By John LeBlanc
It’s been a while since an American automaker could offer a competitive entry-level luxury sports sedan. For the past four decades, if you were looking for a small, sporty four-door, the German brands Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz were more than likely at the top of your list. But now America’s biggest automaker, General Motors, has a pair of such sedans in the form of the Buick Regal and Cadillac ATS that can go neck-and-neck with the imports.
Both the Buick and Cadillac four-doors can seat up to five passengers, offer the features and conveniences expected in the entry-level luxury sports sedan class, share a frugal-but-powerful turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine and offer the confidence of all-wheel-drive. So we had to ask: Which one of these is the better bet in the highly competitive small and sporty sedan class?
FIRST PLACE: 2014 Buick Regal Turbo AWD
After arriving in 2011 as a Buick-badged version of the front-wheel-drive Opel Insignia — a mid-sized sedan from GM’s European arm — the 2014 Regal receives an extensive mid-cycle refresh with updated four-cylinder gas engines and the availability of a Haldex all-wheel-drive system with an electronic limited-slip rear differential on the top-line Regal GS and our Regal Turbo AWD tester.
While dimensionally similar, the Buick and Cadillac use different GM corporate platforms, with the Regal being slightly longer, wider and taller than the ATS. The result, most notably, is over 100 millimetres of additional rear legroom in the Buick and 112 more litres of rear trunk space, now up to 402.
And although both present driver-oriented cockpits, the Buick’s design and functionality are much easier to use than the Cadillac. Using GM’s latest IntelliLink infotainment system screen as a foundation, the number of buttons and controls in the 2014 Regal have been reduced from 17 to seven in the 2014 model, and are more logically grouped and placed.
Although the Cadillac is still more agile and athletic than the Buick, the Regal Turbo AWD is not far behind as a car that can be fun to pilot. All-wheel-drive Regals receive a control-arm rear suspension in place of a multilink setup in the front-drivers. It delivers a flat cornering attitude with plenty of traction and the Regal offers a smoother ride than the ATS, too.
What seals the deal for the Buick is its price advantage. Front-drive 2014 Regal Turbo models start at $34,795 (all prices include freight and pre-delivery inspection fees), while our Regal Turbo AWD version rang in at $37,075 — or $4,850 less than the comparably equipped Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD model.
The 2014 refresh has substantively improved the Regal. The new all-wheel-drive system brings increased stability, launch traction, and all-weather security. And compared to the Caddy ATS, the Buick offers more interior and cargo space without a huge drop-off in performance, all for a lot less money.
SECOND PLACE: 2014 Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD
As Cadillac moves its 2014 CTS up the food chain to become a true mid-sized sedan, the five-passenger compact ATS four-door becomes Cadillac’s entry-level model. Recognizing what buyers in this segment want, the ATS is, for all intents and purposes, a near-carbon copy of the last-generation BMW 3 Series, which is a great thing if driving is your priority.
Interestingly, the Regal and ATS share a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder gas engine, yet the Buick version is rated at 259 horpsower and 295 pound-feet of torque, while the Caddy’s mill produces 272 hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. Both GM luxury sports sedans employ a six-speed automatic transmission when AWD is optioned. However, the ATS is quicker in a straight line (zero to 100 kilometres per hour takes only 6.2 seconds, compared to 6.8 for the Buick) and sips less fuel (the Caddy is rated at 10.4 litres per 100 km city and 6.8 highway, whereas the Buick scores 10.9 and 7.3, respectively). Attribute these ATS advantages to weighing in at 1,606 kilograms, 189 kg less than the Regal.
When pressed upon, the Cadillac ATS 2.0T AWD is also more reactive and communicative as a driver’s car than the Buick Regal Turbo AWD. The Cadillac’s handling balance is excellent. A multi-link independent suspension controls the Cadillac’s body motions well. With a very solid-feeling body (no rattles, moans or squeaks), the ATS is easy to manoeuvre down a twisty back road.
Particularly gratifying is the small Caddy sedan’s steering. The ATS’s steering is accurate to a fault and has a good weight to it. And although it’s relatively firm, the ride quality doesn’t beat you up on bad pavement.
Driving enthusiasts will appreciate details like the Caddy’s leather-wrapped steering wheel that is nicely finished on the tiller’s backside, and thin A-pillars that allow for looking far ahead through corners. But its CUE (Cadillac User Experience) central dash control system is plain annoying. It looks very sleek, but the finger-touch points don’t react consistently, and the chrome buttons aren’t buttons at all, merely trim. Another reason we’d rather be in the Buick.