This is the first in a series of articles comparing the redesigned 2012 BMW 3-Series sedan with the brand new 2013 Cadillac ATS. Also see Part Two: Drivetrains, Part Three: Handling, Part Four: Interior Comfort, and Part Five: Value.
It’s an automotive steel-cage deathmatch. This could be the ultimate David versus Goliath, Kratos versus Ares (bonus points if you get that reference). It’s the young upstart challenging a nigh-on unassailable titan (no, not the Nissan pickup) with a pedigree that dates back more than three decades.
The BMW 3-Series needs no introduction. The 3-Series is loved the world over by critics and fans, and the company is pulling out all the stops in 2012 to make sure it remains at the top of the mountain for performance and luxury. To that end, BMW is giving its entry-level sedan a new look, updated features, and drivetrain tweaks. It might not look much different than its predecessor, but rest assured, this is a fully redesigned vehicle.
The 2013 Cadillac ATS is the challenger, and there is no question that parent company General Motors has its sights on BMW. ATS is a clean-sheet product with a chassis shared by no other GM product. It’s one of the first to benefit from the company’s new family of engines, as well as the brand’s new infotainment technology.
This comparison is purely subjective. The opinions expressed here are exclusively those of the author and do not represent Consumer Guide as a whole. The evaluations are based on road tests of the 2012 BMW 328i “Modern Line” and 335i “Sport Line” sedans. Opinions of the ATS are based on a preview test drive of the 2.5L Luxury, 2.0T Luxury, and 3.6L Premium versions.
In this installment, I compare exterior styling and interior design/ergonomics.
Part One: Design
The 2013 Cadillac ATS represents the latest iteration of the brand’s “Art and Science” theme. Like the larger Cadillac CTS, which pioneered the look nearly a decade ago, ATS’s look is something most will either love or hate. Personally, I’m ambivalent. The front-end is a bit weird, but the rear-end is quite tasteful, very reminiscent of the drop-dead-gorgeous Cadillac CTS coupe.
The 2012 BMW 3-Series, on the other hand, represents an evolution of a classic design. It’s muscular yet understated, as if it were hewn from a single block of marble. Its overall cohesion makes it the more appealing choice.
It’s inside where you conduct the business of driving, and ATS excels here. Cadillac’s “cut and sew” theme works to great effect, with plush upholstery, dashboard panels, console, and doors. ATS offers buyers the choice of genuine wood, aluminum, and carbon fiber trim, and all look terrific. The panels are interchangeable, too, so you can buy different ones and swap them to suit your taste.
The 3-Series also looks really good (for the most part), but it bends more toward purposeful and sporty than outright luxury. It has everything you need and nothing more.
I’d say the two are about equal, except for one thing. The wood trim offered on the 3-Series Modern Line is vastly inferior to that of the ATS. While the BMW’s material is genuine, its veneer makes it look fake. This is enough to push the Cadillac over the top.
Controls and Ergonomics
Most 3-Series models include BMW’s iDrive. The latest iteration of this (in)famous control system is mostly inoffensive, though you often must negotiate several menus to get to the functions you want. The extra-cost navigation system is a study in cryptic symbols and a map that only displays a few street names in any given area. BMW’s extra-cost smartphone integration isn’t very smart at all. If you have an iPhone, you connect it to a clunky dock that occupies most of the space under the center console armrest . . . but only if your phone doesn’t have a case on it. And who doesn’t at least have a cheap plastic sleeve or bumper around their phone?
Cadillac will sell the vast majority of ATS models with its new CUE (Cadillac User Experience) system. We’ve previously talked about its cool features and how you can download an interactive tutorial app to your iPad so you can see exactly how the system functions. In practice, it’s pretty slick, particularly the “favorites” menu, from which you can access navigation destinations, radio stations, and phonebook contacts with a single button press of a virtual button. All you need to connect your smartphone is Bluetooth or a USB cable, even if you have an iPhone.
I could go on and on about both systems, but the bottom line is that Cadillac has created the next great leap in automotive infotainment. Gold star for GM.
Advantage: ATS, by a country mile
Score after Round One:
Cadillac ATS: 2 BMW 3-Series: 1