ATLANTA -- To say the ambitions behind the 2013 Cadillac ATS are lofty would be an understatement.
General Motors built the rear-wheel-drive vehicle's platform from scratch with the explicit goal of poaching customers from BMW and other heavyweights in the compact-luxury market, a segment in which Cadillac hasn't competed since its Cimarron flop 30 years ago.
Early impressions from a media drive here are that GM has a bona fide 3-series fighter with the ATS, due in showrooms in August. Convincing performance-minded import buyers of that looms as a huge marketing challenge.
The basics: The ATS is the first vehicle built on GM's new rwd architecture for compact and mid-sized vehicles, named Alpha. With a curb weight of 3,315 pounds for the base model, the ATS is 45 pounds lighter than the BMW 328i and the lightest car among luxury compacts, GM says.
GM engineers took great care to shed weight wherever possible, measuring progress in "grams, not kilograms," says Ken Kelzer, global vehicle chief engineer for rwd and performance cars. An aluminum hood and magnesium engine-mount brackets are among the weight savers.
GM set out to develop a quick, nimble and fun car by emphasizing ride and handling. The ATS features GM's first use of a five-link rear suspension, which "really helps in cornering to lay the car flat and keep it planted," Kelzer says. The electric power steering system is from ZF Friedrichshafen AG.
Engine choices include a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder turbo that generates 272 hp, which GM bills as one of the most "power dense" engines in the segment. GM expects it to be the volume engine.
The base is a new 2.5-liter, naturally aspirated engine that gets 202 hp. At the top of the engine lineup is a 3.6-liter V-6, which provides 321 hp and runs from 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.
All-wheel drive is an option on all trim levels except the base model.
Notable features: The exterior is a toned-down take on the bold angles and edges that have marked Cadillac's art-and-science styling for more than a decade. It still features plenty of creases and sweptback LED headlights.
Inside, the most significant feature is Cadillac User Experience, the brand's infotainment system that debuted in June in the new XTS large sedan.
GM seeks to set it apart from others through an uncluttered display and smartphone-like swipe and drag commands.
Available safety features include forward collision alert, lane departure warning and a brake-assist feature that uses sensors to prevent front and rear low-speed collisions.
Compromises and shortcomings: Some analysts and critics have questioned the inclusion of the 2.5-liter engine, which produces less horsepower and torque than the turbocharged base models of most rivals in the compact luxury segment.
The market: Compacts are the largest segment by volume for luxury vehicles. For 2013, U.S. sales forecasts for the ATS range from 30,500 units from AutoPacific Inc. to 45,000 from IHS Automotive. That would put sales volumes at less than half of that of the 3 series, which is on track to approach 100,000 units this year.
What Cadillac says: More than simply going after a big-volume segment, GM hopes the ATS can inject some "vibrancy and relevancy" and set the tone for the brand, says Don Butler, Caddy's marketing boss. "At Cadillac, we've been somewhat handicapped by not having that entryway into the franchise," he says.
The skinny: "They've got a legitimate 3-series fighter," says IHS analyst Aaron Bragman, who drove the car here last week.
"But people go to a car like the 3 series as much for the brand as for the car. That's the biggest challenge for Cadillac because it's still not on the radar for many younger buyers."