Introducing the new 3-series to the U.S. press, BMW USA chief Tom Purves gave a paean to the sport sedan, which he said “combines the essential commodities of agility, performance, and style.” We couldn’t agree more. That’s what makes the sport sedan such a compelling and popular choice for the driving enthusiast. No wonder, then, that so many carmakers want into this group. Our roundup of sport sedans could have included a dozen cars, but in the end, we decided to make things easier on you–and, frankly, ourselves–by gathering the strongest entrants from each continent: the BMW 330i from Europe, the from North America, and the Infiniti G35 from Asia. For purity of experience, we chose rear-wheel drive, a manual transmission, the top six-cylinder engine, and the sportiest suspension in each case. We headed for Ohio and West Virginia back roads–including some unpaved ones–and then returned to our battered home turf and spent a day at Waterford Hills racetrack, where we could chew up tires and burn through brake pads with abandon.
It wasn’t too long ago that the notion of a best North American entry would have been absurd. It took Cadillac–cue the Led Zeppelin sound track–to make something seriously competitive in the CTS. For 2005, Cadillac added a six-speed stick to mate with the 3.6-liter DOHC V-6. The available Sport package adds a firmer suspension, stability control, speed-sensitive power steering, stronger brake linings, load leveling, and seventeen-inch wheels and tires.
Cadillac’s characteristic edgy styling works pretty well on the CTS, but when parked next to the other cars, the Caddy looks a little down on flash. Inside, the design doesn’t work so well, although the new gauge cluster is an improvement. GM ponied up for just as many padded and soft-touch surfaces on the dash, door panels, and armrests as are found on the other cars but then grained them to mimic the look of hard plastic. The rear seat offers plenty of knee clearance, but headroom is tight; the wide front bucket seats are comfortable when just cruising but do little to hold you in place during hard driving.
The CTS really prefers relaxed driving. It has the most comfortable highway ride and the lightest steering efforts. With four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing, the Caddy V-6 matches the BMW’s 255 hp and beats it with 252 lb-ft of torque. But the CTS weighs more than the other two cars, and it turned in the slowest acceleration times (although 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds is hardly arthritic). Like the BMW and Infiniti sixes, the Cadillac engine has a nice, throaty growl when the revs climb, but it’s overlaid with a hollow resonance that doesn’t sound so good. The clutch is a little mushy, and the shifter has light but somewhat vague action and long throws.
In fact, large motions characterized the CTS overall. A large steering wheel and slow gearing made for greater steering inputs. Inadequate damping led to bobbing, pitching, and a general lack of composure–fast driving over bumpy, undulating back roads had the CTS calling on its traction control more than the others. At the track, with the traction control system off (the button is oddly located inside the glove box), oversteer is readily accessible, and the car proves quite entertaining. But it’s the least confidence-inspiring in the real world.
Improvements are on the way, however, as Cadillac is readying a more hard-core Sport package for 2006 that will include firmer damping, retuned steering, chassis and body stiffening, and eighteen-inch wheels, among other things. We look forward to sampling it, as the basics are already here.
If you’re looking for the best performance bargain in this group, look no further. The G35 has the most horsepower, the quickest acceleration, the shortest stopping distances–and the lowest price.
The G35 is a steal. At $30,750, its base price is about $2400 less than the CTS and $6000 below the 330i. And it needs nothing added. The six-speed version includes the sport-tuned suspension package that costs extra with the automatic.
The G35 driving experience is dominated by its engine. This car is, as the NASCAR folks say, “all ate up with motor.” With 298 hp and slightly shorter gearing than the other cars, the G35 is the quickest sprinter; it reaches 60 mph in 5.8 seconds and 100 mph in 14.4. Every squeeze of the throttle brings whipsaw acceleration to the accompaniment of a vocal but mellifluous mechanical chorus.
The G35’s clutch and steering are springier than the other cars’. The shifter’s throws are super-short. Like the Cadillac, the Infiniti is readily guided by your right foot, the Infiniti more comfortably so because of its quicker steering and superior body control. Still, the G35 transmits bumps through to the steering, and its brakes suffered some fade at the track.
Like too many Nissan products, the G35’s interior suffered from some cheap materials and questionable design at its launch; it’s been improved somewhat since then, but more still could be done. The driving position is good, and the soft seats feel comfortable at first, but they prove unsupportive in hard driving. The back seat doesn’t offer as much space as the Caddy, but adults can be wedged in there, and our car had reclining rear seatbacks, part of the Premium package. Outside, the G35’s sharp eighteen-inch wheels and splashes of chrome add just enough flash to the well-proportioned shape. There’s little to complain about here and a lot to like, and it all might have been enough to win the day had the 3-series not been so damn good.
The BMW is the most expensive car here, and you can tell as soon as you get into it. The interior is very much in the mold of the current 5-series, but the materials actually seem richer. Current 3-series owners could pick some nits about switches here or there being cheapened, but the 330i certainly had the nicest cabin of the three cars.
The fifth-generation 3-series has grown by 2.2 inches in length and three inches in width. The rear seat is now adult-rated, with only foot room still a bit tight. The cabin feels much wider than the G35‘s, and the driving position is superb. The Sport package now includes power-adjustable side bolsters; apply the squeeze, and the seat holds you in place during even the wildest driving.
Our 330i was free from the curse of iDrive, which is present only if you order navigation. The controls are a joy to use, with the exception of BMW’s idiotic electronic turn-signal switch.
The engine note is very subdued, but the sound is pure music. The new 3.0-liter straight six gets Valvetronic, as well as ample magnesium content that saves 50 pounds. Its 255 horses aren’t enough to catch the Infiniti, despite carrying the least amount of weight. (The new car has gained less than 100 pounds.) BMW offers a six-speed Steptronic and a six-speed SMG, but we had the new six-speed manual. It’s from the 5-series and has the same silken action as the old stick but with shorter throws. Clutch take-up that is perfectly natural completes the picture.
The steering is heavy but feels good. Active steering is available, but we don’t see the need; save your $1250 for something worthwhile, such as lottery tickets. Charging down the bobbing and heaving back roads through the hills of Ohio and West Virginia, the BMW’s steering precision inspired confidence, as did its iron-clad body control and the tremendous grip from the Bridgestone Potenzas, which are aided by the well-balanced chassis.
Back at the track, we were a little surprised to find the 330i a more resolute understeerer than the other two. Mostly, it just hangs on, but when you want to kick the tail out, it’s less willing to play than either the Caddy or the Infiniti. But the BMW’s superior grip helped it deliver the fastest lap times despite the Infiniti’s clear power advantage. Whether on the track or on the road, the 330i was the most composed and the easiest to drive fast.
You can sense the attention to detail here. The feel of the controls and the composure of the chassis is unmatched. The 330i is, overall, simply the most rewarding car to drive.
There are some tests in which the outcome is surprising–and then there’s this one. The Americans have come late to the party, but they’re catching up fast. The Japanese offer the best bargain, the winner by the numbers. The Germans deliver the best driving experience. The 3-series is the finest iteration of the sport sedan, and although the historically strong resale value and the free scheduled maintenance lessen the pain, it’s definitely the most expensive. You get what you pay for.
Price (base/as tested): $36,750/$42,865
Engine: 3.0 L I-6, 255 hp, 220 lb-ft
0-60: 6.1 sec
Price (base/as tested): $33,135/$37,950
Engine: 3.6 L V-6, 255 hp, 252 lb-ft
0-60: 6.5 sec
Price (base/as tested): $30,750/$34,360
Engine: 3.5 L V-6, 298 hp, 260 lb-ft
0-60: 5.8 sec