Cadillac ATS vs. BMW 3-series, on BMW's home turf

When I was in fourth grade, there was an eighth-grade bully who delighted in shoving little kids down a steep hill out at recess. Well, one day I decided I'd had enough, and I wrapped him up around the ankles and managed to topple him down the embankment. For about three seconds, I was a hero to the little kids. Then, the bully got up. The ensuing wedgie was bad enough that my David v. Goliath moment ultimately went down as a cautionary tale, a playground case history on the perils of asymmetric warfare.

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So, Cadillac, I feel where you're coming from with the ATS. While other Cadillacs have dodged direct comparisons with BMW, the ATS is quite brazenly aimed at the 3-Series, the widely acknowledged world standard of small sport sedans. I guess if you're going to pick a fight, you may as well pick it with the biggest bully in school.

To find out whether Cadillac pulled off an upset or earned itself an atomic wedgie, I took a 321-horsepower Cadillac ATS 3.6 to the BMW Performance Center in Greer, S.C. There, near the sprawling Spartanburg factory, BMW has its own private road course, which tells you something about where the corporate priorities lay. When I suggested to BMW that I bring the ATS, a declared enemy, into their house, they gassed up a 335i and said to bring it on. BMW is clearly not afraid of Cadillac encroaching on its turf.

I also recruited longtime BMW owner and SCCA racer Chris Hennecy to drive the ATS and give some perspective from the Bimmer-head point of view. The two of us spent a few hours flogging the sedans around the track, staging drag races and road course hot laps to evaluate the new Caddy's abilities. So diligent was our research that both cars eventually requested a respite by going into limp-home mode.

At the end of the day we'd reached a few conclusions. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the ATS is a solid first effort and a competitor to be respected. But I once owned a BMW 323i — a 1979 BMW 323i. Experience counts, and BMW's been at this game for a long time. So it's sort of unreasonable for Caddy to expect to roll in and displace the champ on the first try.

Certain aspects of the ATS execution, like the handling and brakes, are world class. Around a tight course, the ATS had no problem hanging with the 335i, and I definitely prefer its steering to that of the 3-Series. The ATS feels more neutral than the 335i, more readily inclined to hang its tail out with lift-throttle oversteer or a power-induced drift. In terms of overall feel, the ATS recalls an E46 BMW 3-series, which is a fine template to emulate.

But when the straights opened up, we were reminded that the "M" in "BMW" stands for "motor." The Caddy's naturally aspirated V6 and six-speed automatic were thoroughly outgunned by the BMW's turbocharged straight-six and eight-speed transmission. In fact, in a straight-up drag race, the V-6 Cadillac was barely quicker than a four-cylinder 328i. It's an open secret that BMW underrates its horsepower, and the 3-Series' nominal deficits (240 hp for the 328i versus the four-cylinder Caddy's 272, and 300 horses to the ATS V-6's 321) are irrelevant in the real world.

Right now the ATS is a 3-Series competitor to respect. If history and the Cadillac CTS-V is any guide, it might soon grow into one to fear.