, that’s what the General Motors (NYSE: GM) news release said. And while there may not be any compromise in performance with its use of Smart Materials, GM still made a compromise in its judgment to take advantage of the opportunity to be a real brand leader.

So far, so good, must be the thinking at GM; not too surprising. So it appears this is more of the old GM thinking holding back another one of its key brands. They surely did it with Saturn.

Question: Shouldn’t the 2013 Cadillac ATS be more than just a nimble performer that barely beats the segment‘s mass numbers? How about a real industry trend setter that beats the present standard by a quantum leap?

GM did it with the Chevy Volt propulsion technology. Yet, with the Cadillac brand it takes the safe approach; making the ATS just like the other segment brands, with just a bit under its mass. That lacks chutzpah, in my opinion.

Once again, GM is saying to America and the world that it will not lead the industry with lightweight vehicles; a goal that should be at the top of its engineering to-do lists. If not with Cadillac, then who? The Chevy Cruze? Nice idea, but the cost for manufacturing process changes cannot be justified. The brand is too small.

When GM says engineers set out to make the all-new 2013 Cadillac ATS as light as possible, there is a caveat. Sure, they used advanced materials to minimize weight throughout the compact luxury sports sedan so as to not compromise performance capability. That’s the issue - GM held back Cadillac from doing what its heritage says it must do - set the trend for the entire corporation.

Fact is, a lightweight car that will lead the industry has to do more than just get below some segment mass goal. Where is the balls-out (steam engine term folks) body technology like that of the new aluminum bodies of Mercedes or the Tesla Model S for that matter? If there was ever a time, it is now; and GM and Cadillac missed a golden opportunity.

Yes, key parts such as an aluminum hood and magnesium engine mounts help the situation. Once again, GM restricts Cadillac to think is terms of me-too achievements.

ATS, for example, achieves a curb weight less than 3,400 pounds, and highway fuel economy well over 30 mpg. Keeping weight down also enabled balanced distribution of vehicle weight that helps delivers a world-class driving experience. I get it; I really do, but I also expect more from a GM division that was once the envy of the industry. One visit to the GM Heritage Center and you get the message.

Albeit, the 2013 Cadillac ATS would surely fill my desires as a luxury automobile, but not when I look into the near future where 55 plus MPG is to be the corporate goal. So, is GM once again counting on its halo car, the Chevy Volt, to take the pressure off? Again, no surprise there; and to think the CEO got a raise.

“We designed and engineered ATS’s vehicle architecture to deliver quick, nimble and fun-to-drive dynamics,” said David Masch, ATS chief engineer. “We distributed mass to key areas, much like an athlete builds muscle where he needs it most. This enabled ATS to achieve the performance characteristics that luxury sport sedan buyers demand.”

Fact is, that’s all they could do; and they did a brilliant job; but the goal should have been set much higher for a new car.

There are many ways to achieve weight loss for autos, but problem is not all of them fit the present form of manufacturing processes, especially for auto bodies. So, this is where the bean counters restrict engineering. And this is precisely where Cadillac should be leading the way.

Think about it. Let Cadillac set the corporate standard as the best in class by a quantum measure. GM is going to have to meet the mass goals soon anyway. Why not now? Why not with the ATS? After all, ATS is a new body segment for the brand.

Good Achievements, But ....

Chassis parts are a different matter. That explains why the ATS engineering team focused part of its performance goals by using cast iron in the rear differential instead of aluminum, a learning taken from the performance-tuned CTS-V.

Why cast iron? Isn’t that going in the wrong weight direction? Obviously, where you place the weight is crucial to performance. For example, the media release stated the differential provides torque and rotation to the wheels, and ATS’s cast iron design helped distribute weight equally between the front and rear wheels to provide agile handling while reducing noise and vibration. Cadillac says it benchmarked against world-class competition to deliver a driving experience that is as well-tuned for sound as for ride and handling.

Unlike a differential made from aluminum, which expands and contracts twice as much in response to temperature change, a cast iron differential is stronger and retains its shape better under temperature extremes, which allows the ring and pinion gears to operate more quietly. As a result, a cast iron differential also requires less energy to operate, contributing to higher fuel efficiency. To the consumer, this means more miles between fill-ups. Brilliant thinking!

The ATS team also achieved significant weight reduction in the rear suspension by using specially engineered straight steel links, too, this time with lightening holes instead of using aluminum.

“The team focused on grams, not pounds, every day of the ATS’s development,” Masch said. “Even the smallest of changes could contribute to the overall mass goal.”

And then it hits you

There’s the rub. A team that is designing a world-class car for a brand that is supposed to be world class should have been focusing on the opposite; on pounds, not grams. I get it; the brass at GM are being led by the bean counters; no money set aside to develop what they know is the future of its entire stable of brands, a benefit for ICE, hybrids and full EVs alike.

Forget the ATS wheels for a moment which also benefited from 50-50 mass distribution between the front and rear. GM needs to do more, like prioritize an all-aluminum or aluminum/magnesium/ hybrid body structure.

If there is one thing I learned from my visit at Lotus Engineering last summer is that weight reduction pays off in performance not to mention the end, cost savings; because smart design allows a part to perform more than a single function. Just check the heritage that Colin Chapman gave the world.

At least ATS used an acoustically laminated windshield and side windows that are lighter than standard tempered glass that provided better wind and powertrain noise reduction for a quieter interior. Acoustically laminated glass also offered almost double the amount of ultraviolet ray protection. See? Glass is part of the body structure.

If Billie Sutton could figure out that robbing banks made sense because that’s where the money was, then why can’t GM focus on real weight reduction with a corporate body renaissance? Isn’t that why they went bankrupt, to rid themselves of the bond debt so as to invest in new technologies?

Smart material selection and styling modifications that reduce complexity may indeed be key enablers to reduce vehicle mass, as Bob Boniface, Cadillac exterior design director, told the Automotive Press Association. And, by the way, why wasn’t I invited? But it’s the ultimate goal that is always placed in a limited and compromising position by the bean counters. And I blame the corporate leaders for failing to lead. Then again, the present CEO is not a car guy. So you get what you do not pay for.

Message to GM: More Change Still Needed

After all the auto shows and visits to tech events like SAE World Congress, Cadillac is moving in the right direction so as to balance and retain performance with mass reduction, but it is way too slow and too small to establish segment leadership let alone industry leadership. GM needs to go much, much further to attain the fuel mileage that will meet the 2016 and 2025 mandates of the government; and lighter auto bodies are one of the king pins for getting there. Not everything can be achieved via propulsion systems.

So, once again, GM is tooting its own horn this time just meeting a mass goal that is merely industry equivalent, but not breaking any world records; or setting the pace for future manufacturing process changes which it desperately needs.

Moral of this story: Cadillac is supposed to be the premium brand for GM; and as such, it should be free to act as one. Cadillac should be leading the way with aluminum/hybrid material body structures. If there was ever a time and a product to do it with, it was the 2013 Cadillac ATS brand.

[Image Source: GM media]


Ed (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 1:47AM

This, quite possibly, could be the worst review/opinion written in the 21st century. I feel dumber for having read it, but could not stop.

Frank Sherosky    May 13, 2012 - 10:25AM

In reply to by Ed (not verified)

Dear Ed, your comment is not helping, because it failed to provide a rationale for your position. So you feel more dumb now than before? So, what part did you fail to understand? Do you believe that GM is setting a new standard for the world with its ATS?

My point was clear: GM needs to set the stage for the future with Cadillac as a brand; and an aluminum body car (in my opinion, based on competitive tech research) would do that, especially now that Tesla will officially claim that space in June for a sedan. And the ATS with a new, smaller body structure was a blown opportunity.

Anonymous (not verified)    May 20, 2012 - 6:46PM

In reply to by Frank Sherosky

Your article is invalid, cadillac has many other cars under way thers a new cts a new esepcalade the xts a coupe and another crossover and a large full size rwd luxury car to take the standard even higher, the fact that the ats is an American car that can take on a segment lead by highly capable and well engineered light weight cars from Germany is a huge leap its got new engines and a lot of new tech cadillac cue is a fast easy to use system that currently bests the rest! My point is this is a entry level car for cadillac its already got what it needs to make the brand money there's no need for a this car to take extra steps when they have plenty new and more expensive vehicles to come soon

Frank Sherosky    May 13, 2012 - 2:55PM

In reply to by Jim (not verified)

Note that most auto review circles are often filled with like-minded people who never, ever designed anything in their life, let alone a car. Then they pontificate what the OEMs feel readers and blog posters need to read; seldom provocative enough to voice any opposing or revealing opinion; much like politicians with party affiliations, except they're corporate affiliated. They also like those perks, too, like trips, hotel rooms and food as a soft-side payment for their reviews. That's why I owe no allegiance, because I never go to them, and don't need them to put food on my table. If that is a clown, then so be it.

Eddiedi (not verified)    May 14, 2012 - 11:26PM

In reply to by Jim (not verified)

This whatever it is reminds me of high school government projects where you are assigned a position to argue.

You are not an expert in the topic, so do not act as if you are one.

One item I am confused by:

You mentioned Cadillac should be focused on pounds instead of grams. Ignoring the mismatch of systems of measurement, are you suggesting only large areas of weight reduction should be considered?

I apologize for this reply being long but did not have time to rewrite it.

Eddiedi (not verified)    May 14, 2012 - 11:27PM

In reply to by Jim (not verified)

This whatever it is reminds me of high school government projects where you are assigned a position to argue.

You are not an expert in the topic, so do not act as if you are one.

One item I am confused by:

You mentioned Cadillac should be focused on pounds instead of grams. Ignoring the mismatch of systems of measurement, are you suggesting only large areas of weight reduction should be considered?

I apologize for this reply being long but did not have time to rewrite it.

Boo (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 11:26AM

You're kind of rambling on and not making a clear point. Instead of saying "Do something better and more original, GM" why don't you come out and say what you'd like to see them do. It took reading about half of this article to find your point, and even then, it's a mixed message.

"Forget this for a moment..." Well, no, you can't really forget that what they did was perfectly balance a car, use smart materials like cast iron for the differential (you explained why in the article...I don't get your point), and used acoustically laminated glass. These are called steps in the right direction. GM, especially right after being bailed out of bankruptcy, can't afford to take some huge risk on a space-aged new car that will cost them billions to make and just hope people like it. You have to build towards that, and that's exactly what they're doing.

Honestly, what did you expect?

Ike (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 12:31PM

Frist there IS a cost for everything in a vehicle. Adding exoctic materials while saving weight also dramatically adds to the cost.
Right now, the ATS built the way I would order one is just under $50K (TRUE!). That's a push for me but Im almost certain I'll buy one after an extensive test drive.
As to yur comment about Collin Chapman, a man to be respected for inovation, he killed some reace car drivers through going overboard on weight reduction. He made some of his cars so unsafe that some drivers refused to work for him.
I'll take the ATS as is thank you.

Anonymous (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 1:07PM

This is quite possibly the worst auto review I've ever seen. You fail to realize that MPG's doesn't mean a bunch to the average luxury car buyer. More important to them is performance, interior features, and build quality. In this regard, Cadillac is taking on the Germans head-on. Cadillac IS developing a Volt-based luxury car, called the ELR, for those who care about fuel economy. Perhaps you should do a little more research before you talk about the luxury segment.

Please, do us all a favor and please don't publish any more articles. It's clear you don't know what you're talking about, and it's embarrassing.

Frank Sherosky    May 13, 2012 - 8:43PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

First, it's not just a review. It's an opinion tied to a news release. So with all respect learn the difference.

Second, if MPG is not important to average luxury car buyers, then why are we building high MPG tech for them? Furthermore, why are we giving them taxpayer subsidized discounts to do it?

I have no problem with you not liking my articles; can't please everyone, especially when it invokes or challenges passion for a brand. When you become a design engineer, an author and a writer, then one day you, too, can embarrass yourself.

Ted (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 1:16PM

While your basic argument that a leader must lead by doing that which the competition isn't is relevant you picked the wrong vehicle to target for criticism.

Does MB, BMW or Audi put their most advanced technology in their volume vehicles? The answer is, no, they don't. They reserve the cutting edge items for the top end models where price isn't as significant an issue.

Were Cadillac to do what you suggest with the ATS they would have had, at best, a difficult time keeping the price of the vehicle competitive in the segment.

Goal one is to demonstrate that Cadillac can match or even top the best in the class using comparable technology. That establishes the credibility with buyers in the segment. It does Cadillac no good if they can't get potential buyers attention and in the showroom door to look. Once in the door you can't scare the buyer away with a price that asks them to take on faith that the Cadillac is worth more without a proven track record. They have to establish credibility and deliver on the promise first. Pushing the envelope with technology comes later, after they've established the credentials with the buyer.

I don't see GM holding Cadillac back here. I see them taking a measured and pragmatic approach to reestablishing the brand in the market. If they can hook and hold on to converts at the entry level they stand a better chance of keeping those customers. Once they have the loyalty established they can move these customers up the ladder to higher end models where the leading technology can be applied with less concern to cost.

Ted (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 5:24PM

In reply to by Frank Sherosky

"The heritage that ONCE (my emphasis) was Cadillac..."

Therein lies the rub. They set the one time and then walked away, ceding that leadership and mind share to other brands. The rules change for reclaiming the mantle of leadership.
A company doesn't just walk back in the door with only superior technology and take the leadership mantle back. It has to re-earned and proven in the marketplace. It's fight to change mind sets, thinking and preconceived notions that Cadillac didn't have to overcome the first time around. It's slow and painful, but it has to be done on step at a time. Ford will have the same painful ladder to climb to re-establish Lincoln, if they can.

Frank Sherosky    May 13, 2012 - 8:23PM

In reply to by Ted (not verified)

Enough time has passed since GM broke with Cadillac's grand legacy. That's why GM should be touting Cadillac as its number 1 brand with vigor. Act like it, believe, live it, build it and others will more likely see the same. How long should GM wait? Until China and Korean imports come in and take the mantle again? If GM can't believe more than it has about its key heritage brand, then that helps explain why the stock is in the tank these days.

cDiddy (not verified)    May 13, 2012 - 6:47PM

I agree with parts of your review. It's rare when an auto company can release a totally new model. when it's a premium brand, it needs to be a grand slam - not just a home run. Keep up the pressure.
currently leasing the cts, looking forward to the ATS.

Frank Sherosky    May 13, 2012 - 8:13PM

In reply to by cDiddy (not verified)

Thanks for a more kind comment. I know I didn't make everyone's favorite list with this article, but, it's an honest assessment of GM more than Cadillac.

Fact is, I owned a 2005 Cadillac CTS and enjoyed every mile. It was by far the best braking car I ever owned, too; so the ATS has good DNA. I just would like to see GM break out of that number 2 mentality they exhibit, especially when it comes to its primo brand.

Anonymous (not verified)    May 14, 2012 - 7:59AM

Not matter what GM does, some of these ignoramus writers will make a positive into a negative. Wake up and start writing good news as good news. Go pick on the foreign car companies who seem to be Teflon coated, especially Toyota.

Frank Sherosky    May 14, 2012 - 10:36AM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Wake up and realize that Korea and China are on track to eat Detroit's lunch with high quality in a few years, with lower cost cars if they do not take the bull by the horns now and not let go. I was there when Detroit gave it away the first time.

When Toyota covered up their accelerator issues, I made no apology for pointing it out. So, don't go there.

Besides, I didn't trash the ATS. What they did, they did well; and I wrote that much. I trashed the lack of forward thinking by GM that dismisses true weight reduction as a brand lead for the entire corporation; and this new Cadillac was an obvious opportunity wasted especially when compared to an upstart like Tesla.

If you want to read only smooth things, Mr. Anonymous, then hide your head in the sand like you do your name, or read only reviews by writers who get perked to write only good opinions regardless of what's on the horizon.

Eric (not verified)    May 14, 2012 - 10:43AM

"How about a real industry trend setter that beats the present standard by a quantum leap?"

Yeah I get it. In a segment where it hasn't been since forever, all Cadillac needed to do was whip out a new car that is a quantum leap over the 3 Series and the A4. Yeah, right.

Frank Sherosky    May 14, 2012 - 11:47AM

In reply to by Eric (not verified)

I agree, Eric, that BMW and Audi are great brands with outstanding engineering; no argument there. They are also ultra-conservative and entrenched.

What is missed by most comments here is that this article is not just about competing with BMW and Audi. It is about setting Cadillac as a world standard AGAIN; moreover, as the pinnacle brand of General Motors. And in today's competitive world, GM via Cadillac should be taking every step toward dominance and advancement ahead of everyone including in time. If present GM management doesn't have that kind of agressive focus, then perhaps they need to be replaced, again. What? Bankruptcy taught them no better lessons but to play it safe? That was tried and found to be a failure.

Why did GM go all out with Chevy via the Volt? Yet, Cadillac only gets to try to compete, which is what your comment already implies that they cannot win. I disagree; I expect more from GM management; and, yes, they can do more than just compete; and lighter auto bodies aside from engine tech will carry them through for decades.

I'm simply stating that the ATS was an opportunity in time. Hopefully there is another that will not be missed; but even the electrification of a Cadillac without a lighter auto body makes no sense in the long run in meeting corporate performance and mandated goals.

I suggest visiting the GM Heritage Center. There you will find Cadillac leading the world, not just keeping pace. That's the Cadillac I want to see again; and that's what I want to see for GM.

Eric (not verified)    May 15, 2012 - 6:10PM

In reply to by Frank Sherosky

"Why did GM go all out with Chevy via the Volt? Yet, Cadillac only gets to try to compete, which is what your comment already implies that they cannot win. I disagree; "

As I recall Frank, my comment addressed your idea about a "quantum leap" past the competition (3 Series/A4/C Class). It does not imply anything about Cadillac "only getting to try to compete" or Cadillac not "winning". Those are faulty (or at least premature in the case of "winning") conclusions which you have drawn, I assume, from the ATS press releases and related news articles. Faulty conclusions which apparently gave birth to this mindless, rambling, self-contradicting, blog (or article or review or whatever it is).

And you are not helping your case by simply repeating your faulty arguments in all of your replies. Gees, why am I wasting my time on this??

Anonymous (not verified)    May 14, 2012 - 11:50PM

I agree the article was confusing, took too long to make a point, which made it paintful to read.

But I do share some of Frank's view. GM made the ATS weight reduction such a big deal, as if they were miracle workers. It turns out the sub-3,400 pounds weight is only good for the base 2.5L. The 2.0T will likely weigh about the same as the 328i 2.0T. Did BMW have to make miracle to keep the 328i at around 3,400 pounds? No, they did not seem to have to use any special materials or innovations. Or if they did, they did not brag about them.

The way GM talked about weight reduction, you would have expected the ATS to undercut the 328i by 200 pounds at the minimum.

BTW, I agree with the others, ATS does not have to use space age materials to set a standard on weight reduction, it is not a economy car, rather an entry level luxury sports car that must do well in performance tests. But GM sure sounded as if they had set the standards in weight reduction.

All will be forgotten though, if the ATS can generate some good performance stats.

Frank Sherosky    May 15, 2012 - 10:04PM

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

You are one of the few that actually read the release and saw the marketing hype. Good catch.

I do not view aluminum as space age material. It's more of a manufacturing limitation by choice.

I can agree with the need to be more succinct on this one. It happens now and then, especially when there's a ton of info with a news/opinion angle, incessant pressure to write more and more, plus meet all the Google demands not to mention SEO. No excuse, just a ... OK, excuse.

The ATS perf stats will stand on its own merits as designed and as built. I had great experiences with my '05 Cadillac CTS. (See, I drive and buy with my own money some of that brands that I write about. No perks from an OEM to sway me.) Thanks for commenting!!