Monday, July 21, 2014

2014 Cadillac ATS- Cadillac Earns an A

I was on the press drive to launch the original Cadillac CTS way back in 2002, and they described it to us as a 4-series- Cadillac was aiming at BMW, but somewhat generally as opposed to lining up a direct hit on either the 3- or 5-series. And while that strategy wouldn’t result in a victorious game of Battleship, the truth is that the original CTS was a nice car indeed with very pleasant road manners, and it quickly went on to become a success, and the far handsomer second generation even more so.

Today we reap the rewards of that strategy, because the new third generation CTS has moved up in size to more appropriately position itself as a 5-series competitor and taking up the task of the entry level sport sedan is the ATS. Yes, I hate their nomenclature too but at least it’s in ascending order, so we know that the ATS will be small- the smallest since the ill-fated Cimarron if our slide rule can be trusted. Small, and clearly positioned. The wheelbase is 1.3 inches shorter than a new 3-series, but every other dimension- length, width, height and track- is within an inch.

There are lot of choices with the new smallest Caddy. Base engine is a 202-hp, 2.5-liter four, next step up is a 272-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four, top of the range and the car I drove featured the 3.6-liter V6 with 321 ponies, all come standard with a six-speed automatic although a six-speed manual is available with the 2.0-liter turbo.

And the choices don’t stop there- there’s a plethora of packages available for ATS. All three engines are offered in base or Luxury trim levels, in addition the turbo and the 3.6 can be ordered in Performance and Premium levels, adding a whirlwind of luxury touches at an appropriately breathtaking price. My test car was full tilt (I don’t much care for second-class passage) and had a price tag to match- $48,620, or about fifteen G’s above the base model’s $33,990 (including freight). Sounds like a lot, but the ATS is stacked directly against the 3-series and priced within a few schekels of its German rival.

What did you get for all that dough? Plenty. In addition to the direct-injected 3.6 and six-speed automatic, my Premium package ATS came with 18” machined wheels and runflat tires, performance seats with multiple power controls- 12 way driver and 10-way passenger, plus lumbar, a memory seat, and a split rear folding seat. It also had the CUE interface with an 8” color display, navigation, Bose audio including bluetooth and Sirius XM, a head-up display, magnesium paddle shifters and alloy pedals, Intellibeam adaptive lighting and keyless go with remote start, among other goodies too numerous to mention. In other words, it was loaded to the gills.

There’s been a lot written praising the ATS’s road manners and I don’t disagree with the collective wisdom- this is one sweet handling car. The chassis is totally neutral and beautifully balanced- it doesn’t lose its composure when you push it and it’s just the most flingable car I’ve driven in months. if you covered up the badge you’d think you were driving a BMW. Add to that a remarkably compliant ride quality (are you listening, Infiniti?) and what you have is one serious sport sedan.

Likewise I have nothing but praise for the direct-injected 3.6. It’s smooth throughout the power range and while the six-speed always seems to be one gear ahead of where I want it to be, that’s where the slap shifters come in. Who ever thought that we would live in a world where Cadillacs were so utterly flingable?

And that leads us to what I really liked about the Cadillac- its sense of style. From the traditional Cadillac egg-crate grille to the blade tail lamps, the car was beautifully detailed inside and out with Cadillac cues and just exuded the joy of good design, Special praise goes to the lighting designers, who added touches like vertical parking lamps that outlined the fender blades, LED vertical taillamps, theater dimming on the interior LED lighting and even beautifully illuminated exterior door handles. All these little touches reminded me that I wasn’t just in a delightful small sport sedan, I was in a Cadillac.

To summarize, there was a lot I really liked about the ATS. The road manners were impeccable, the performance seats were extremely supportive and I loved car’s aesthetic statement. I’m not the biggest fan of the clunky CUE but all in all they’ve done themselves proud. Cadillac has earned an A for this one and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you’re shopping for an upscale compact sport sedan.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Blaine Jenkins, 1934-2014

I’m deeply saddened by the passing of my good friend, retired GM Studio Chief Blaine Jenkins, age 80, at his home in Palm Springs, California. Blaine was a talented designer who had a hand in the creation of some of the most iconic products of GM’s Golden Era.

Blaine with Ruth Helm and his '53 Ford, 1955

Blaine and Harvey Helm, 1955
Blaine was born and raised in the tiny town of Caney, Kansas, and studied architecture for two years at Kansas State before hearing about a school for Automotive Design called Art Center in Los Angeles. Although none of his credits would transfer, he applied anyway and soon headed westward. After two years, he joined GM in the fall of 1956. He was recruited by none other than legendary GM designer Chuck Jordan. Following his probation period in the Orientation Studio, he was assigned to Chevrolet Interiors where his first assignment was working on the all-new 1959 Chevrolet.

The 1960 Corvair "Super Monza" for Miss Lynn Mitchell
His contributions to Chevrolet were many, including the interior for the 1961 Corvette Mako Shark. His “Super Monza” Corvair for sixteen year old Lynn Mitchell led directly to the highly successful production Corvair Monza. His favorite project of the era was the mid-year 1965 Chevrolet Caprice, a car which was developed so quickly it had no budget, and Blaine was able to design a Cadillac-level interior for the the new top-of-the-line Chevrolet. It was in 1965 that he created what became is signature color, a violet tinted silver he named "Evening Orchid." Blaine marveled that of all the projects he worked on, he got more questions about Evening Orchid than anything else.

1965 Corvair Corsa in Evening Orchid

The mid-year 1965 Caprice

Blaine went to Oldsmobile in 1966. His first project there was a last minute redesign of the 1967 Toronado interior to make it more appealing to women, then took over the 1968 line up. He was made Studio Chief and had a good relationship with Olds GM John Beltz, who came to him one day to ask what he could do if he was given a hundred dollars to spend inside a Ninety-Eight. “Anything you’d like” was Blaine’s immodest reply and the result was the highly successful Ninety-Eight Regency whose luxurious pillowed seating caused considerable consternation to sister division Cadillac.

1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency

From Olds, Blaine went to Pontiac where he created the Luxury Le Mans and applied finishing touches on the 1973 Grand Prix and Grand Am, including the genuine wood dash veneers. After about a year, Olds asked him to come back and he went, remaining there until 1980 when he was placed in charge of the GM Color Program. He ran the color program for four years and introduced Jadestone and Briar Brown into the automotive conversation. Following that assignment, he returned to Chevrolet until a back injury caused him to take early retirement in 1990, His last project was the 40th Anniversary Corvette of 1993.

1993 40th Anniversary Corvette
Blaine’s loved wood bodied cars and owned many over the years, including a 1947 Buick Estate Wagon, a Chrysler Town and Country Sedan and a rare 1947 Ford Sportsman. He also owned a 1954 Buick Super that had belonged new to his Mother’s college roommate, Blaine had known the car since 1955 and inherited it in 1976, it remains in his garage to this day.

Blaine in front of the Buick he would inherit, 1955

Blaine with the newly restored Super, 1989
He met his husband, Philip at a bar in Detroit one night in the summer of 1975 and they were together ever after- just shy of four decades. With him goes a treasure trove of stories and recollections of GM’s Golden Era. He knew how Harley Earl took his coffee and how Bill Mitchell liked his hookers, and there aren’t many left with that testimony.

Blaine's "Rock Star Moment," 2012

His health declined in recent years and his mobility became severely limited, but his blue eyes still sparkled. In 2012, Automobile Magazine ran a tribute article about him and we celebrated with a surprise party that caught him totally off guard He reveled in his “rock star moment,” as I called it, and talked about it for months afterward. At his 80th Birthday party this last March, we were all asked to explain our connection to Blaine, after which he himself spoke. “I’ve had a magnificent life,” he said, “and each of you are a part of it.” He went on to say that his life had been far beyond the wildest dreams of a little boy from Caney, Kansas who wanted to draw cars.

Is there really anything more one can ask for? I will miss him dearly, but I am so much richer for having known him. Requiescat in Pace, my friend.