When Cadillac developed its new big hope, the ATS saloon, General Motors’ halo brand made no secret about the fact that it’s gunning straight for the top of the segment pile. Unfortunately that means toppling the latest-generation F30 BMW 3 Series — wheels’ best premium saloon of 2012 — off its well-deserved pedestal, alongside another brilliant newcomer, the 3.0-litre Audi A4, which would take a miracle. But gosh darn it, could it be that the Yanks just gone and done it?
IMRAN'S AUDI A4
This car already has a pretty big advantage over the others. Why? Quattro. That’s why. The A4 handles fabulously well, what with all four wheels gripping the road for dear life. You can toss it into corners at obscene speeds and it tackles them without breaking a sweat. It’s Audi’s best-seller and you can see why — because it does the lot.
Fast? Yes. Handsome? Absolutely. Roomy? Definitely. What more do you want? Driving thrills, did you say? Well, this 3.0-litre supercharged V6 is a potent force, producing 272bhp and 400Nm of torque. Mash the loud pedal and you are pinned to the seat; the howling motor is an aural delight. I have to say I like this car, and it isn’t because I have been tasked with defending its pride in this shootout. I’d say the A4 is ‘just right’ in every respect; it’s the right size, has the right amount of power and is priced right too.
However, even though I like those bold LED headlights, its purposeful stance, the 17in alloys and the neat boot-lid spoiler, there’s no denying it looks like a thinned-down version of the A6 or A8. And there’s the problem. Chances are, if you don’t like the looks of those two, then you probably won’t like this either. It’s not all bad though, as the cabin is top drawer.
Everything in here has been crafted to perfection; I especially like the fat multifunction steering wheel and the two-tone sport seats aren’t bad either. There’s plenty of brightwork in here surrounding the gauge cluster, the AC vents and other areas, not to mention fine Nappa leather, which brings a bit of glamour to the proceedings, while the Audi MMI is arguably the best in the biz and very user-friendly.
The V6 is a feisty lump and propels the A4 from 0-100kph in 5.9 seconds and has an electronically limited top speed of 250kph. Power is split 40/60 to the front and rear axle and as much as 70 per cent can be sent to the front and 85 per cent to the back, while the S Tronic seven-speed swaps cogs quickly and smoothly.
It feels nimble and sure-footed on most surfaces, however the electromechanical steering is a little artificial, although there is a Dynamic mode setting that improves it a bit. No complaints with the chassis though, it’s impressive with its sporty precision and high ride comfort. No doubt the A4 is a solid all-rounder, but with the new Cadillac ATS and the much-loved 3 Series in the mix, it has a tough fight on its hands.
SONY'S BMW 335i
With the latest 3 Series, BMW raised the bar so high, that I couldn’t picture anyone, including Munich’s own M GmBH, coming up with something that would better this. Although the new Cadillac ATS, which GM says is aimed squarely at the 3 Series, is one heck of a good car with its near-telepathic precision to its steering feel and a very uncharacteristically stiff and responsive chassis, it’s still not as good as the BMW 3 Series.
The 3.0-litre V6 that churns out 306bhp at 5,800rpm and 400Nm of twist right from 1,200rpm simply outclasses the other two powerhouses hands down. The shifts of the eight-speed auto ‘box are indiscernibly smooth and instant. The all-electric power steering system is nicely weighted, giving you great feedback from the road, although it’s left wanting compared to the previous F90 3 Series’ hydraulic set-up or even that of the Cadillac here.
However, as good as the other two are around corners, the 335i with its perfect weight distribution feels more surefooted and composed than both the Caddy and the Audi. In my opinion, the level of involvement for the driver offered by the 3 Series remains unmatched by any of its rivals, including the new ATS.
The new 3 Series has the sleekest front end among Munich’s saloons, with its curvy headlights that taper towards the wide kidney grilles adding to its aggressive good looks. But in comparison to its rivals here, it must be admitted that its exterior looks extremely conservative and pedestrian.
The same’s true with the interior, which, although top class in fit and finish, looks
a bit staid in comparison to the A4’s classy cabin and the ATS’s thoroughly modern passenger compartment. The latest version of iDrive is more intuitive, making it a lot easier to navigate than the earlier versions of the system, and is now as good as Audi’s MMI system or the Cadillac’s CUE system.
But what makes the 3 Series the undisputed king of the compact saloon world is the fact that it’s a marvellous amalgamation of excellent steering feedback, a spectacularly smooth and powerful engine and a suspension that strikes an amazing balance between sportiness and comfort.
The Cadillac feels like a sportscar and the A4 feels like a compact saloon. But the BMW 335i lets you drive hard and push its limits constantly while keeping you well aware of the fact that you’re in an executive saloon. A kind of out-of-body experience that lets you travel in the ‘astral’ plane of sportscars without leaving the plush physical plane of a luxury saloon. For me, nothing compares.
DEJAN'S CADILLAC ATS
I didn’t want to get out of the ATS. Its light but accurate steering, its gruff exhaust note, its balanced chassis and eager front end kept having me look over my shoulder just to make sure it wasn’t a two-seater. I think for a mid-size saloon, this couldn’t get any more fun or inviting to drive.
But Sony managed to pull me out and shove me into his BMW 3 Series. And the smile was wiped off my face. I wanted to believe that Cadillac had finally done the impossible, and created a better 3 Series; I didn’t want a counter-argument to risk this revelation about an American saloon.
Yet the original from Munich is just a sublime cohesive package — its steering mechanism, suspension, transmission and engine behaving like organic, fluid extensions of each other, where the Cadillac definitely feels like a separate collection of (very good) components.
There are some upsides to this. The BMW comes across as heavier unless pushed, where its impeccable handling (for a saloon) belies any artificial weightiness in the steering and heavier-sprung throttle pedal. In the Caddy, the throttle drops to the floor, the revs rise quicker, the steering wheel is busier in your hands and the rear end scythes with loss of traction, while the 335i gradually steps into a composed slide.
The ATS feels about 200 kilos lighter, yet spec for spec it’s only 15kg lighter than the BMW. The Cadillac is actually more fun to weave around in, in the same sense that it’s more fun to tell booger jokes than it is to watch Bloomberg. I think the 3 Series loves Bloomberg. And this suave but toilet-humour-loving American looks good too.
It’s certainly not from the German school of design, but even if I am most definitely not a fan of Cadillac’s contrived Art & Science styling language, I can find lots to love with the ATS. Pick a metallic hue and they’ll park you up front at every valet.
The interior is modern without looking like a Transformer threw up in there — looking at you Ford — and I can genuinely say I’ve got the hang of this CUE thing and I think it’s great. The tiny touches like confirmation vibrations are nice thoughts, and if you can live with fingerprints all over your high-gloss centre console then, well, the good news is you’re not anal-retentive.
With Magnetic Ride Control, the ride in the Caddy is still un-Cadillac hard, but when you’re reminded of the Germans’ warped idea of comfort you quickly want to jump back in the ATS. The Brembo brakes are fantastic, and the middle pedal inspires confidence with its synchronised feel and heft.
The two biggest and only rear drawbacks with the top-of-the-line Cadillac ATS are the transmission and engine. In fact that should be considered as one drawback, as the engine feels too strained nearing the top of its rev range, and the transmission shifts down with the delicacy of a football lineback.
This thing could use a world-class powertrain to match its superb appointments, suspension, handling, ride, acceleration and most of all, price. Every time I jump into the new BMW 3 Series I think it can’t get better than that. And it can’t. But would I pay Dh50K more for a BMW over this superb Cadillac, that is perhaps only Dh10K less good? Please. Sony, don’t bother me any more. I’m staying put.