Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 BMW 328i vs 2013 Cadillac ATS 2.0L

Cadillac came out swinging this time. Their new ATS sedan is aimed squarely at the venerable BMW 3-Series with dimensions that are nearly identical, a drivetrain that is nearly identical in specs, and interior volume measurements so close, you would think they were the same car inside. But can the the new guy really take on the reigning champ? Heck, can the new guy even land a solid enough blow to leave a mark? We have done individual reviews of the ATS and 328i, but we wanted to take a closer look at how these two remarkable cars stack up against each other. When we drove them, we had the chance to actually drive them back to back and get very direct comparisons between them.
The biggest challenge in comparing these two cars is that they were outfitted very differently when we were handed the keys. The BMW was loaded to the gills while the ATS was a very simply appointed model with primarily the basics. As a result, we will focus on the comparison between the driving dynamics and enjoyment, which is what these two sedans should invariably be about.

From behind the wheel, the difference in the experiences is rather stark. BMW offers a thick-rimmed wheel that falls nicely in hand and feels just right to the touch. Turning the wheel causes the steering to weight up quickly, though once out on the road, the level of feedback that the wheel actually returns is more than a bit lacking. The ATS, also offers a nicely designed steering wheel, but the steering was also less communicative than we would have liked. Turning the wheel of the ATS offers slightly more feedback and both cars have very precise steering that seem to track a driver's inputs well, but neither car offers the level of communication we have come to expect of the sport sedan class. In many ways, the fact that Cadillac benchmarked the more recent iterations of the 3-Series, as opposed to some of the earlier generations that were objectively considered some of the best driver's cars ever made, may have been a disservice to themselves. For steering, We would have to call this one a draw as neither car really lives up to the expectations one should have for a sport sedan.

Under the hood, both cars pack 2.0L turbocharged inline four-cylinder engines. The Cadillac edges out BMW on paper with 272 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque from its motor versus 240 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. However, BMW is notorious for underrating its motors and this case is no different as from behind the wheel, the BMW feels like it has more punch. Both engines have minimal, though perceptible, turbo lag, but once the compressor is on boil, BMW's motor just pulls noticeable harder. This could be in part due to the manual transmission, but even in magazine testing that has been done, despite being down on power on paper, the 328i seems to more often than not outrun the 2.0L ATS. To make matters worse for Cadillac, its 2.0L motor trails BMWs turbo mill in fuel efficiency by a not insubstantial margin. This round unquestionably goes to BMW.

Just as important as going, stopping is an important aspect of any sport sedan and here, neither car stands out. Both cars offer solid pedal feel and good feedback through the pedal to allow for easy modulation of braking pressure. Since we did not get a chance to thrash the cars, we could not determine if either set of brakes would have a tendency to fade, but both cars easily felt like they could deal with a fair amount of punishing on the brakes without any issue. This is another draw, as far as we are concerned.

Out on the open road, the area that seems to most clearly separate the two cars is their ride quality. Cadillac offers some very trick suspension options for the ATS, but if you opt not to check off the boxes and shell out the dollars for these options, what you are left with is a ride that leaves much to be desired. The ATS stock suspension is stiff. Not necessarily uncomfortably so, but definitely a good bit more stiff than the 328i. This may make for a good handling car, but BMW has had decades of practice sorting out its balance between handling and ride quality and the experience is exceedingly evident. The ATS simply cannot match BMWs ride-handling balance and suffers as a result. A more progressive spring rate in conjunction with a dual mode shock with different valve rates to handle differing situations might go a long way towards helping Cadillac improve the ATS's ride. But for the moment, unless you are getting the upgraded suspension options, BMW takes this one hands-down.


Bend these cars into the corners and they reveal much about their intended purpose. Both cars feel balanced and neutral, neither demonstrating an extreme tendency to oversteer or understeer, instead tracking cleanly in even spirited driving situations. Each car responds well to steering inputs and reacts quickly to even minor throttle adjustments, allowing one to change the angle of attack in a corner by altering the throttle position. Both cars remain extremely balanced and were it not for the lack of steering feel, both cars would be great fun to toss around. This is very much a tie.

So after driving both cars back to back, the overwhelming sense is that these are two remarkably similar cars. In so many ways, they offer very similar performance and very similar experiences from behind the wheel. Both are relatively enjoyable cars to drive, but both lack the steering feel that one rightly expects from  a sport sedan. Cadillac has put up a tremendous effort and has demonstrated that it is genuinely able to trade punches with the reigning champ. What it is not able to do is deliver a knock-out blow and eventually goes down because it tries too hard to beat BMW at its own game. That is not to say that the ATS is a bad car, just that the 328i is a better car, for now. However, as the ATS is new to the market and Cadillac has only just begun to seriously explore this niche, there is plenty of time for it to tweak and improve its formula until it is able to finally deliver a blow that will knock BMW from the throne.

In the meantime, BMW can smugly continue to enjoy the fact that it still reigns as champ, though not without taking a black-eye or two. The new 3-Series is a remarkable car, but still has not heralded BMWs return to truly wondrous driving machines that have given it its much storied reputation. If BMW continues to try to rest on those laurels and not work to improve its driving feel, there will come a time when a contender will be able to take it down.