The ATS looks much better in photos than in real life. My suggestion? Pay more to cover where GM cut corners.
A bit of disclaimer: I don't like comparing cars to their competition. I like comparing them to their price and what I know the company can produce, and whether or not they meet expectations. This ATS did not. Cadillac wants to build a 'sparkling' style that stands out when you first see it. When I first saw the ATS, I was overcome by a sensation of "Wow, Cadillac made a really cheap car, why didn't you just get a CTS?"
Now, as a concept and machine, I love the ATS. It's a damn cool car. This is, however, all about the style. The funny thing is, the details I'm about to explain actually makes this relatively-expensive (for a compact) luxury car appear cheaper on some levels than a lot of slightly used or slightly more expensive non-luxury cars. They cut the corners, and they cut them deep.
Unfortunately, I did not catch photos of the car as it sat, but here's picture of one with the same exterior options, and I believe it was the base motor, not sure on the trim level.
An important note (and I think this is right) is that this car does not have the Black Diamond Tricoat option. It's all in the subtle things, and I'll try to break it down for you:
That strip of light on the edge of the headlight that extends into the fender? It's one of the ATS's defining features, and looks awesome in photos. But on the street in the sun, it looks incredibly cheap, like the plastic bezels of a late 90s car.
The issue is that in the light, you can see into the headlight and all of the stuff inside, this is a headlight intended to be either completely bright (strip of pure light!) or hidden away in shadow. There is a reason why one of the most popular mods for an SN-95 Mustang is new headlights - it looks like the same type of plastic.
This could be an issue of "expensive looks cheap". In order to put this new, fresh style on the ATS, and still meet a budget, even an extensively-engineered headlight is going to appear cheap whether it is or not, as opposed to a simple, boring headlight that looks like its made of more expensive materials.
Audi can pull this type of stuff off because they use individual LEDs, which did not look like any other headlight at the time. But most people who are remarking about a Cadillac (read: over 20 years old) grew up in the era of cheap exterior apperance of Cadillac's malaise period throughout the 80s and 90s.
When you order your ATS, get the 1000$ Black Diamond Tricoat option. The default black color looks flat. Really flat. It lacks the depth that most Cadillacs have, the sort of car that no matter how much you wash it, doesn't 'sparkle'. This one certainly didn't, sunlight on it just sort of spread out and prevented the paint from reflecting properly.
At night, with highway lights, I'm sure it looks great. But I saw it in bright sunlight (the same kind you would expect this car to be seen in, rolling up to a business or on a dealership lot when people are shopping) and it actually looks flatter than a Toyota Camry color of about the same year. Don't get me wrong, it's definitely a good black, but it is not what what I would expect on the car. This vehicle couldn't have been a few months on on the road, but I got the impression that the paint was pre-faded.
So if you are going to buy this car, either go with a light color (or possibly Thunder Gray), or get the Black Diamond Tricoat option, which is the same as the CTS I believe. Any bit of dust and dirt doesn't help the black either. Now, if this paint was on a Chevy Cruze, I would have no comment. But I expected a bit more flash on the ATS.
I didn't see the owner so I couldn't ask about the interior much, but the brown leather inside the black car looked a little awkward. Not too bad though. The impression I got is that it looked a lot smaller looking in than the exterior leads one to believe. For a 'compact' car it's not surprising, but certainly changes my expectations of Cadillac. The wood grain in the dash looks extremely cheap though, and looks as if they put it in to appease very old customers.
Thankfully, there are other interior options it looks like to. Really, when it gets down to it, the interior looked like every other Cadillac in the last four years.
Exterior, Shape and Size
The trunk looks nonexistent. So much of the design is trying to make the front of the car look longer (headlights, door handles, roofline) that by the time you get to the trunk, it just looks like someone truncated (excuse the pun) a CTS.
However, it really is a reasonable size overall when you ignore the awkward proportions. It doesn't look compact, but when you look at the curb and try to measure it, sure enough it is. The problem is that while it doesn't look compact, and doesn't look bloated, it also doesn't look classy. And that is the whole point of a Cadillac: Class. It doesn't look composed, but looks like it just hasn't quite grown into its size. It gives the impression that Cadillac tried so hard not to mess up the size of the car that they got the proportions wrong.
The wheels (same as above photo) look flatter than expected as well. They look like the wheels of a $25k car, not a car that (in the end) should cost you $35k. I'm sure there are different options.
This is another example of a design that looks great in photos, but terrible in real life. It reminds me of the new Camaro, which doesn't look too bad in photos, but has (what I call) strange, awkward proportions that at some points evoke thinness, and in many others appear bloated. The ATS is a trim, fit CTS on the front and the bottom, but on the sides and rear look 'tied up' and bulgy, like the car is trying to be contained within a size limit. Because, well, it is.
I really like the ATS. I think it looks a lot cheaper than it should though, but that's to be understood. This isn't to discourage you to buy one, by any means. Go get yourself a turbo 4 RWD compact car with more luxuries than a young driver needs or expects. But, at the same time, expect to fork out at least $4000 on wheels, paint, and trim goodies to get that car up to spec.
I know it sounds minor, but trust me. If you are buying an ATS, you want people to go "huh, nice Cadillac." The difference between that, and "Oh, you bought the cheap Cadillac." is that 4000$. I would recommend changing the headlights, but I don't know if there are any decent aftermarket ones available yet.
However... the problem isn't really with the ATS at all. It is with every other Cadillac: they set up expectations. Now there is a distinct Cadillac 'look', known as "Art and Science", that all subsequent Cadillacs are judged by. In making the ATS, they continued the design language (who wouldn't?) but have definitely cheapened the appearance. Those little losses in the quality add up real quick, especially at the 'first glance' look.
I hate to say it, but this is probably my least favorite "Art and Science" designed car (the SRX and Escalade doesn't count) from the factory. The CTS is beautiful, the XTS is drop-dead gorgeous, both of which have grown from their humble appearances into graduated business-people. The ATS is the gangly, awkward younger sister still in college. It's still trading meals for ramen, using chalkboard paint, and doesn't remember how much money Mommy and Daddy have given her for the month.
I still remember when I saw my first Cadillac XLR. I was absolutely blown away. My breath literately caught in my throat and I immediately felt insignificant. That is what a Cadillac is supposed to do. In case you forgot, this is indeed America that this cars are built in. There is a distinctly "American Luxury" emotion of power, excess, and unapologetic seriousness. A Roll Royce has posture and procedure, the type of car you remove your hat in the presence of, a BMW only gives you the luxury that doesn't take away from the driving experience. A Cadillac is the type of car you make fun of to your friends later because you secretly wish you had it. It doesn't care about the environment, your race car, or your boss. It is your boss. Art and Science has really brought that emotion.
I think this is the first time since 1959 that the entire Cadillac fleet of sedans have that power, just don't skimp out on your ATS, because the quality of appearance drops off very quickly.