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 beginning this past model year, one new entry in particular has pierced almost all its protective armor: the Cadillac ATS. Yes, the 3-Series still has the whirling-propeller badge on the hood for prestige, but whether it stands 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 in a system called CUE it offers the most tightly integrated telematics and infotainment system short of a Tesla Model S.
First, the basics. The 3-Series sedan was new for the 2012 model year, and it's been mostly carried forward since then. 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it with iDrive, and though it has Pandora streaming and such, the roller-controller school of thought looks hopelessly out of date next to CUE's swiftly changing screens, haptic feedback, and proximity-sensing surfaces.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 the 3-Series; the 321-hp ATS V-6 and 300-hp BMW 335i turbo six now seem like luxuries in the class.