The first BMW M3, that little snarly sweetheart E30 from the Reagan years, didn’t invent its genre. There were heroic versions of otherwise mainstream cars long before it, starting with the Cosworth Vega and VW Golf GTI. Well, actually, starting with the Pontiac GTO. No, really, starting with the Chevy II Nova Super Sport. Okay, fine, starting with the 1949 Olds “Rocket” 88. Discussion closed. But while the M3 wasn’t a new idea, through successive generations of sublimity it became a benchmark for a narrow niche: practical sports sedans with enhanced capability. They’re fast but also reasonably roomy and road-trip comfortable. That segment, let’s call it compact radar bait, is now so formulaic that our three cars, the current M3 and the new Cadillac ATS-V and Mercedes-AMG C63 S, are all but track-sheet clones of each other.
Just look at the VBOX readouts on the ensuing pages. A mere 0.1 second separates the quarter-mile times of the three cars. Ditto for zero to 60. All three circle a skidpad close to 1.0 g, and their speeds through the slalom are within 1.1 mph of each other. The BMW and Cadillac are practically the same length, while the Benz, that luxurious mini S-class, is only about three inches longer.
But boy, are there differences in personality and execution, and we’ll get to that. Meanwhile, we picked sedans over coupes because that’s what sensible people buy, and the new C63 coupe won’t be here for a while. We picked automatics, in part because the Benz only comes as an automatic and only with the Speedshift MCT seven-speed, a merging of ideas that substitutes a torque converter with a stack of clutch plates so that, in effect, a conventional planetary-gear transmission offers dual-clutch shift quickness. Plus, we already have a long-term test going of the manual M3, and we already tested a manual ATS-V in coupe form.
The M3 is the most familiar, having made its debut last year with its 425-hp twin-turbo inline-six. This car’s optional $550 Yas Marina Blue Metallic is a shade of pale azure that otherwise appears on delicate undergarments and the walls of newborns named Jackson or Zoe, as well as on the BMW M logo.
The M3 has the second-cheapest base price at $62,950, but once the options tractor beam locks on, you can get pulled into fantastic realms. Of the (gasp!) $21,375 in extras on this M3, the most disposable ones include the automatic, which costs $2900, and the carbon-ceramic brake system at $8150.
Not long ago, Cadillac belonged in this match as much as Dick Cheney belongs in the CrossFit Games, but proof that dedicated, well-intentioned people can change anything lies in the ATS-V. You’ve got 464 horsepower from a twin-turbo 3.6-liter V-6 and eight speeds with which to send it aft. You’ve got tidy dimensions and a curb weight that falls in the middle of the pack. You’ve even got the right tires, Michelin Pilot Super Sports, the segment standard. Except that the tires on the ATS-V are custom-made for Cadillac. We could see wider shoulder blocks and fatter center traction bands. These GM guys are serious.
The numbers on the back of Benzes have all but ceased to mean anything, the 63 on our C63 S referring to a 4.0-liter twin-turbo V-8. The S addendum shoves the horsepower rating up by 34 to 503, the top speed up to 180 mph, and the starting price up by $8000, to $72,825. The options’ orgy on this one adds $18,760 and includes $2500 performance seats and $5450 ceramic rotors. Why are these brakes so much cheaper than the M3’s? Because they’re only ceramic in front, leading to the odd phenomenon of the rear 19-inch forged wheels (at $1250 for the set) darkening with soot while the fronts remain shiny. Again, an option you can do without.They’re also serious about not letting the brand’s decades of negative baggage weigh down the prices.
The ATS-V starts just below the M3 at $61,460, and you’re in for some hefty option prices, such as $2000 for the automatic and $6195 for a track package that includes carbon-fiber accents, a low-mass battery, and the Performance Data Recorder video system from the Chevy Corvette. You must also pay $305 to add floor mats, a tow hook, and a tire-inflation kit, items that are typically standard on other cars.
Is the M3 finally washed up? We’ve got full tanks, radar detectors affixed, and miles of California roads to find out, so let’s go.
2016 Cadillac ATS-V
Third place: Bad-Boy Brawlers.
Somehow, somebody in Detroit has finally gotten it, the thing, the secret sauce, the reason why Germany still matters in carmaking. It’s all in the dirty bits: a particular steering rack; the right bushings; performance brake pads and tire compounds; low-friction dampers; and bracing in just the right places. It’s stuff that you, the buyer, can’t see as the salesman drones on about voice-command systems and perfumed leather. But you know it’s there in a BMW and a Mercedes.
This ATS-V, made in Lansing, Michigan, where the median home price is only about $5800 more than this car, steers better than the M3, has better brake feel than the M3, digests a road with more verve than the M3, and moved our testers to write oaths of astonishment that can’t be printed here.
Belted into its comfortable front seats, we went too fast in this car. The steering incited us to back-road audacity with its perfect weighting, its textural feel, and its instant response. Following the supple BMW in the alphabetical driving order, we expected choppiness, a lack of sophistication. Not so. Its magnetized suspension holds firm against the roll and dive but gives way when it has to, softening the lumps and dropping the body into depressions not with a bang but a cushioned sigh. Cadillac has now mastered the black art of Munich.
Worse, the Cad’s interior still lacks. The dominant motif, acres of glossy-black plastic, looks cheap and, worse, highlights fingerprints, dust, and dandruff. The randomly arrayed gauges have zero charm and reek of Chevy thrift. Don’t even get us started on CUE, the navigation/infotainment system, units of which should be dropped over ISIS territory to create mass confusion.So where did they screw up? The voting was close, and the drivers mostly gushed with praise—except where it came to the engine and the overall design. The big V-6 makes enough power, but it’s not as exciting as it should be for a car with carbon-fiber heat extractors on the hood. The sound is distant and forgettable, lacking the low-end torque and aural thrill of the Benz’s V-8 or the high-end rip (and fuel economy) of the smaller BMW six.
There were also complaints endemic to the entire ATS lineup, including a high beltline that pinches the windows, making the Cad feel like a plastic cave. Senior editor Tony Quiroga wrote, “Dear Cadillac, the M3 is proof that glass and a great-looking car are compatible concepts.”
If you prioritize driving dynamics over everything else, the Cadillac is, somewhat improbably, the segment’s best choice.
This, dear lords of GM, is easy stuff to fix. Your engineers have done their duty and performed the difficult magic on the chassis. We can even live with the engine. Now it’s the designers who need to step it up. We’ll be watching and waiting.The ATS-V also suffers the most-squeezed back seat of the bunch. Granted, the wheelbase is the shortest by 1.4 inches, but a bulging floor and thick front seats squander the available space. Also, this is the only car here in which the rear seats don’t fold. And, as with all the cars, the ATS-V bears a trunk spoiler. But instead of a cleanly integrated lip, it’s a chunky block of what looks like baseboard from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
2015 Mercedes-AMG C63 S
Second place: Bad-Boy Brawlers.
Opinions divided. Some said the C63 looks imperial and befitting its price, while others bemoaned the styling, noting that the old C63 looked like a DTM racer without numbers while this is just a stubby S-class on big rims. Praise rained on the interior for its immaculate detailing, until somebody pointed out how the extrawide transmission tunnel eats into the footwells, and the 8.4-inch nav screen (part of the $2690 multimedia package) looks about as integrated as a Jumbotron in the Pope’s bedroom.
Consensus did form over the cockpit detailing, fresh eyes always finding some new artfully designed piece to admire. The Burmester stereo system with its shimmering shower-head speakers is particularly fancy standard equipment, as are the muscular seats with their metallic-looking harness holes and extra dabs of gray-leather striping. The C63’s engine is nothing short of fabulous. It makes power at all points on the tach and never sounds anything but gruff and fearsome, even when not in the driver-selectable loud mode (part of the $1250 AMG exhaust system). No, this isn’t the old 6.2-liter naturally aspirated screamer that preceded it, and exactly none of us cared. This engine gets the business done.
Bottom right: Yes, the nav screen looks silly perched up on the dash, but the materials’ quality and attention to detail of the C63’s interior is tops.
So does the chassis, though the Benz is the heaviest. We wished for a little more steering quickness, but the helm precision lets you go where you want, making the heftiest car feel not hefty at all. The brakes react to a firm pedal and the grip is huge, even if the Cadillac is the clear skidpad king here.
Express luxury, not all-out hoonery, is what Benz is after, and the C63, with its relatively leisurely steering, isn’t as eager to cut and thrust as the Cadillac or the M3. Were the tires not set at the DOT doorjamb spec of 48 psi for the front, 46 psi for the rear, as per our testing rules, the Benz might have won for ride plushness. The tire pressure may be set high to win a few points on the EPA fuel-economy test, and sure enough, the fuel door has more-elaborate recommendations permitting lower pressures. Follow those.
The transmission doesn’t shine until you’re going for it in the curves. Then, all the shift quickness promised by the design emerges in thrilling blats of speed. An amalgam of epicurean pros and cons, the C63 is a solid runner-up.As the hours and miles piled up, some came to despise the transmission. Benz’s standard-issue column shifter frees up console space at the cost of being decidedly unsporty, but it’s really the way the box operates that steams. It takes relative ages to shift from drive to reverse, and the car moves off the line with a shuddering lock-up that torque converters were supposed to have cured decades ago. In comfort mode, lift and the clutch opens to let the engine drop to idle. Fine, who doesn’t like saving fuel while coasting? But ask for power again and there’s another shudder as the machinery reengages.
2015 BMW M3
First place: Bad-Boy Brawlers.
We love the M3 because we love the formula to which it doggedly adheres: a practical upscale sedan, only faster. As far back as the 2002, BMW has been at its best making small, somewhat-boxy cars with lots of glass and tall roofs. The M versions were the same—but with more performance. About 30 years after the original M3, the idea still draws.
BMW gives you something special. For example, this is the only car here with unique rear-quarter-panel stampings, a ridiculously expensive manufacturing vanity shunned by the others. But the flared arches make the M3 sit right and look both serious and sensuous. Free of fuss, the cabin is an efficient workspace, the controls in perfect placement, and the delicate three-spoke steering wheel the only rim in this test that doesn’t look like some design intern’s idea of hyperspace.
We’d love to say that it wins on outright performance or sublime handling, but it doesn’t. It was outsteered by the Cadillac and outbraked by the heavier Benz. Indeed, the BMW’s brake pedal had disconcerting free play that we guessed was air in the system, and we know from our long-termer, which also has ceramic brakes, that the first bite on wet discs is a scary one. The only stats where the M3 shines are curb weight, lightest by 192 pounds, and observed fuel economy, at 20 mpg. It’s also the loudest car, the inline-six crescendoing at its 7500-rpm redline with a glorious racing rasp augmented by a subtle bass line from the stereo system. We pulled the radio fuse, No. 123 on the electrical box in the trunk incidentally, to see how the M3 sounds sans electronics. It sounds tough, though with some of the tinniness of the E46 M3 that, with the fuse back in, gets softened.The many buttons in the M3 mean it is all about choices. You get three modes each for the throttle response, the steering feel, the shock firmness, and the shift speed. Play race engineer if you like or just let the car do its thing. Either way, the M3 is a marvelous travel companion. Stiff in the timbers, swift to respond to whims, and intently stable in motion, the M3 can charm the dungarees off its biggest critic with its marvelous rightness in almost any driving situation.
It didn’t factor into the scoring, but credit BMW for offering interesting paint colors. You can also get boring old silver if you want.
Faster than its power ratings would suggest, the squared-up, relatively pragmatic M3 still feels right for this job, even as its competition closes in.Certain things about contemporary BMWs bug us, like the car’s on/off button, which always needs multiple pressings before you can exit. In compensation, the second-shortest wheelbase has the most comfortable back seat, and we enjoyed the ship’s-bridge visibility in all directions. Interior details include seriously comfortable seats with illuminated M3 logos in the backrests. The central display tells you both the tire pressures and the tire temperatures.
AMG C63 S
|PRICE AS TESTED||$84,325||$73,655||$91,585|
|LENGTH||184.5 inches||184.0 inches||187.2 inches|
|WIDTH||73.9 inches||71.3 inches||72.4 inches|
|HEIGHT||56.1 inches||55.7 inches||56.1 inches|
|WHEELBASE||110.7 inches||109.3 inches||111.8 inches|
|FRONT TRACK||62.2 inches||60.5 inches||63.3 inches|
|REAR TRACK||63.1 inches||60.4 inches||60.9 inches|
|INTERIOR VOLUME||F: 54 cubic feet
R: 42 cubic feet
|F: 50 cubic feet
R: 34 cubic feet
|F: 51 cubic feet
R: 44 cubic feet
|TRUNK||12 cubic feet||10 cubic feet||13 cubic feet|
|ENGINE||twin-turbocharged DOHC 24-valve inline-6
182 cu in (2979 cc)
|twin-turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6
217 cu in (3564 cc)
|twin-turbocharged DOHC 32-valve V-8
243 cu in (3982 cc)
|POWER HP @ RPM||425 @ 7300||464 @ 5850||503 @ 6250|
|TORQUE LB-FT @ RPM||406 @ 1850||445 @ 3500||516 @ 1750|
|REDLINE / FUEL CUTOFF||7500/7500 rpm||6500/6500 rpm||7000/7000 rpm|
|LB PER HP||8.5||8.2||7.8|
|TRANSMISSION||7-speed dual-clutch automatic||8-speed automatic||7-speed automatic|
MPH PER 1000 RPM/
|AXLE RATIO:1||3.46, limited slip||2.85, limited slip||2.82, limited slip|
|SUSPENSION||F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|F: struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|F: control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
R: multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
|BRAKES||F: 15.8-inch vented, cross-drilled, ceramic disc
R: 15.0-inch vented, cross-drilled, ceramic disc
|F: 14.5-inch vented disc
R: 13.3-inch vented disc
|F: 15.8-inch vented, cross-drilled, ceramic disc
R: 14.2-inch vented, cross-drilled disc
|STABILITY CONTROL||fully defeatable, competition mode, launch control||fully defeatable, traction off, competition mode, launch control||fully defeatable, competition mode, launch control|
|TIRES||Michelin Pilot Super Sport
F: 255/35ZR-19 (92Y)
R: 275/35ZR-19 (100Y)
|Michelin Pilot Super Sport
F: 255/35ZR-18 (94Y)
R: 275/35ZR-18 (99Y)
|Michelin Pilot Super Sport
F: 245/35ZR-19 93Y
R: 265/35ZR-19 98Y
|0–30 MPH||1.7 sec||1.8 sec||1.5 sec|
|0–60 MPH||3.8 sec||3.9 sec||3.9 sec|
|0–100 MPH||8.8 sec||8.4 sec||9.1 sec|
|0–150 MPH||23.3 sec||19.8 sec||23.7 sec|
|¼-MILE @ MPH||12.2 sec @ 117||12.1 sec @ 122||12.2 sec @ 116|
|ROLLING START, 5–60 MPH||4.4 sec||4.7 sec||4.3 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 30–50 MPH||2.3 sec||2.4 sec||2.4 sec|
|TOP GEAR, 50–70 MPH||2.8 sec||3.2 sec||2.8 sec|
|TOP SPEED||163 mph (gov ltd)||185 mph (drag ltd, mfr’s claim)||180 mph (gov ltd, mfr’s claim)|
|BRAKING 70–0 MPH||150 feet||154 feet||147 feet|
|0.97 g||1.02 g||0.98 g|
|610-FT SLALOM||45.5 mph||45.1 mph||44.4 mph|
|CURB||3608 pounds||3800 pounds||3939 pounds|
|TANK||15.8 gallons||16.0 gallons||18.0 gallons|
|RATING||93 octane||91 octane||91 octane|
|EPA CITY/HWY||17/24 mpg||16/24 mpg||18/25 mpg|
|C/D 550-MILE TRIP||20 mpg||17 mpg||17 mpg|
|IDLE||47 dBA||42 dBA||41 dBA|
|FULL THROTTLE||89 dBA||83 dBA||78 dBA|
|70-MPH CRUISE||69 dBA||68 dBA||68 dBA|
Max Pts. Available
|FIT AND FINISH||10||9||10||7|
|FUN TO DRIVE||25||23||22||25|
*** These objective scores are calculated from the vehicle’s dimensions, capacities, rebates and extras, and/or test results.