When we drove the then new Cadillac ATS back-to-back with the BMW 3 Series and the Audi A4 in 2013, it knocked the German stalwarts out of the park with its great combination of driving dynamics and, being Dh50K and Dh25K cheaper respectively, unbeatable value for money. Although its power delivery wasn’t as fluid as that of its rivals, the 3.5-litre V6 with output of 326bhp and 373Nm was still sufficient for a car of its size. And at the time, we were sure that the ATS was going to sell like proverbial hot cakes. But four years down the line, ATS sales have not caught on the way GM would have liked them to. The problem lies in the very nature of the segment which it competes in.

The compact executive saloon class is the first step up the premium brand ladder for young families and executives. And for those going for an entry-level model, it will not make sense to pay extra for the top of the line powertrain, which will nudge the price tag closer to that of a higher segment. This is where the ATS failed. When we pitted the base ATS with its 2.5-litre four-cylinder against the Jaguar XE, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and the Audi A4 last year, we found the 202bhp, 285Nm output to be woefully underpowered compared to the turbo mills in the rivals. This weakness is what Cadillac has tried to address with a new base trim powerplant that debuts with the 2017 model. And we promptly throw it into the ring with our two previous CotY class winners, the C-Class and the XE.

The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine is new to the ATS, but it isn’t new for Cadillac. The turbo four-pot, which makes 272bhp and 400Nm of torque has been available in the larger CTS saloon for a while. It is a brilliant powerplant, which leaves copious amounts of low-end torque at your disposal and instantly makes the ATS a car that’s markedly more fun to flog than before.

The added oomph provided by the extra 70 horses and 115Nm of torque is apparent from the get-go. With 90 per cent of that peak torque available from as low in the rev band as 2,100rpm, the base four-cylinder suddenly sees itself transformed into one of the most exhilarating cars in its class, from being one of the most lacklustre in terms of output. No other car from any European or Japanese rival has a four-pot that’s got more power than the ATS.

The C 200 that we have here makes 184bhp and 300Nm of torque, and even the top banana C 250 makes just 211bhp and 350Nm of torque, which pales in comparison with the ATS’s figures now. The Merc’s engine also has a diesel-like raspy clatter that takes away from the overall feeling of refinement, and the nine-speed auto seems a cog too many for this mill. Even the Jag, which has its four-cylinder engine available in two states of tune, falls short, as the 2.0-litre turbo makes just 236bhp and 340Nm in the most powerful variant. But paired with an eight-speed auto, the Jaguar’s engine is impressively responsive and smooth at higher revs, feeling almost as punchy as the Cadillac’s. However, low-range torque is significantly less enthusiastic. Overall, the Cadillac, with its superb new engine, blows the other two away in the powertrain department.

However, it’s a more tightly fought battle in terms of driving dynamics. All three cars are great to drive, offer delectably firm steering and suspension settings, especially in their sportiest drive modes. The XE benefits from the same double wishbone suspension as the F-Type up front and an aluminium intensive integral link set-up at the back. The C-Class also feels light and nimble, and munching up corners is its second nature. While these two cars have proved themselves earlier, the new, more powerful engine has proven to be a blessing for the ATS. It’s injected new life into the Cadillac’s already sound underpinnings, and makes it an enormously more fun car to drive than before.

The performance-tuned ZF steering and the snappy eight-speed automatic complement the lightweight architecture, and the near perfect weight distribution with aplomb. The ATS is now dynamically as good as the Merc and the Jag, and with the added performance, may even be marginally better at times.

While the ATS wins hands down in the performance tussle, and holds its own in terms of dynamic capabilities, the looks department is one that’s tricky to give an objective verdict on. A car’s appearance, as we’ve come to realise over the years, is a highly subjective and polarising matter. Some cars which we’ve considered outright hideous have found millions of owners, while some others that we found to be exceptionally attractive have struggled to attract customer attention. So, all I can say here is that those who prefer smooth, elegant and flowing lines will like the Mercedes and the Jaguar, and those who have an affinity towards edgy, angular styling will tend to prefer the looks of the ATS. But if I were to give my opinion, the XE is the best-looking car of the lot. With a sharp and aggressive front that takes apparent cues from the F-Type sportscar’s design. Anyone that appreciates Coventry’s current styling language will find the XE appealing.

The same is true of the C-Class, which is essentially a miniaturised facsimile of the flagship S-Class and the mid-size E-Class. In fact, if you’re not fussy about cabin space, the C-Class is better value for your money than an E-Class today as they’re virtually indistinguishable on the road. As much as it will divide opinion, there’s no doubt that the ATS is the most attention-grabbing of the three. Its bold, crisp and rawboned lines offer a refreshingly different choice from the rounded, curvy styling that has become the norm in most classes.

In their standard drive modes, all three offer acceptably comfortable ride quality, however, if knee — and shoulder room are important for you, none of them will be able to satisfy you. The trade-off for their compact dimensions and taut handling characteristics is highly crammed passenger spaces. Whichever one you pick, you’ll end up with a four-door car that’s compromised on roominess. Do they compensate with luxury levels of appointment and workmanship?
I’d say only the C-Class does. Despite it being an entry-level Merc, the C boasts an interior that’s been put together as solidly and sumptuously as any of the more expensive models from the brand. From the seats to the overall layout, there’s nothing in the Merc’s cabin that you could find fault with, expect perhaps the infotainment screen, which looks like a tacked-on aftermarket item. Meanwhile there’s nothing exceptional about the passenger cells of either of the other two. The XE’s cabin is pretty much the same as that of any other Jag, which means it’s quite plain. And as we’ve mentioned in earlier reviews, the rotary gear knob, as cool as it might be, does feel out of place in a sporty saloon. The ATS has arguably the most comfortable seats among the three, and probably a miniscule amount of space more than the rivals, but the haptic feedback and the smudge it leaves behind are still frustrating.

When it comes to tech goodies like rear-view cameras, lane-departure warning system, head-up display, as well as other comfort and safety features, all three come equipped reasonably well, although the number of these items that are standard or optional will depend on the specification you choose.

Which one’s the overall winner here then? With their time-tested dynamic abilities and elegant good looks, the Jaguar XE 2.0T and the Mercedes-Benz C 200 are two of the best compact executive saloons on the market today.

However, by plonking this gem on a turbocharged motor into the ATS’s engine bay, Cadillac has upped the ante here like none of us had expected it to. And it has trumped rivals decisively with its unbeatable pricing strategy, which sees the base ATS retail for Dh139,000, a good Dh30-35K less than its less powerful rivals. Although it’s still in
its first generation, with this late-life upgrade the 2017 ATS clearly has the potential to shake up the establishment and spur Cadillac’s rivals into considering a revision of their pricing plans in the region. It’s without doubt the best value for money option for a buyer looking to take his or her first step into the world of luxury marques.