GM's High-Stakes Debut

Monday saw the opening of press days at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, a major showcase for nearly all of the automakers that do business (or in the case of a few Chinese companies, hope to do business) here in the United States.

It's a particularly important show for the Detroit automakers, each of which has historically used the event to reveal important new models for the first time. This year is no exception: While there are always surprises at NAIAS, already we've seen important new models from each of the once-Big Three. Ford's (NYS: F) Fusion and Chrysler's Dodge Dart are significant, high-volume models, but I've been closely watching a niche product -- the new Cadillac ATS sedan -- from General Motors (NYS: GM) .

The mountain that GM has never been able to climb
To be fair, the Fusion is definitely a bigger deal in many ways. It's an important story for Ford and the industry, one I've covered elsewhere. And it's likely to be a big success for the Blue Oval: The outgoing Fusion was already a solid competitor in this segment, so Ford has had a very strong base to build on, and Ford's recent new models (the Explorer, the Focus) have been very strong, hot-selling entries. The new car looks great, and I'm confident it will drive well, too.

In fact, Ford's recent execution on all fronts has given me plenty of confidence. Not so with the General: While CEO Dan Akerson and his team have talked a very good game in recent months, and recent GM products like the Chevy Cruze have been solid entries, GM has a loooooong history of almost-but-not-quite-good-enough products to overcome.

And the Cadillac ATS, which is entering the absolute toughest automotive segment in the world, the one dominated by the distilled-essence-of-German-luxury-car-awesomeness BMW 3 Series, is one car where it would be easy for GM to settle for almost-but-not-quite.

In fact, it's the one segment in which GM has never been able to compete.

An important effort in a very challenging segment
The 3 Series is the gold standard, the hands-down leader of this very tough segment where even Toyota's Lexus and Honda's Acura are also-rans. Having owned a 3-Series myself, I can tell you why: It's a just-right combination of performance and handling, comfort and panache, and it's (relatively) affordable. For BMW, it's the company's most important car, the "gateway" model that turns ambitious young professionals into lifelong brand loyalists.

That's key to understanding the ATS: Cadillac desperately needs a gateway model of its own if GM's ambitious global plans for the brand are to be realized. GM's prior attempts at BMW-like products have mostly been laughable, with the sole exception of Cadillac's current CTS sedan. The CTS has been a strong seller, but the CTS is bigger and somewhat more expensive than a 3-Series, and frankly can't quite match the BMW dynamically. To compete head-on with the German leader, the General needed a car that was similar in size, value, and quality -- but with a distinct Cadillac flavor.

So does the ATS pull that off? So far, so good. It looks great, just right, better than I expected. It has the bold-edged family lines seen in other recent Cadillacs -- a styling theme called "Art & Science" by GM -- but softened and taken a bit further upscale with artful touches of chrome trim and surface details. The interior -- a longtime GM weak point and a place where anything less than excellence would spell doom in this segment -- looks strong, with high-quality materials and an attractive layout that lends a lush feel.

But more than with most cars, on-road (and on-track) reviews will be critical to the success or failure of the ATS.

The proof is in the driving
GM engineers have gone to great lengths to give the ATS what they hope is BMW-rivaling handling prowess, with a new rear suspension design and thousands of hours of on-track testing. But with cars like this, the verdict rendered by the enthusiast press matters a great deal: If reviews say the car's performance is worthy of comparison to the German standard-bearer, traffic to Cadillac dealers will pick up, plain and simple.

We won't know how the ATS shakes out on that front for at least a month or two. But so far, the car that was expected by some (including GM's CEO) to be an also-ran looks like a surprisingly strong entry.

While it's possible we'll see GM's dividend return in the coming year, you don't have to wait to put the power of reinvested dividends to work in your portfolio. In a special new report, Motley Fool analysts identify "11 rock-solid dividend stocks," all great additions to a long-term investor's portfolio. This new report is completely free for Fool readers, but it'll be available for only a limited time -- get instant access right away.

At the time thisarticle was published

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.