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Mark Phelan: GM finally may have built a good, light car

Published: Friday, July 27, 2012

Updated: Friday, July 27, 2012 08:07


There's both more and less than you may expect to Cadillac's new ATS sport sedan, and those are both good things. I spent a day recently with the engineering and design team driving the car in the hills and on a racetrack near Atlanta.

A couple of things leapt out at me after my day with the ATS:

1. It's bigger than I expected, with more road presence. The car is a compact, by the interior-space-based vehicle classes the EPA uses, but it's no Golf- or Civic-size luxury wannabe.

The ATS is 2 inches longer than a Mercedes-Benz C250, 0.3-inch longer than a BMW 3-series. Developed to compete with the world's best sport sedans, it's squarely in their class of size and power. The cars we tested carried myself, another journalist and an engineer quickly and comfortably.

2. GM may finally have figured out how to build a really good, really light car.

Its cars have been heavier than the best competitors for years. That's bad, because every extra pound reduces fuel economy and performance.

The ATS is significantly lighter than the 3-series, C-class and Audi A4.

"Every gram had to earn its way into this car," ATS engineering manager Larry Craig said.

Building a light vehicle takes attention to detail, and a willingness to spend money on materials like magnesium, aluminum and high-strength steel. Cadillac engineers shaved 2.2 pounds from the rear suspension by evaluating every bolt and using smaller ones where possible.

Feather-light magnesium engine mounts secure the four-cylinder engines to the chassis.

"This process of examining every part and every system is transforming how (GM) will develop our next vehicle, and how we look at mass," said Ken Kelzer, global chief engineer for GM performance cars.



Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at

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