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Strengths and Weaknesses: 2016 Cadillac ATS-V vs. BMW M3/M4

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Turn 11 is a tight hairpin, and the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V accurately turns in, clips the apex, and powers out before rocketing down the long back straight, all 464 horses from its ferocious twin-turbo V-6 galloping madly. The head-up display briefly flashes 145 mph before the powerful Brembo calipers clamp down in anticipation of the fast-approaching tight left-hander. It was through this section at Circuit of the Americas (CoTA) in Austin, Texas, when it first hit me: BMW should be afraid, very afraid. The new Cadillac ATS-V is that good.

The 2016 ATS-V is even more impressive when you consider Cadillac’s V-series performance division hasn’t played in this market segment before. The first- and second-generation CTS-V were “tweeners,” dancing between the BMW M3 and M5. The all-new ATS-V now sits at the same table as the BMW M3/M4.

Just two-days before my journey to Austin for the Cadillac ATS-V press launch, I borrowed a friend’s 2015 BMW M4. I’ve driven various examples of the latest BMW M3 (sedan) and M4 (coupe) in the recent past — both on the road and at the track — but I wanted the experience to be fresh in my brain. So after spending time in the BMW and Cadillac, here’s my take on each car’s strengths and weaknesses.

Cadillac ATS-V 3.6-liter twin-turbo V-6

Engine

Under the hood, the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V goes the classic American hot-rod route. Take an engine from a larger car — in this case, the LF3 from the CTS Vsport — and tweak it for more power. Cadillac changed enough bits on the twin-turbo, 3.6-liter V-6 to warrant a name change to LF4, and the updated engine betters the BMW’s inline-six by the number 39 in both horsepower and torque.

The power delivery of the Cadillac seems more natural to me as opposed to the giant midrange hit of the BMW M3/M4. No doubt the additional 0.6-liter of displacement the ATS-V engine enjoys over the BMW’s twin-turbo, 3.0-liter inline-six is a big help here. As for the sonic assault, both cars pipe engine noise through the audio speakers, and both sound pretty mean as far as boosted sixes go.

While I’d need a more direct comparison to render a final assessment on who makes the better overall engine, the Cadillac is most certainly in the game here.

BMW M3 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six

Transmissions

As far as the manual boxes go, the BMW’s six-speed, with its crisp and positive shifts, is my choice. The ATS-V deploys the Tremec TR-6060 from the outgoing CTS-V, albeit with updated ratios. Shift quality isn’t bad, but it feels a bit like an old-school muscle car, and not in a good way. It’s a touch clunky and notchy, especially when shifting into second gear.

It’s the same story with the automatic. Cadillac touts shift speeds that match most dual-clutch transmissions with its latest eight-speed torque-converter auto, but it simply doesn’t shift as crisply or positively as BMW’s dual-clutcher (or the ZF automatic in cars like the Jaguar F-Type, for that matter). You can also catch the Caddy’s transmission out in manual mode. Touch the rev limiter before pulling for an upshift, and there is a frustrating delay. But leave the ATS-V’s transmission to its own devices, and it works quite well, even on the track.

2016 Cadillac ATS-V interior

Interior

Score another win for BMW in my book. As I noted in my Four Seasons Cadillac CTS Vsport update, Cadillac’s interior design language is too glitzy, and the CUE system isn’t fabulous. The layout inside the M3/M4 is more straightforward, and it looks and feels higher quality.

But there’s one important area of the cabin where the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V gets major kudos, the optional $2,300 Recaro performance seats. They’re brilliant. They offer 18-way adjustment and hold you tightly on the track, all while being extremely comfortable on the street, at least based upon my brief time driving the ATS-V on public roads. The all-new seat is a huge improvement over the less-than-stellar Recaros that were available for the previous CTS-V.

2015 BMW M3 interior

Exterior Style

I’ll give the nod to BMW here, but by a whisker. The ATS-V, especially in sedan form, is a very nice-looking car. It’s aggressive and purposeful, without being too loud or showy. For the best-looking setup, avoid the rather disco (and expensive, at $6,195) Track package, with its especially large and not very cohesive body-color rear spoiler. Pick a subtle color (silver or gray), stay with the standard painted aluminum wheels, and you have a sophisticated, stylish sleeper.

Still, the BMW is a touch nicer-looking, at least in my eyes. This is especially true in coupe form. I’m not a big fan of the ATS Coupe. There’s too much sheetmetal between the rear wheels and the side glass. At least the ATS-V is wider, helping dull that visual shortcoming.

On the Road

My time in the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V on the road was limited, and I drove my friend’s M4 DCT — equipped with the optional Adaptive M suspension — in Michigan (versus Texas) but from the seat of my pants the Cadillac simply lacks the last level of refinement offered by the BMW. It just doesn’t feature the same rock-solid, straight-line stability of the German and hunts around some over changing road surfaces. I also feel the low-speed ride in the BMW is better, possibly due to more suspension travel.

One additional note on the Cadillac involves a very subtle rear-end yawing motion under hard acceleration on the street. I initially thought this had something to do with the tuning of the electronic rear differential, but a chat with a V-series engineer revealed that it’s related to the rear suspension geometry of the ATS. It’s not exactly a problem, but you do sense it. It just adds to that underlying feeling that the BMW is just a touch more sophisticated and polished on public roads.

At the Track

Here’s where the American takes the win, a big win, at least at an ultra-smooth track like CoTA. I was blown away by the ATS-V when thrashed. The chassis is extremely balanced, and the bespoke Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires offer gobs of grip. Large, six-piston Brembo brakes have no issues handling repeated extreme deceleration.

A big part of the Caddy’s track competence is the fantastic traction and stability control system, working in tandem with the standard electronic limited-slip differential. Performance Traction Management (PTM) has five settings, each adjusting engine torque output, stability (yaw) control, and traction control. Running in the PTM 5 setting, the ATS-V is an animal. It only leaves the traction control active — and it’s only there to help you go faster, not to save your ass. I later drove a track session with all systems disabled, and other than minding the throttle in low-speed corners, it was a pussycat, but still very rewarding and exciting.

The BMW simply isn’t as good as the Cadillac at the track in my opinion. The combination of the inferior stability-control tuning — even in the most aggressive MDM mode — and less linear power delivery means the M3/M4 is left struggling for traction, flickering the telltale dash light and dialing back power far too often as the rear wheels search for grip. Sure, you can turn the stability control system 100 percent off, but you’re then left with a car that isn’t as balanced or approachable as the ATS-V.

One additional note: While the ATS-V’s Track package might not be an attractive addition to the Cadillac, you can feel the extra downforce, especially in high-speed corners. More accurately, you miss the downforce when driving the standard car around a circuit. If you plan to regularly track your ATS-V, it would be a good idea to pony up for the pricey option and live with the peacock-like showmanship.

Conclusion

BMW’s been in this game for 30 years. The ATS-V is round one for Cadillac. A quick, casual tally may show that BMW has more category wins but the track performance of the ATS-V is so impressive that we really need to put the two cars together and spend more time in each before making a final call. I will say this, based upon the indirect comparison and limited road driving in the ATS-V: If you’re regularly visiting the track, buy the Cadillac. If you plan to drive your car primarily on the street and don’t mind paying extra for features that come standard on the 2016 Cadillac ATS-V, then the BMW M3/M4 is likely the better car for you.

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2015 BMW M3

2015 BMW M3

MSRP $62,000 Base Sedan

0-60 MPH:

4 SECS

EPA MPG:

17 City / 26 Hwy

Horse Power:

425 @ 5500