The BMW 3-Series draws the slings and arrows of every luxury brand fired in its general direction. Most of them glance off its tautly drawn sides, but for the 2013 model year, one new model has pierced almost all its protective armor. It still has the whirling-propeller badge on the hood for prestige, but now the 3-Series' standing as the best compact luxury sports sedan is in question--now that the Cadillac ATS is here.
The ATS isn't a knockout blow to the Bimmer, but it's thoroughly good where other four-doors like the Lexus IS, the Benz C Class, and even the Infiniti G37 come up ever so slightly short. It's the most nimble, tossable Cadillac ever. And it's a more electrifying entry, since it's new, and since it offers the most tightly integrated telematics and infotainment system short of a Tesla Model S, in CUE.
First, the basics. The 3-Series sedan was new for the 2012 model year, while it gains a wagon version for 2013. They're handsome vehicles, though not so different from the last generation, all the traditional BMW design bits and pieces in full flourish. Sculpted on its sides, it's a bit sallow at the front and rear, and tall of glass. The cockpit's less impressive, somehow, with a faint Toyota flavor in the sweeping curve that separates the driver from the passenger. It's dark, filled with small buttons and iDrive in some cases, and gets an afterthought of a wide LCD screen stuck to its dash on nav-equipped models, in one of the least attractive integrations we've seen on any luxury brand in recent memory.
The ATS? It's watered-down Art & Science, for sure, but it's still convincing in its extroverted attitude, from its exaggerated headlamps to the V-crested rear lamps. The cabin's an understated win, with great organization and a high degree of finish that really centers on versions equipped with the iPad-like CUE system. It's possible to get a stripped model with a knob radio, but it'll be rare--all other ATS cabins will be awash in the serene blue glow that CUE casts, while drivers run audio, navigation, climate, and phone with its touchscreen, steering-wheel, or voice controls.
That unified theory of functionality has its fans, and its detractors. BMW's tried its hand at it with iDrive, and though it has Pandora streaming and such, the roller-controller school of thought looks hopelessly out of date next to CUE's swiftly changing screens, haptic feedback, and proximity-sensing surfaces. Both have their bugs, and their quirks--but a CUE-equipped ATS can come in thousands less than some 3-Series sedans without a rearview camera. Both sedans offer packages of advanced safety gear like blind-spot monitors and lane-departure warning systems, but neither has been crash-tested yet--and only the ATS has seat-mounted buzzers that vibrate you when you've crossed the double-yellow line.
In terms of interior space and usability, it's the BMW's turn to shine. It's bigger inside, about the same size outside. Its rear seat is habitable, its trunk more usable; the ATS suffers from a severe lack of rear-seat leg room and cargo space, by comparison.
It's a total dogfight on all these fronts, but on the battlefield where the BMW 3-Series and Cadillac ATS will be waging war from now on, is on the performance front. The base ATS is a concession to price, its 202-hp four engineered to slide in under $34,000; the 321-hp ATS V-6 and 300-hp BMW 335i turbo six now seem like luxuries in the class.
With turbo-four engines the easiest to compare, and multi-link independent suspensions teamed with electric power steering and optional adaptive ride controls, the mass-market editions duke it out, the ATS pulling up as evenly as any sedan ever has with the Bimmer. It's the 272-horsepower ATS turbo four that takes on BMW's 240-hp turbo four, with nearly identical acceleration times, and a choice of manual and automatic transmissions, as well as rear- or all-wheel drive. From our recent drive of the BMW and the press-launch drive of the Cadillac, it's unclear if either holds a real performance edge--even in straight-ahead stability and cornering transitions, Cadillac's dialed in the cornering magic that used to be the province of BMW's MacPherson struts and links. Neither car requires the expensive upgrade suspensions, though Cadillac's magnetically-controlled shocks seem to have more sublime control than BMW's adjustable setup.
With even fuel economy nearly identical, the BMW 3-Series and Cadillac ATS still offer a clear choice. The BMW fans we know wouldn't consider looking elsewhere. Now that Cadillac's in the business of selling phenomenally balanced handling in a compact package, with superior looks and a tech interface second to nothing in the class, it puts that long-standing loyalty to a severe stress test.
They're tied here now, but look at our quality and features scores to see if there's hope for change inside you. We'll update these ratings when safety scores become available, and maybe that will produce a numeric winner.
Haters, here's where you unleash hell.
|2013 Cadillac ATS||2012 BMW 3-Series|
|With unerring focus on handling, Cadillac finally has the 3-Series' number with the 2013 ATS.||The 2012 BMW 3-Series delivers the class-leading sport-sedan performance and handling enthusiasts have come to expect, yet it makes substantial improvements in fuel-efficiency, active safety, and connectivity.|
|Read moreArt & Science? Not so much, but the sexy ATS glows from the inside out.||Read moreThe 2012 BMW 3-Series sedans look sleek, trim, and athletic—as sport sedans should—although their interiors appear busy in some trims.|
|Read moreAs nimble as a BMW--oh yes, we went there--the ATS serves Teutonic realness with rear-drive, six manual gears, and a turbo four.||Read moreThe 2012 BMW 3-Series sets the bar ever higher, with strong, efficient new powertrains—plus handling that’s as confident on the commute as it is on the racetrack.|
|Read moreSport seats are fantastic for front-seaters; the back seat's tight for almost everyone, and the trunk is small.||Read moreWhile performance is the primary focus of the 2012 BMW 3-Series, you don’t pay any price for it in comfort or refinement.|
|Read moreThe ATS earns a five-star NHTSA rating, and has all kinds of high-tech safety options for gadgeteers and fretters alike.||Read moreThe 2012 BMW 3-Series sedans are all-new and yet untested—but they include quite the roster of features and options to avoid an accident in the first place.|
|Read moreBetween CUE, safety, and a variety of drivetrains, all that's missing from the ATS are more body styles.||Read moreWith a vast set of tech, appearance, and performance options, you can truly build the 2012 3-Series you want.|
|Read morePutting its turbo four forward, the ATS can't quite claim best-in-class gas mileage.||Read moreThe 2012 BMW 3-Series is more fuel-efficient than many sedans that are a lot less fun to drive.|
|from $33,095||from $34,900|
|from $31,274||from $32,110|
|Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway|
|Front Leg Room (in)|
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