While it seems that the go-to premium small sports sedan is the BMW 3-series, two of the strongest competitors come from two surprising brands: the Volvo S60 Drive-E and Cadillac ATS.
The days of the stoic Swede and cushy Caddy are gone, at least in these two versions. But what we really like is that although they both have the venerable 3-series in their sights, they go after it in unique ways, and come up with some interesting takes on the Small Sport Sedan.
We'll save you the obligatory image of taking the Volvo to your neighborhood IKEA store. (Although we do admit to a small addiction to those great little Swedish meatballs they sell), and say a more fitting road trip may be to somewhere without speed limits.
Volvo has been on fire with the S-series sedans in the last few years. They wowed us with the 300 horsepower six-cylinder S60 T6, and the less expensive but still dynamic 250 horsepower T5 last year.
Now, like many of its competitors, Volvo is moving the S60 into four-cylinder engines. But what a four-cylinder this is! While most competitors are content to give you a turbocharged 4, Volvo comes through with a supercharged and turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that cranks out an impressive 302 horsepower and jaw dropping 295 lb.-ft. of torque. Combined with an 8-speed automatic transmission, it makes this stylish little sedan a rocketship.
The trick is that the supercharger helps add power at lower rpm, and then tapers off as the turbo starts kicking in boost at higher rpm where turbochargers are much more efficient. This gives an incredibly linear powerband and feels like a much larger engine is under the hood. The power is available at anytime you need it, with just a prod of the throttle. A nice advantage of using a smaller 2.0-liter 4 cylinder is an impressive 24 MPG City and 35 MPG Highway rating. What's Swedish for Win-Win?
Currently, this engine is only offered with front wheel drive (an AWD model is coming) but we were very pleasantly surprised to find no tugging at the steering wheel as the front end had to deal with the prodigious power.
Our tester also had the sport suspension, and combined with large 19-inch wheels it gives the S60 plenty of grip and a very sporting feel. And while the driver might enjoy the gymnastics of a twisty road, in the day-in, day-out, the ride is supple and quiet, making this a family-pleaser as well.
On the outside, we like the crisp look, which appears a bit smaller than many competitors – one passerby said it looks like a fancy Honda Civic! Inside you will find that it is a bit smaller than other competitors, especially in the rear seat. You'll want to sit up front if possible, because like most Volvos of recent memory, the front buckets are spectacular, firm with excellent support with the ability to fit everyone well, short trip or long.
The rest of the interior is Swedish minimalist, which you if you read magazines like Dwell, is cool and tasteful. If you lean towards Architectural Digest you might find it just a bit too minimalist. We say, go, sit. If you like, you like.
One thing we loved was the adjustable driver instrument display, which gives you a choice between Elegance, Sport and Eco, with completely different layouts of the gauges. Very Cool. Also cool is the comfort knowing that you're surrounded by the latest and greatest in safety and accident avoidance gear. This is a Volvo, after all.
While the Volvo is an interesting mix of advanced tech and Nordic, cool. The Cadillac ATS is a bit more traditional.
Which is in no way bad, because this baby nails traditional in a way that should make BMW sweat in their Lederhosen.
While you can get an ATS with a 2.0-liter turbo, at this price point, you get a 321 horsepower 3.6-liter V6 that drives through the rear wheels – the preferred choice of enthusiasts. And it has a better singing voice than the Volvo; with a deep baritone that sounds better the more you rev it. There is a price to be paid, though; compared to the thrifty Volvo, the V6 is thirstier, with EPA ratings of 18 MPG City and 28 MPG highway.
The standard six-speed automatic is especially nice in Sport Mode, and the ride and handling is a perfect blend of sporty and supple. This is a lovely car to drive just about anywhere you want to go.
It's so good in fact, that we had just finished testing our ATS and had gotten into BMW's hot new 428i Coupe. Instantly wished we were back in the Caddy. That is saying a lot.
Moving away from Swedish modern to traditional American on the inside brings an equal amount of quality materials, but delivered with more warmth. The blend of colors like the Caramel leather seats with jet black cabin accents and Dark Olive Ash wood trim is rich and always welcoming.
The interior is a bit roomier than the Volvo as well, the only downside being Cadillac's CUE infotainment system. Designed for the iPad crowd, everything is accessed by the touchpad screen, but we still find ourselves missing simpler controls like a volume knob.
On the outside, the ATS retains its handsome, tailored look. It's not flash, and doesn't scream "look at me" – it just sends out a confident vibe that would look as good in front of the latest trendy restaurant as it would pulling up to the country club.
Pricing is quite close, too. The S60 is definitely a premium product, and our loaded tester came in at just over $46,000. The Cadillac stickered at just over $47,000.
So who should get what? If you like what BMW is doing – but don't want to be another driver in another BMW – the ATS offers as good of a driving experience with it's own unique vibe. One that we particularly like.
On the other hand, If you feel like zigging when others zag, we'd give the nod to the Volvo. No one else does a super/turbo engine, no else does the Scandinavian chic thing better, and you get a wonderful driving experience that's a little less traditional.