Hijacking someone else’s identity is an increasingly common way to buy metal-flaked boats, sweet new freezer-on-the-bottom refrigerators, and memberships to the jelly-of-the-month club. But identity theft affects more than just people: Bavarian sedans are particularly susceptible. Over the years, the BMW 3-series has been the target of more attempted identity thefts than Russell Brand. (“Hi Katy, will you let me back in? No, really, it’s me. Today my voice is higher is all. And I’m not British anymore.”) For luxury automakers introducing new entry-level sedans, benchmarking the 3-series seems as important as installing an engine between the fenders. While some have come close, though, no car has achieved the lasting critical acclaim enjoyed by BMW’s golden gosling.
it’s harder to hit a moving target, and BMW renewed the 3-series for 2012. Internally designated F30, the new generation is longer and structurally stiffer but no heavier than the outgoing E90. The much-loved naturally aspirated inline-six that powered the base car is now gone, replaced by a turbocharged four that makes 10 more horsepower and 55 more pound-feet of torque. So we guess maybe that’s okay with us. What isn’t okay with us is a base price that is inching closer to $40,000 and INR 21,53,804. With just a few add-ons—Sport Line trim, sunroof, and adaptive suspension the big-ticket items among them—the car tested here rang up at $45,145 or in INR 24,31170.
Cadillac’s most recent attempt at 3-series emulation was the CTS, an ambitious tweener that hoped to steal sales from BMW’s 3- and 5-series with a single blow. This time around, the company started where identity thieves usually do: the target’s garbage. Engineers say the E90’s predecessor, the E46, was their dynamic benchmark, and the critical dimensions of the ATS are right on top of the E90’s. It’s easy to spot the similarities in the suspension setup, too. Just like the BMW, the ATS tested here is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Caddy’s engine tops the BMW mill by 32 horsepower and five pound-feet of torque, for totals of 272 and 260, respectively. Its 3477-pound curb weight and 50/50 front/rear weight distribution parrot figures familiar to drivers who have sworn allegiance to the blue-and-white propeller. Its $34,615 and in INR 18,64178. base price is nearly three grand less than the BMW’s, but stuffed with Cadillac’s CUE infotainment system, an adjustable sport suspension, and a trunkload of other options, the example here landed at $45,910. These two are fairly evenly matched, but as all those aspirational appliance hoarders will tell you, there’s no room for error in identity theft.
Less than two miles into his first handling loop in the ATS, senior editor Tony Quiroga announced, “Yeah, this car is way better.” He raved about the composure and responsiveness of the Cadillac, which was equipped with the FE3 Performance package that brings adjustable magnetorheological dampers, 18-inch summer tires, and a limited-slip differential to the party. The ATS is an easy car to drive fast, even on lumpy 1.3-lane roads in West Virginia, the land of decreasing radii. A safe touch of understeer gives way to near-perfect balance and incredible poise up to the 0.90-g limit. Wheel motions are admirably well controlled and damped, and it seems nothing can upset the ATS’s line. You can drive this car the same way on a rough patchwork road as you’d drive the BMW on a smooth one.
Should you overestimate the length of a straight, a firm and responsive braking system brings things to a halt in just 160 feet from 70 mph, 12 feet shorter than the BMW’s mushier pedal can manage. It’s just too bad that Cadillac couldn’t come up with a chassis like this before electric power steering exterminated road feel. While the ATS’s wheel proffers heavy weighting and linear buildup, we’d be lying if we said feel wasn’t muffled. At least there’s some; the BMW’s steering is even more artificial.
Usually we find ourselves defending why the faster car didn’t win a comparo by explaining that the slower one was more fun. Now we have to explain that the car that was more fun didn’t win because it was just that much overmatched in every other regard. The drivetrain in particular killed the Caddy’s chance for a win. If the 2.0-liter does in fact make 272 horsepower at 5500 rpm, then it’s only at 5500 rpm. At 5499 and 5501, it feels more like 230. Redline is 7000 rpm, but there’s a notable softening beyond the power peak, and the engine starts sounding stressed well before that. Because the Cadillac is geared lower than the BMW—and it sounds so unpleasant at high rpm—we usually found ourselves a cog higher in the ATS than in the 328i through the twisty sections.
On the highway, the exhaust drone threatened to put us in an auditory sleeper hold. Other gripes centered on the notchy shifter and a flywheel so heavy that no-throttle clutch dumps will almost get the car moving. It’s a great learning tool—slip the clutch just the tiniest amount and you’re on your way—but not very satisfying.
While we also marked down the Caddy for its confused mishmash of interior and exterior styling cues, our greatest complaint about the ATS is a different CUE, Cadillac’s new touch-screen infotainment system. It’s an acronym for Cadillac User Experience, a name we suggest replacing with the far more descriptive State-of-the-art Haptic Infotainment Technology. The touch-screen system looks sleek but demands far more focus than anything in a car should. Even sitting still, it’s frustrating, as the system frequently thought we were touching a different “button” than we intended. Various icons will pop up along the edges of the screen as your hand nears, meaning we’d start our finger toward a destination, only to glance away and have CUE ambush us at the last second with a different choice. Our radar-detector cords sweeping back and forth across the center stack regularly adjusted the radio volume and turned on our seat heaters. It’s obvious that CUE was developed outside of the car, where possible downsides to staring at an iPad are less disastrous.
If we were looking only for back-road fun and not for everyday livability, the ATS would triumph. Quiroga put it best: “This car is like a Lotus: There are a lot of compromises, but the chassis isn’t one of them.” In the most important regard, Cadillac succeeded in building an American 3-series. Now it needs to benchmark BMW’s engine and transmission, and install an infotainment system that isn’t such an outrage that we’d feel morally justified in crashing the car into a tree.
Please take a moment now to glance at the final results. Note that Cadillac beat BMW at its own game—actually, “clobbered” is a better word to sum up the chassis scoring. The only test the ATS didn’t ace is the comfort-oriented “ride” category. Otherwise, it’s as sound a drubbing as is possible. But while the Cadillac does the most important thing better than the BMW, that’s the only thing it does better. The 3-series, on the other hand, is consistently excellent.
With less power and nearly as much weight, the BMW trounces the Caddy in a straight line. That’s thanks to the BMW’s seamless power delivery. As opposed to the ATS’s brief lag, then rush of acceleration followed by a dramatic taper, the BMW’s 2.0-liter offers one long uninterrupted flow from the torque peak at 1250 rpm to redline. The fuel cutoff is past seven grand, and the engine sounds and feels like it’s aiming for nine. Plus, BMW still does manual transmissions better than almost anyone. While the clutch is a touch light, the shifter is smooth and direct, with none of the stubbornness of the Cadillac unit.
We also preferred the 328i’s seating position to the ATS’s, and the greater reach of the 328i’s telescoping wheel helped everyone get comfortable. And while BMW’s interior looks plain compared with Cadillac’s, it enjoys a consistency that escapes its opponent. All the materials feel the same and have the same graining, whereas the ATS driver is overwhelmed by different materials, textures, finishes, and even stitching. Cadillac’s designers were more ambitious than BMW’s, but those ambitions should have been tempered somewhat.
Even where the BMW lost the most points to the Cadillac, it wasn’t because of any major deficiency. Take the 328i’s subjective handling score, a 7. The BMW is not a 70th-percentile car. In spite of a bit of untoward noise and movement over mid-corner bumps, it’s wonderfully balanced and nimble. It feels slightly less comfortable at the limit, but it’s still fun and it gets the job done—note its higher slalom speed. In a comparo against cars that were not as brilliant as the ATS, we previously scored a similarly equipped 328i a 9. Here, we had to dial back the BMW’s chassis score to accurately reflect the triumph of the ATS—it recalibrated our scale. The highway demeanor of the 3-series is far more composed than that of the Cadillac. It tracks so straight that we could take our hands off the wheel for 25 seconds at a stretch. How do you like that, Google? The Germans already build self-driving cars.
Most of our complaints about the 3-series are minor. Its automatic stop-start system is surprisingly intrusive; on startup, the car shudders like a diesel bulldozer. Its idle, particularly when cold, is rough and reinforces the compression-ignition impression.
Our grave concern here is that, with each new car it introduces, BMW seems to wrap more padding around the sensations and feel that make them great—while its competitors only zero in more tightly on those same attributes. (We’re convinced that the E90 would handily win a comparison test against the F30.) The ATS is unquestionably the more satisfying sports sedan of these two. This time around, however, it wasn’t BMW’s virtues that placed it on top so much as it was Cadillac’s shortcomings. If nothing changes in Bavaria and GM can produce a better engine, it’s easy to see the next round of this matchup going to Cadillac.