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 Cadillac CTS 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.