As we’ve noted in previous updates, the 2013 Cadillac ATS is one of the sportiest sedans in its class, a car engineered for attacking racetracks and curving back roads. That said, we still expect a luxury sedan -- especially an American luxury sedan -- to be able to eat up highway miles. Our Four Seasons Cadillac ATS has thus spent a considerable amount of its time with us on long road trips. We’ve learned a lot on the way.

We’re not in Michigan anymore…

The Cadillac ATS is a Michigan car through and through -- it rolled off an assembly line in the state capital, Lansing -- but it clearly wants to get the hell out of here. Its magnetorheological dampers provide too firm a ride over our severely degraded roads -- one editor complained she needed a chiropractor after driving the ATS into work. Its low-profile tires cost us a badly bent rim [inline pic]. It also needed an alignment early in the test.

However, when we’ve ventured to parts of the country that don’t have potholes capable of swallowing repair trucks, the Cadillac’s setup suddenly feels just right. “The ride is firm and you feel the road, but the way the car is damped means that each impact feels refined and controlled,” reported associate web editor Joseph Capparella after a family trip to Ohio. The ride felt similarly well suited to pavement in Pennsylvania, Boston, and Washington, D.C. – areas not known for exceptional road maintenance but nonetheless better than Michigan. Highway expansion joints can induce some head toss when the dampers are set to their firmer setting, but toggling back into touring mode (the default) usually irons them out.

As much as this new breed of Cadillac is engineered for the rest of the country, it’s not quite clear every region is ready for it. In metro Detroit, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking the brand is back in full force -- the newest models congest the roads in enclaves like Birmingham and West Bloomfield, Michigan. But in, say, Washington, D. C. or Boston, they remain a rare sight. And, in some cases, people there don’t quite seem to believe what they are seeing:

  • “Don’t Cadillacs drive like boats?” asked a girl in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
  • “Cadillacs are for senior citizens,” proclaimed videographer Sandon Voelker’s uncle when he trekked four hours north to Petoskey, Michigan.
  • “Everyone in my family seemed surprised to see a Cadillac that was so small and sporty,” noted Capparella.

Mind you, it’s not that people necessarily react negatively to the Cadillac ATS. In fact, most quite like it once we explain that, yes, it’s a Cadillac and, yes, it drives as well as a German car. The brand’s relative rarity can also work in its favor. The angular sheetmetal, though toned down compared to earlier “Art and Science” efforts, still stands out in a sea of BMWs.

The things (and people) we carried

We’ve now in an era where people think you need a crossover to carry any item bulkier than a six-pack of beer. Not true. I used the Cadillac ATS as a U-Haul, packing several boxes, a large suitcase, a small television, and a bar stool into the car when my sister moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Washington, D.C. Voelker managed to turn the small sedan into a traveling sporting goods store when he went to Petoskey.

“With the backseats folded, I was able to fit my mountain bike (front wheel removed), biking backpack, camera backpack, daily backpack, two duffel bags, pelican case, miscellaneous biking gear, and beer in the back. Then I hung two road bikes off a Thule rack I’d mounted to the trunk. Not bad for a car that doesn’t even come with factory roof rack mounting points.”

Filling the car with people is a bit harder. “Three six-foot-tall people plus one Cadillac ATS equals one very unhappy backseat passenger,” reported editor-in-chief Jean Jennings after a several-hundred-mile road trip. Indeed, the Cadillac ATS has 1.6 inches less rear legroom than the BMW 3-series. “It’s not just the lack of knee room, Jennings adds. People of all heights have hit their head on the C-pillar when getting into the car. Back-seat passengers have also complained about the fact that a bulkhead under the seat extends beyond the lower seat cushion and presses at the backs of their calves. Finally, rear passengers are subjected to more cabin noise at highway speeds than those up front, although the ATS is, overall, commendably quiet.

The front seats are much more comfortable, providing ample support for several hours at a time. The driver’s seat can be adjusted more than in most cars: the headrest moves for rake as well as height, and the front of seat cushion slides forward to support longer legs. This is very helpful when two or more people are taking turns behind the wheel.

CUE continues to be problematic.

Most in-car technology becomes easier to use once you’ve spent a few hundred miles learning how it works. That has applied, to some degree, with Cadillac’s much-maligned CUE system. Functions that seem difficult at first, such as changing the radio display so you can see a station name rather than the song currently playing, prove easy after the first few tries. However, our frustration with CUE arises not from complex command trees but rather from the controls themselves. Most of us simply lack the fine motor skills to tap small icons on a touch screen while driving 70 mph—no matter how many times we practice.

“Even after spending two weeks with the ATS, I’d reach over to change the temperature and end up grazing the volume instead,” fumed associate web editor Eric Weiner upon returning from a trip to Philadelphia. He also wonders if there is “a secret incantation to make the motor-operated storage door close” (it’s supposed to respond to your touch but often does not). On the bright side, that storage compartment contains a USB cable, which makes it the perfect place to store an iPhone on a long drive.

Good steering matters, even when you’re going straight

Most people do most of their driving on boring roads. Most modern cars try to accommodate that sort of driving with steering that doesn’t intrude. The ATS does just the opposite. At highway speeds, the steering wheel sends a constant feed of information to your palms. It lets you know when there’s a strong crosswind or when you’ve drifted onto a snow-covered lane late at night. Most of all, though, the stream of feedback from the road constantly reminds the driver that he or she is, in fact, driving.

Everyone who gets behind the wheel, even non-enthusiasts, instantly notice how sharp and eager the ATS feels. “Pretty great,” confirmed one of my co-drivers, a grad student who normally commutes in a Pontiac Vibe, en route to Boston. “The steering wheel is the perfect size and is well formed. It felt comfortable and responsive; the brakes and suspension felt well tuned.”

For enthusiasts, the Cadillac ATS is the sort of car for which it’s worth extending a road trip, such as when I veered off the highway to explore Pennsylvania back roads. Or when Voelker, still carrying all those bikes, went sliding around the dirt.

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